'Easy' HSC subjects growing, one in four girls no longer doing maths
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'Easy' HSC subjects growing, one in four girls no longer doing maths

One in four girls is not taking any maths subjects in the HSC, compared to one in 10 boys, and enrolments are increasing fastest in courses students perceive to be "less challenging", including Studies of Religion and PDHPE.

The decline in the proportion of students taking the intermediate Advanced Maths course in NSW is one of the highest for any non-vocational ATAR course, despite an increase in the overall number of HSC students, a new study published in the Mathematics Education Research Journal has found.

A drift towards "less challenging" course options is occurring in maths and science.

A drift towards "less challenging" course options is occurring in maths and science.

Photo: Wolter Peeters - Fairfax Media

"Two-unit maths is the level of maths [universities] assume students have done when they enter a STEM degree, which means fewer students are maths-ready to take any STEM course," the study's lead author and PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle Felicia Jaremus said.

The proportion of students taking Maths General 2 has also declined because more students are opting for the non-ATAR Maths General 1 course instead, the study found.

Maths General 2, a non-calculus course, remains the most popular maths elective, with 41.29 per cent of HSC students taking it last year, down from 44.27 per cent in 2007.

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Ms Jaremus said nearly 6500 student surveys and interviews with teachers highlighted issues with the way the NSW maths curriculum is set out in years 9 and 10 that may be underscoring the declines, especially in higher-level maths subjects.

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"The NSW curriculum is streamed into [three maths substages] 5.1, 5.2 and 5.3 in years 9 and 10 and students get taught different things depending on the level they're at," Ms Jaremus said.

"Only those at 5.3 have the knowledge to do [the advanced and extension maths subjects]."

Ms Jaremus said many students didn't understand the implications of being in a lower substage until they had to choose their HSC subjects.

"Teachers were mostly just concerned about helping students do well and succeed in whatever level they do, they were often not [concerned about the actual level]," Ms Jaremus said.

She said this attitude among teachers was also an issue in HSC enrolments.

"In one of the schools we looked at, they had quite a high proportion of students doing two-unit [advanced] maths because teachers pushed it, if teachers are encouraging we can see the effect on enrolments," Ms Jaremus said.

A spokesman for NESA said that the substages provide "schools with the flexibility to meet the needs of students who may have different rates of learning".

"NESA provides a range of pathways for students to undertake the HSC calculus-based maths courses," he said.

A similar drift towards subjects described as "less challenging" by students in annual surveys conducted by the NSW Education Standards Authority is also occurring in science, with the strongest growth in enrolments in biology and senior science, which are perceived to be the easiest.

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Physics, which is seen by students as the hardest science subject, has experienced a fall in enrolments, especially among girls, the study found.

"Of critical importance here, is the need to address issues of motivation and encourage students to extend and challenge themselves," the paper states.

However, the paper found that enrolments in "almost all" science courses in NSW have increased at a faster rate than many non-STEM courses and that the relative decline in higher-level maths enrolments is "less substantial" than that occurring at the national level.

Ms Jaremus said NSW's adoption of multiple one-unit extension courses rather than bundled high-level subjects may be keeping enrolments up, and could provide an example for other states.

There is an ongoing push to increase the take-up of STEM subjects and improve results in these fields by state and federal governments and universities.

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