Saturday, August 9, 2008

Voxeu on math and economic performance of students (fg)

Form voxeu: University-level economics makes extensive use of basic mathematics. As many economics professors can testify, this makes the subject difficult for less technically able students. Moreover, expanding participation in higher education (as has been targeted by the UK government) may further worsen the problem. The students who enter higher education due to the expansion are likely to be, on average, less technically able than current students, and thus it is likely that the number of students who struggle with their economics studies due to lack of basic math knowledge will increase over time.

What can be done to tackle the problem? One possible approach is to offer remedial math courses to students early in their university studies. Supporters of remedial education have argued that it aids less technically able students, who are often from disadvantaged backgrounds, and facilitates their integration into university studies.

In the United States, the use of remedial education at the university level has been extensive. It has also been controversial. In recent years opponents have successfully argued that tax money should not be used in universities to teach high school courses, and many states have trimmed remedial programmes or eliminated them altogether.

A key question when assessing the possible virtues of remedial math courses is whether they actually work. That is, does taking remedial math improve students’ performance in their economics courses relative to how they would have done without it?

In line with a large body of existing literature, we find:

  • the level of and performance in mathematics courses taken prior to university have strong predictive power on student performance in a range of economics courses.
  • overall performance across all secondary-school subjects has strong predictive power for university performance.
However, contrary to the existing literature, we find:

  • much weaker evidence that taking remedial mathematics has an effect on student performance.
  • no evidence that remedial math has an effect on students’ performance in Principles of Economics or Quantitative Methods, the two core courses in the first year of the economics degree.
  • no evidence of longer-term effects, as performance in the second and third year of the programme is unrelated to exposure to the remedial course.