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The DCU Voluntary Maths Tuition Programme was established in September 2009 as a joint initiative between the Maths Learning Centre, the Access Service and BITE (Ballymun Initiative for Third-Level Education). The requirement of Leaving Certificate Ordinary Level mathematics for entry into third-level had been found to be a barrier to some pupils, preventing progression into higher education, and this motivated the development of the programme. The programme aims to increase the confidence levels and mathematical standards of local secondary school pupils, while raising the profile of mathematics within the schools, through an intervention in which DCU students provide free, one-to-one mathematics tuition on a weekly basis.
The success of the programme depended entirely on the levels of involvement of both the DCU students and the school pupils. Requests for volunteers from DCU were made in the form of posters, announcements during Orientation Week, and emails sent to class lists by the Maths Learning Centre. As a result, a total of 90 DCU students volunteered to be tutors in the Voluntary Maths Tuition Programme; the majority of these subsequently tutored in Trinity Comprehensive School in Ballymun, with a small number assisting in St. Aidan’s School on Collins Avenue.
After a brief introductory meeting in which some basic training and guidelines regarding working with young people were covered, the tutors attended the school once a week for an hour and helped pupils with homework, revision and exam preparation. The pupils involved were from third, fifth and sixth years and studying a range of Higher, Ordinary and Foundation Level mathematics, with up to 70 pupils participating in the programme. Like many courses in DCU, Trinity Comprehensive School does not schedule classes on Wednesday afternoons, so this was chosen as an ideal time for tuition. The voluntary tuition sessions took place from 14th October - 16th December and 10th February - 28th April 2010.
A closing ceremony was held for tutors and pupils, during which certificates were distributed and pupils received ‘goodie packs’ provided by the Access Service. Martin Conry, Secretary of DCU, who attended the ceremony, remarked that it was “inspiring to see DCU students volunteer so much of their time to help those in the communities surrounding DCU”.
The BITE representative within the school, Michelle Murphy, took responsibility for pairing pupils with suitable tutors, and contacted the tutors via email on a weekly basis to let them know if their pupil would attend tuition. Despite these efforts, absenteeism was a frequent problem, particularly in relation to the school pupils, often due to poor attendance at school. In addition, in order to maximise the tuition received by each pupil, it was decided that pupils should attend every week, even if it was known in advance that their tutor was unable to attend on occasion. On such days, they were assigned a different tutor. As a result, pupils and tutors did not always work in the same pairings, which was not ideal. Another challenge was that the pupils’ timekeeping was often poor, with some arriving up to 15 minutes late for their hour-long session. In addition, they did not always come equipped with mathematics books, exam papers or calculators, and in some cases even pens and paper.
In addition to an academic impact, the programme was also successful in promoting third level education within the school. The principal of Trinity Comprehensive, Pat O’Dowd, commented that:
“(N)ot only did maths grades increase overall, but meeting a third level student – often for the first time – every week has helped break down the perceived barriers attached to higher education for students from the school. Having DCU on the school’s doorstep did not seem to have any great relevance to our students until this initiative. As a result of the programme not only has the profile of maths been raised within the school, but more importantly… DCU is now seen as an accessible resource in Ballymun and third level education has been promoted as a reasonable expectation for students from our school.”
In order to improve future iterations of the programme, pupils and tutors who took part were asked to complete anonymous surveys to obtain their feedback about the initiative. 27 responses were received from school pupils, about 80% of which were from sixth-year pupils, with the remainder from third-years.
When asked what they found helpful about the programme, pupils most commonly referred to the fact that they received one-to-one help; that the tutors were patient and helpful and “teach at your level”; and that the tuition took place in their school. In addition, the vast majority felt that their maths grades had improved. In response to how the programme had changed how they felt about maths, most indicated their increased confidence, whereas “before it was very hard and stressful”, and the fact that they felt better prepared for examinations, as tutors “showed me how to break questions down.” In relation to improvements that could be made to the programme, many stressed the importance of working with the same tutor every week, and several asked for longer or more sessions per week.
