It’s probably fair to say that those of us who actually enjoyed maths at school are in the minority. Generally speaking, it isn’t the kind of subject that children rush to get to the classroom as quickly as possible.
A study from researchers at the University of Birmingham suggests, however, that there is a relatively straight forward way to boost that love for numbers - and that’s to show kids the money.
The study revealed that when students were faced with the salary they could earn by mastering a particular topic, their love of maths went through the roof. This is in direct contrast to their enjoyment of subjects such as art and biology, where the wages aren’t quite as hot.
The paper was led by Peter Davies, who was motivated to undertake the study by the difficulties policy makers had experienced in getting children enthused by the so called STEM subjects of science, maths, engineering and technology.
Show me the money
"At the core of this project has been a randomised controlled trial in which we gave pupils information about variation in graduate wages to see if this affected their subject choices. We found that the expectation of a higher salary increased take-up of maths quite considerably," he revealed.
The study saw over 5,500 pupils take part, with each given a lesson on the kind of salaries that typically emerge when you achieve mastery of various subjects.
The pupils were given a number of choices. Firstly, they could leave school with a couple of A-levels and go straight into the workforce. Alternatively, they could go to university and sign up for a course in art. They weren’t given any other information, but were informed after they’d made their choice the kind of salaries they could expect to earn through each choice by the time they reach 30.
Informed with this knowledge, the range of options was then expanded further to include taking a degree in a range of other topics, including engineering, history and maths. This time, however, the students were given the projected salary for each subject.
At the end of the experiment, each participant was required to fill in a short questionnaire detailing their A-level choices. The results were then compared with the same questionnaire conducted before the experiment had begun. The researchers followed up with each school a few months later to see whether pupils had actually followed through with their changes.
A new love of maths
Interestingly, the simple matter of showing pupils how much they could earn in maths saw enrollment rates in A-level maths rise by 10%. Amazingly, when compared with a group of control schools who weren’t given the salary information, it emerged that pupils in the experiment were 39% more likely to sign up for maths than their control group peers. Amazingly, however, the news was not so good for biology and computing, who saw enrollment drop by 27% and 39% respectively.
"The results of this intervention are very important because amid the government’s anxiety about increasing maths take-up there has been talk of introducing a baccalaureate system to replace A-levels. The disadvantage of this is that it forces pupils to study subjects they might be weak at or don’t enjoy," the researchers say.
The researchers were impressed by the outcome of this simple intervention and believe that better information on future salaries are key to students making the right choices over the topics they study.
"The only subject where there is clear evidence that studying it at A-level makes a difference to future earnings is maths, which can lead to high-salary occupations such as engineering. This research tells us that better information about graduate salaries would increase take-up of maths and would do so very cheaply, without having to coerce children into studying it," they conclude.
So, are you more inclined to study maths now?