Numeracy in science

Liasing with Maths Department

Issues from the research which typically arise in liaising with the Maths department include:

  • Mismatch in timing between teaching maths and science concepts and skills;
  • Maths department more interested in process than actual data - figures used convenient/easy to manipulate;
  • Maths dept rarely use explicitly derived numerical data;
  • Don't like to consider maths as a service subject,

Reasons for lack of success

  • Have never learned (e.g. fitting equations to lines);
  • Do not recognise the work in science as maths they have done before;

Apply mathematical techniques inappropriately in science

The AKSIS project

The AKSIS Project (ASE + KCL: Jan 1997-Dec 1999)

Looked at the effects of Sc1 on practice. Made recommendations for dev of successful strategies for Sc1. Analysed pupils' usage of graphs:

  • >75% graphs incorrectly constructed;
  • Pupils saw graphs as end in themselves;
  • Very few referred to graphs when considering evidence;
  • Many science teachers recognised pupils' difficulties, but very few explicitly taught how to construct graphs

16-17 year olds in science lessons

Example: 16-17 year-olds in science lessons:

In relation to converting between units 16-17 year old science students:

  • Solve even simple conversion problems in a variety of ways;
  • Are usually unsuccessful at conversions involving standard form notation or units with indices;
  • Use calculator-based "try-it-and-see" approach to calculating conversions, (usually unsuccessfully);
  • Make decisions on whether an answer is correct based on whether they expected the answer to be a "bigger or smaller" number than they started with.

Graphs and science students

In relation to graphs, you may find that your students generally:

  • Cannot work out the equation in a straight line;
  • Never learned within the context of science how to represent a data set graphically eg fitting equations to lines. This will probably have been covered theoretically in mathematics and may have been taught differently;
  • Have difficulties making links between a graph and the physical situation it represents;
  • Are competent at the mechanics of graph plotting.

Contextual issues

We invite further research in this area around contextual issues eg gender, ethnicity, background of students, environment and so on.


Numeracy is a foundation skill in the scientific process. So acquisition and ability to apply these skills is necessary for success in Science. Because of their ubiquitious use in science, graphical representation presents a particular set of issues within the topic of numeracy.

The references below cite studies which have investigated this issue in the UK.

Call for further evidence:

Numeracy in science


Less than 20% of 21-year-olds have greater than foundation level numeracy skills. (Basic Skills Agency Research for UK government)

Numeracy in science

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