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Maths Help modules at The Open University


The Open University is the largest university in the UK, with over 250,000 students studying distance learning courses. It has an open admissions policy and attracts students of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. It also provides many free online educational resources, through the OpenLearn project (http://www.open.ac.uk/openlearn).

Many students lack the basic mathematical skills that are needed for their course. The following seven `Maths Help’ modules have been developed on OpenLearn (http://mathshelp.open.ac.uk):

• Module 1: Numbers, units and arithmetic

• Module 2: Rounding and estimation

• Module 3: Ratio, proportion and percentages

• Module 4: Squares, roots and powers

• Module 5: Diagrams, charts and graphs

• Module 6: Language, notation and formulas

• Module 7: Geometry

Each module consists of written teaching materials, activities and solutions, some interactive activities and a short online quiz. In addition, the OpenLearn environment provides the opportunity for students to use a Learning Journal and to join in discussions through an online forum or learning club. It also provides the opportunity for practitioners to revise and adapt the modules, to suit their own students’ needs more effectively, by using the Labspace. Visitors are invited to give feedback and a star rating (1 low – 5 high) for each module. All the files for the modules are also available on JORUM.

Intended outcome(s)

The Maths Help modules aim to increase a student’s basic mathematical skills and their confidence in using them, enabling them to make a better success of their chosen course of study.

The challenge

The Open University offers several introductory mathematics courses and launched a new Level 1 course, MU123 – Discovering mathematics, in February 2010.

This course (along with many others) assumes that students have some basic mathematical skills already. However, many students are returning to studying mathematics after a long break and need to revise some of these skills. The challenge was to devise a way of ensuring that students had sufficient time and support to develop these skills, between registering for a course and that course starting.

Established practice

Previously students were expected to complete their mathematical revision in the first two weeks of the course. Students were invited to complete a diagnostic quiz and then use the results to decide on the areas that they needed to revise. However, this did not always allow sufficient time for thorough revision. As the students had received the main course material, some moved onto that without fully completing this preparatory work, making comprehension of later topics difficult.

The OER effect

Making the Maths Help material available on OpenLearn enables anyone to start working on their mathematics. In the case of MU123, students are advised to start studying the modules when they register on the course, and this takes advantage of both their early enthusiasm and the time they have until the Mu123 course website opens and the formal course begins. The Maths Help modules allow them to familiarise themselves with online learning, revise their maths skills including writing good mathematics and check that the level of the course is suitable. Detailed references to the Maths Help materials are provided in the main MU123 course texts, in case students feel that they need further practice with basic techniques as they study the course itself. Students have been recommending the modules to each other on course forums. The modules provide an additional resource for any tutor to use with their students. The content in these modules is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Licence and the modules have started to be adapted by other external practitioners in the Labspace. So these resources are useful to the institution as a whole, as well as outside organisations and individuals. The OU’s generic Skills for Study’ site has a link to Maths Help, so that students on other OU courses can find the resources easily. The resources of many other institutions also link to theSkills for Study’ site.

Key points for effective practice

The Maths Help materials were developed from some existing preparatory material in printed form, which had been used successfully as part of an OU course for thirteen years. It was adapted for use on the web and enhanced by adding multimedia animations and online quizzes. This meant that the resource could be developed relatively quickly and cheaply. The key points for effective practice are:

• encourage students to start using it as soon as they register on a course, before the course begins;

• embed the modules in the course as an extra resource;

• if possible, provide prompt online help via the module forum;

• adapt the modules to suit groups of learners, monitor feedback and update modules if appropriate.

Conclusions and recommendations

All seven modules have been actively used. For example, the Geometry module had 1100 unique visitors between January and September 2010. Although not many of the visitors have rated the modules so far, each has a student feedback score of 4.5 out of 5. It is believed that this practice has been effective in encouraging students to develop a firm mathematical foundation for their future studies. This has been reported by tutors supporting the course and is demonstrated by the high take-up (95%) and achievement (mean 94%) in the first formal assessment of the course.

Additional information

For further information, please contact: Hilary Holmes (h.j.holmes@open.ac.uk), Tim Lowe (t.w.lowe@open.ac.uk), Katie Chicot (k.m.chicot@open.ac.uk).

Adapted from https://www.webarchive.org.uk/wayback/archive/20140614115352/http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/elearning/oer2/casestudies.aspx under a CC-BY license.