When asked what they liked best about the programme, the overwhelming majority commented on the tutors, with the importance of the relationship built up over the year again coming to the fore: “My tutor was there everyday [sic] for me.” The other factor that pupils identified was simply the opportunity to learn mathematics: “Been [sic] able to finally understanding [sic] maths work.” Overall, their responses are perhaps best summarised in the following comment: “The tutors were very nice and treated us with respect and it was a great experience.”
For the tutor survey, a total of 40 responses were received. All those who responded found taking part in the programme to be a positive experience, citing benefits such as “interacting with younger people” and “giving back to the community”. Some enjoyed sharing their own love of maths, saying they were “happy to show them that maths can be an interesting and manageable subject”; two tutors even said that they now “think becoming a maths teacher might be the way for me to go”. Several referred to the fact that “seeing how much they appreciated our effort made the experience all the more worthwhile” and felt that they learned a lot about themselves in the process of the tuition.
When asked to describe the impact they saw the programme having on the pupils they tutored, most referred to the increase they saw in the pupils’ selfconfidence: “I could see that he was proud of himself and encouraged when he was able to do the maths that I had showed him”, as well as marked improvements in their mathematics: “it was good particularly when your student goes from not being able to add 2 and 2 to being able to do a quadratic”. They spoke of pupils “engaging more with actually trying to understand what they were doing when solving problems, rather than just memorising solving procedures” and described how the pupils “had piles of potential” and “wanted to be there to learn maths and they tried there [sic] best.” They also referred to the relationships that they forged with pupils over the course of the year: “(T)he student I tutored became very attached, she kind of relied on me to help her learn…”, and that they spoke to pupils about the fact that there are “so many options with maths and that they shouldn't just consider it a subject that they need to get through for their exams and forget about it.” Several tutors described the process of turning around pupils’ poor self-belief in their mathematical abilities: “(T)he first thing every student told me at the start was that they were rubbish at maths, but when we started going through the questions and giving them pointers I was able to show them how much they knew, and changed their attitude towards the subject” and “(W)ell, one girl i [sic] helped was very negative towards maths for some time, and i [sic] just took my time and listened to her. And then explained the maths in simple form, giving her some useful tips to remember things. And she seemed to understand it far better by the end of the session and seemed delighted with herself that she could do it.”
In terms of challenges they encountered, the most common was in relation to the teaching of mathematics itself, with tutors observing that “at first it was hard to explain things that I already knew” and “explaining maths in simple English was difficult sometimes”. Some tutors mentioned that their pupils did not always turn up for tuition, meaning that they had a wasted journey or worked with a different pupil that day. Others alluded to the difficulty of getting some pupils to focus on their work, or to have the correct materials with them.
In common with the pupils, when asked for improvements that could be made to the programme, tutors emphasised the importance of working with the same pupil every week in order to effect real improvements in their mathematics, although they noted the difficulty of this due to absenteeism. They also suggested closer liaisons with the teachers and more structured work to do during sessions. Several tutors also requested more specific pointers on teaching mathematics, so this will be incorporated into the training session for next year’s tutors. Overall, tutors were very positive about the programme: “I am proud to say that I was a part of it”, and keen to take part in the coming year.
Overall, the Voluntary Maths Tuition Programme has exceeded our expectations, due in no small part to the excellent work of both the DCU students and the school pupils involved in the programme. Both groups seem to have benefited greatly from the experience. However, despite the intervention, no pupil from Trinity Comprehensive School took Higher Level mathematics for their Leaving Certificate in June. Therefore, while continuing to run the programme within the school, we hope to extend it to provide additional support to pupils from transition, fifth or sixth year who are considering taking Higher Level mathematics, with these pupils attending one-to-one tuition within DCU twice a week. In addition, subject to volunteer tutor numbers, we hope to encourage more pupils from younger years to take part in the initiative.
Special thanks are due to Michelle Murphy, BITE, and Edel McCarron, DCU Access service, who were instrumental in the implementation of this programme.
The DCU Voluntary Maths Tuition Programme was awarded the President's Award for Civic Engagement in June 2010, in the student category.