Many students are finishing high school short on basic writing and math skills. Universities can watch them fail, or figure out ways to help.

SANDY FARRAN November 19 2007


Many students are finishing high school short on basic writing and math skills. Universities can watch them fail, or figure out ways to help.

SANDY FARRAN November 19 2007



Many students are finishing high school short on basic writing and math skills. Universities can watch them fail, or figure out ways to help.


In September 2005, 25 students from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., and 25 students from Zhejiang University in China began the first year of a new joint computer science degree program between the two universities. In news releases, Simon Fraser president Michael Stevenson hailed it as “an important step” in the university’s international efforts. “This program will create graduates who combine a strong command of their discipline with a deep cross-cultural understanding and a welldeveloped command of a foreign language.” It would be a unique opportunity for exceptional Simon Fraser students.

But once the program started, it quickly became apparent that the Canadians in it were struggling. The First World students were simply not as educationally advanced as their developing world colleagues. The

Chinese students were much more comfortable in English than the Simon Fraser students were in Chinese—perhaps not a surprise given that English is the global language. But the real shocker was in math and science. The Canadians were way behind. “They arrive there, are joined with Chinese students, and their experience has been, I think for 90 per cent, their mathscience background is significantly behind their Chinese peers,” according to Stevenson. “It’s very challenging to them, let’s put it that way.”

The original program required students to take an intense first year of language instruction—Mandarin for SFU students, English for Zhejiang students—at their home university. In second and third year, both cohorts would study a variety of courses including math, science, and second language at Zhe-

jiang in China. This would be followed by a fourth and fifth year at SFU.

“It’s kind of a challenge to a joint program when the students start at different levels,” says Stevenson. “Canadian students start behind.” Chinese faculty helpfully offered Stevenson that they would be “happy to give extra office hours” and extra help to their less-educated Canadian charges.

As a result of these disparities, the Simon Fraser program has been changed. Canadian students will still do a language year in Mandarin at SFU, as well as courses in math and science to upgrade their skills. For the Canadians, this is a five-year degree. But for the Chinese students, the first year of the program has been dropped. For them, it’s now a four-year degree.

Canada has never had more young people enrolled in higher education; in fact, as a proportion of its youth population, Canada has more people in college and university than any other country. The trouble is that many university-bound students—sometimes even allegedly good students—have no idea how unprepared they are for university. Universities quietly acknowledge that they are welcoming a large number of kids who aren’t entirely ready for university, but who arrive on campus, after a high-school experience marked by high grades and insufficient learning, blissfully unaware of the disparity between their skills and a degree’s demands.

SOME HIGH SCHOOL TEACHERS think that their institutions are a big part of the problem. Last June, five seasoned teachers from Owen Sound, Ont., did a very uncharacteristic thing: they sent a letter to the editor of the local newspaper criticizing their employer— the Bluewater District School Board—for stifling teachers’ concerns about students advancing and graduating without basic skills. “We feel students are ill-prepared to meet the expectations at the next level and that no meaningful input is garnered or accepted from students, parents, trustees or teachers, beyond that which already matches the Board’s position,” the teachers wrote. “We hope by raising awareness we can all participate in making our educational system better both in our district and at the provincial level.”

In an interview with Maclean’s, Norah Phillips, one of the five teachers who signed the letter, blames an educational system that is “more fixated on meeting graduation rates and raising the marks on provincial test scores” than with real achievement and learning. Phillips, a teacher for more than 20 years, describes a high-school system where teachers are not permitted to deduct marks for late work or missed classes; are required to give students multiple opportunities to make up for incomplete work; cannot impose consequences for high numbers of absences; and are under pressure from parents and administrators to raise failing marks. Phillips says that her colleagues are reporting that more and more students are “disengaged and unwilling to work towards their education.”

Yet nearly 30 per cent of those who graduate from Ontario high schools head off to university, with comparable numbers in the rest of the country. As a result, universities from coast to coast are having to ramp up their academic support services and expand their remedial programs in an effort to help students before they fall so far behind that they drop or are failed out.

As SFU’s Chinese experience shows, it isn’t just weak students who can be sometimes outmatched by the challenges of university. Even scholarship students can find that highschool success has given them an exaggerated sense of their own abilities. When asked whether he thinks his Scarborough high school did a good job preparing him for university, Joshua Lui, a second-year biomedical student at York University, had this to say: “I’m in science and I think most [high schools] don’t prepare you well in science. You hear kids who have 80 per cent in high school and this drops a lot in university.” Lui, winner of a $60,000 TD Canada Trust scholarship, says high school is more about “regurgitating” and “memorizing.” “They don’t force you to

think of how to do the question, you don’t learn the concept. In university it’s about the concept.” During his first semester, Lui says “he had to do a lot of figuring out,” especially after he got 30 per cent on his first test, something he hasn’t repeated.

