Teaching maths to biologists – report from HE Academy event

Yesterday I attended an event at the University of Reading run by the Bioscience centre of the Higher Education Academy. At that event, I heard talks from or had informal discussions with academics teaching mathematics to biology undergraduates / postgraduates at a number of institutions, including Abertay, Anglia Ruskin, Bath, Cambridge, Cardiff, Liverpool and Reading. Very interesting key points to emerge that will help inform my maths teaching next year, especially to the first year undergraduates.

  1. All institutions are facing the same issues, regardless of ‘status’. Specifically:
    1. General recognition of the quite separate issues of teaching basic maths skills to all u/g biologists and the teaching of higher level skills to biologists to become involved in Systems Biology research.
    2. The skills required by all undergraduate biologists around units, concentrations, powers, logarithms, exponentials, basic algebra (manipulating equations) and basic numeracy (is the answer plausible).
    3. The range of background / abilities of students coming into university study. This is linked to a wide range of school experience, from students with no more maths teaching after a ‘C’ in GCSE maths through to students with an ‘A’ in A-level maths, and everything in between.
  2. The importance of gathering the right data and evidence. This includes:
    1. Information on background of students, including numbers of students with GCSE, AS and A2 maths, and grades of those students.
    2. Feedback on different elements of the teaching, specifically how helpful the students are finding lectures, practicals, worksheets, on-line materials and so forth.
    3. Formative assessment during the course of the term to identify students who are struggling with particular elements and direct (often limited) tutorial resource to those students.
  3. The importance of blended approaches, specifically:
    1. The findings from Liverpool that the students found workshops and tutorials far more valuable than the lectures: they had six 3 hour workshops AND sign-in tutorials
    2. The findings from Abertay that a system of regular on-line tests with extra tutorials if not meeting goals and electronic nagging massively improved results
    3. The use in Bath of on-line tests with 100% pass marks but many attempts allowed to improve learning of key concepts.
  4. Helpful ideas about approaches, three C’s from Anglia Ruskin:
    1. Context: very important to include biological context – embedding the mathematics in biological problems. Reading used the analogy of teaching people to make hammers and screwdrivers without telling them about nails and screws.
    2. Confidence: very important to build students’ confidence, even if this means giving very high marks (doesn’t matter as in most universities 1st year marks only count for progression).
    3. Continuity: need to link both with school-level work and with material in other 1st, 2ns and 3rd year modules: this is a challenge for all module leaders/lecturers.
  5. A large number of on-line resources, which I have not yet looked at, including:
    1. Bionrich
    2. Essential maths for medics and vets
    3. mathtutor
    4. NuMBers
    5. SUMS
    6. biomathtutor
    7. mathstore
    8. And, quite differently, StarLogo TNG

All-in-all, a highly successful and interesting day, very timely given by first-year teaching, and I look forward to embedding some of these ideas, practices and resources in next year’s running of the module.


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