How do I get through the math

The "math hurdle" in your studies : Risk that is difficult to calculate

The winter semester has hardly really picked up speed, since it throws some of the tens of thousands of new students in Berlin out of the curve again. It is not uncommon for one subject to be to blame: mathematics. In many subjects, compulsory math courses have to be taken from the first semester - and many fail at those.

What's going on at the universities? Is there a real math hurdle? Are first-year students possibly even screened or systematically checked out of certain courses? The high failure rates among prospective primary school teachers have made headlines in recent months. But fear of the math exams is also widespread in other subjects. Why is that? Insufficient preparation in schools? Are the demands on the universities too high? Or are there other reasons?

The courses are used, but less by those who need it

Preparatory courses, tutorials, repetition of the basics - the universities in Berlin have a lot to offer. “These offers are definitely being used. But not always by those who need it most, ”says Martin Oellrich. He is a mathematics professor at the Beuth University of Technology and responsible for the so-called bridging courses that his university has been offering for first-year students in all subjects for 25 years. The courses take place before the beginning of the semester. Around 600 young people currently use the offer every year. “Unfortunately, that's only 12 percent of our newly enrolled students,” says Oellrich. And the proportion has even fallen steadily in recent years. The repetition of the material - everything is covered up to the end of the intermediate level - should help the new students to cope better with the compulsory math courses in the bachelor's degree.

From Oellrich's point of view, there are two reasons why so few attend the bridging courses. On the one hand, what the university has to offer, simply does not get through to everyone. The students register online and only find out about the courses when they visit the campus for the first time in October. Then it is already too late. On the other hand, "many overestimate each other," says Oellrich.

Nobody wants to knock out freshman students over math, it is said

The high school graduates in particular often come to the universities with good grades - but still with large gaps. "It starts with fractions." Oellrich firmly rejects the fact that the level of math exams in the bachelor's degree programs is too high. Nobody wants some of the students bowling over math from their studies. On the contrary: "There is a unanimous spirit among our math lecturers to give the students a good start."

A good start also includes transparency and education. At the Humboldt University (HU), the Faculty of Business and Economics has therefore opted for an unusual approach - a math self-test. Prospective students can anonymously solve twelve tasks on the faculty's website, all of which are at the Abitur level. In the end, the participants do not receive a grade, but an assessment. If you were able to solve the tasks, the university certifies that the underlying mathematics knowledge can be "advantageous for studying business administration and economics at the Humboldt University".

Too much math? Maybe a different profile is more suitable

Those who were less successful get the message: “The degree in business administration and economics at Humboldt University is quantitative. You should consider whether economic programs with a different profile might not be more suitable for you. "

You don't want to put anyone off, emphasizes Anja Schwerk, advisor for studies and teaching. "But many are not even aware of the content of the economics courses at the HU." Those who still opt for the HU can not only take advantage of the usual assistance (preliminary courses, tutorials, study groups). Since this winter semester, the Faculty of Business and Economics has also been offering a basic math tutorial. All these efforts show success: There are no dramatic outliers in the math exams, the failure rates are on average no higher than in other exams, it is said.

Repeating the basics in three months - too fast for many

Often the problem is not the demanding material, but the speed. Dirk Andrae is a lecturer at the Institute for Chemistry and Biochemistry at the Free University of Berlin. He teaches the compulsory math module for chemistry and biochemistry students as well as for prospective chemistry teachers. "We don't assume at all that the first-year students can already do everything." But in the math lecture it simply goes “in quick succession”, in three months the material that the schools need several years for is covered.

Until recently, the exam consisted of two partial exams, one around the middle and one at the end of the lecture period. On the other hand, only one large exam is now planned. "Since then, I have seen with great concern that the failure rates have risen from around 30 percent to 50 percent now."

Nevertheless, Andrae sees the causes not only in examination regulations and university structures. In his opinion, many people start their studies with wrong ideas. "They underestimate how important a basic understanding of mathematics is in the natural and social science subjects." In addition, there is the widespread aversion of the population to mathematics, which is also cultivated among students and parents. "Against our better judgment, we broke the math hurdle ourselves in Germany."

Mathematics, a language to be mastered

Mathematical knowledge is urgently needed for the description and understanding of the world. Andrae calls it “the objectifiable sector of reality”. And emphasizes: "Mathematics is a language that you should absolutely master as well as possible."

Many first-year students are not aware of this. You choose chemistry, biology, social science, psychology - and suddenly find yourself confronted with the unpopular school subject again.

There are only a few courses that do not have this perception problem. Engineering is one of them. Like a gigantic myth, the course carries its math stress in front of it. In every counseling interview there is a hint that you should be very good at maths if you decide to study. Exactly the right strategy?

"Maths hurdle": This particularly scares off young women

Not at all, says Inka Greusing. The engineering scientist works at the Center for Interdisciplinary Women and Gender Studies at the Technical University. As part of her doctoral thesis, she examined the rhetorical patterns of engineering. It struck her that the term “math hurdle” is often used, even if the math part of the course - as she knows from her own experience - is not that dominant at all. "Nevertheless, the engineering sciences are largely defined by mathematics. "

Such statements are off-putting to many students - especially those who do not consider themselves math geniuses. "And since women are less trusted than men with the same ability and they also have less confidence in themselves, women are more affected." The engineering sciences have been trying for years to attract more female trainees.

"The math hurdle that is often invoked is certainly one reason why the subjects remain male-dominated," says Greusing. The scientist does not deny that the math courses are difficult to pass. But there is still hardly any debate within the subject as to how this problem can be solved didactically. Because that would also be a conceivable way. Perhaps even more promising than verbal deterrence.

Read here how Günter M. Ziegler, mathematics professor at the FU and winner of the Berlin Science Prize, is reforming his subject and his studies.

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