But for many students, it isn’t a matter of simply bearing down and trying harder. Without serious assistance soon after they arrive on campus, they won’t make it. Canadian universities are finding that they have no choice but to provide students with extensive academic support services—some mandatory, most not—through writing centres, peer tutoring, and workshops.

For example, many universities are requiring students to take mandatory proficiency tests. At the University of Waterloo, almost all students must write a five-paragraph essay, which is graded on grammar, punctuation


and structure. Students who fail the exam— and about one-quarter did last year—are required to get extra help. Other Waterloo programs include the tutoring-in-residence program, where tutors in areas such as accounting and engineering set up shop in various residences at least once per week. In 2003, the university implemented “Guerrilla Grammar,” a five-minute, in-class presentation that

briefly covers problem grammar areas, such as: “Comma, baby light my fire,” “Is that your modifier dangling?” “Colon therapy,” and “They is a problem.”

At Ryerson University, in an effort to raise its graduation rate, the engineering department has introduced a mandatory first-year writing skills test and a math proficiency test. Those who perform poorly in the writing test are encouraged to take a remedial course and try again. Anyone who does not pass the test by third year will not be permitted to go on. In addition, engineering students are required to take a math proficiency test as part of their first-year calculus course. Those who do not pass the test can take it again in the winter semester—after completing a remedial course in math.

In the late 1990s, the University of Ottawa found that an unacceptably high number of

first-year students taking calculus were dropping out, failing or had marks low enough to be deemed “at risk.” The faculty of science responded by opening a math drop-in centre and by hiring a retired high-school teacher to help counsel and tutor students. At first, things improved somewhat, but in 2003—the double cohort year—failure rates started to climb back up again. Other basic courses at Ottawa, such as first-year philosophy, a requirement for certain math and science students, experienced similar difficulties.

In response, the university expanded the number of drop-in centres to 16 and hired hundreds of student tutors. It also hired statisticians to review thousands of first-year student test scores, early in the first term. By mid-October of first year, if a student was deemed to be in trouble, a faculty adviser had called him or her to talk about getting help. Ottawa officials say they’ve begun to

see results in some courses, including firstyear calculus, where the rate of students at risk has dropped to 28 per cent, from 48 per cent five years ago.

Like the majority of educators interviewed for this article, Stevenson of SFU stresses that high-school applicants are generally more prepared than not for university, but says that there are important exceptions in two areas, and they’re big ones: what he describes as “quantitative analysis requirements” and “written work requirements.”

“The level of expectation for fluency and written skills and communication skills at the university is very high,” says Stevenson, who stresses that it’s not just a problem of immigrants struggling in a second language. “So many kids find this a huge hurdle when they get to university. Frankly, their language skills are not up to it.”

The other area of concern for Stevenson is math. “The truth of the matter is not only in the sciences and the applied sciences, but in the social sciences today you cannot get by without a high-school [Grade 12 level] fluency in mathematics,” says Stevenson. “Far too few students graduating have it and this means a lot of them have a real challengethey have to pick up some kind of additional qualification when they are in the university. They can’t get into the sciences without the prerequisites, but they often find themselves in social sciences where they don’t have the math to do it.”

Last year, Simon Fraser introduced a comprehensive curricular reform, whose goal was to ensure that every undergraduate student achieved a certain level of proficiency in math, writing and communication skills. Stevenson says that an incident involving a group of commerce majors who were caught cheating

was one of the factors that spurred the university-wide rethink.

“The students involved in the scandal had very good math skills and had no problem coping with 90 per cent of the coursework, but they couldn’t cope with the written work,”

says Stevenson. “When they were suddenly presented with something that required a short essay form, they couldn’t do it, so they found a way to do it that was less than honest. This incident suggested to us that we might have a large number of students whose written skills were really not up to it, and we didn’t have the curriculum designed and the pedagogy shaped to address that.”

Under the new regime, all SFU undergraduates are required to take at least two intensive writing courses and two quantitative/ analytic reasoning courses. All Grade 12 applicants will also have to obtain a minimum 75 per cent in Grade 12 English and at least a 70 per cent in Grade 12 math before they can register in the new curriculum’s mandatory intensive courses. Students who score below the minimum in Grade 12 English or math will have to take additional literacy and math upgrading courses within the first three terms. Only then will they be able to enrol in the mandatory intensive courses.

“We spend a lot on recruiting to get [students] here, and they spend a lot on fees,” says Stevenson. “Government and citizens spend a lot of money supporting their education. It’s a terrible waste to allow them to fail out.” M