sigma Network Newsletter
Issue 5: December 2014

In this issue:


Forthcoming events

Past events




Big data, big questions

David Bowers - Chair, sigma Network

I had an interesting phone call a few weeks ago with a representative of the Universities UK Policy Group, who were carrying out some research on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). The topic was the government’s Data Capability Strategy.

David Bowers, sigma Chair

The policy paper “Seizing the Data Opportunity: a strategy for UK data capability” was published in October 2013, and is available at In the ministerial foreword, Rt Hon David Willets MP and Matthew Hancock MP highlight the “ever increasing significance of data” as both an opportunity and a challenge for policymakers. The paper is clear that “the UK requires a strong skills base, able to manage, analyse, interpret and communicate data” and calls on universities to embed these skills across disciplines.

The researcher who contacted me was interested in how statistics and data analysis skills are supported in HE. I was able to outline the role of sigma as a recognised network for excellence in mathematics and statistics support. Maths support practitioners are aware of the changing needs of undergraduates with regard to statistics. Many students (and lecturers) are not well prepared for this increasing quantification of the disciplines. Staff working in mathematics and statistics support centres are able to help students at the transition to HE and throughout their studies to cope with the underpinning quantitative skills, as well as working with faculty lecturers to identify needs and jointly develop schemes to address any mathematical and statistical shortfalls.

The sigma Network, through the regional hubs, has run a number of events recently to increase the awareness and capacity of maths support staff to deal with increased needs for statistics support. These events have included workshops dealing with more advanced statistical methods, meetings that share experiences and common issues, and “bootcamps” for learning SPSS. If you have ideas or suggestions for further events along these lines, please get in touch with your regional sigma Hub Co-ordinator (or contact me directly).

This telephone call confirmed to me that sigma is recognised at government level as a vibrant and authoritative community of practice for those involved in cross-university mathematics and statistics support. The needs of “big data” is just one area where our work is of increasing relevance and importance.

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Joe Kyle's Corner - Looking backwards, looking forwards

Joe Kyle

Around this time of the year, about fifteen years ago I was working with John Blake and others putting the final touches to the bid that would bring the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) to a consortium of institutions, led by Birmingham. They were exciting times and we were all galvanised to develop a strong supportive network to cater to all who worked in the MSOR disciplines. Even though I say so myself, I think we achieved much that was valuable. If I were to confess to one regret, it is that we might have been bolder in convening an annual conference early on.

Joe Kyle
Of course, there were complications. No one wanted to displace the valued and long-standing UMTC, but in retrospect, I think we probably tip-toed round the issues for too long. And this brings me to reflect upon the recent meeting of the CETL MSOR conference in Cardiff this September. I always enjoy this meeting, but I think this year may have been one of the best ever and I am now convinced that this conference is the meeting for those looking to engage in up-to-date debate in the learning and teaching of our subject.

After a warm welcome to Cardiff from Rob Wilson and Amanda Coffey, the meeting got off to a lively start with Colin Jones who led a thought-provoking discussion on heutagogy as applied to mathematics. I have to confess that heutagogy is new to me but I empathise with Colin’s plea that, for each of us, who we are will always affect (possibly subconsciously) how we go about our work with students. In another plenary session, I was particularly impressed by the powerful case made by Celia Hoyles about the various forms of invisibility that infect mathematics and how it is studied. Her thoughtful and scholarly analysis graciously acknowledged what had already been achieved (including, in some cases, through work by delegates in her audience) but reminded us that we still had much yet to tackle. Paul Harper used video (and his family!) to introduce the case for “active learning”, providing illustrations from the MSc programmes at Cardiff. The Keynote led by students from three different institutions was again a successful, popular and well-attended session. I know that I am not alone in being impressed with the amount of preparation and the high standards of delivery we see in these presentations.

The Parallel Sessions were full of lots of goodies: a myriad of talks covering a bedazzling array of topics provided abundant evidence that good and effective work continues, and will continue into the future. And the future is where we should look now: the CETL MSOR conference meets in Greenwich on the 8th and 9th of September 2015. Put the dates in your diary now.
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Launch of IMLSN Report

Duncan Lawson, sigma Director

The Irish Mathematics Learning Support Network (IMLSN) has undertaken a major study of Mathematics Learning Support across the whole of Ireland. The report of this study

Student Evaluation of Mathematics Learning Support: Insights from a large scale multi-institutional survey by Ciaran O’Sullivan, Ciaran Mac an Bhaird, Olivia Fitzmaurice and Eabhnat Ni Fhloinn

was launched on Friday 21st November 2014 in the new Mathematics Learning Centre at Dublin City University. At the event, Ciaran O’Sullivan (IT Tallaght) provided a short overview of the report, Professor John O’Donoghue (University of Limerick) reflected on the position of mathematics support in Ireland, Professor Duncan Lawson (Newman University) gave a British perspective and Senator Mary Moran spoke as both a politician and a mother of two students for whom mathematics support had provided a lifeline during their studies. The report can be downloaded from

The report analyses feedback from over 1600 first year students taking “service mathematics” modules at nine higher education institutions across Ireland and contains a wealth of insights and student quotes. A few key points are listed below:

  • 22% of the students surveyed had considered dropping out of their courses because of difficulties experienced with the mathematical element of their programme.
  • Of these students, 63% indicated that mathematics learning support had been a factor in their decision not to drop out.
  • Quotes such as “Without the MLSC [maths learning support centre] I would fail” were common place.
  • The survey identified three roughly equally sized groups: those who engaged with maths support, those who did not because they felt they did not need to and those who gave some other reason for not engaging.
  • This third group was the focus of some attention since it seems likely that many of them would benefit from engagement with maths support.
  • Many of the reasons given for non-engagement are classified by the authors as “structural” – such things as not knowing where the maths centre is, not knowing that there is a maths centre, opening times not being convenient, etc.
  • However, other reasons relate more to the affective domain with students reporting “maths is scary”, “daunted by the thought of studying maths” and “I hate telling people I need help”.
  • One interesting finding was that low self-efficacy with respect to mathematics produced very different outcomes depending on the age of the student. Amongst mature students low self-efficacy is a strong motivation pushing them to engage with maths support, whilst amongst younger students it has the opposite effect.
  • The statistics relating to the gender of maths support users show a much higher likelihood of female students engaging than male students.
  • Several quotes from students reveal the effectiveness of maths support – in the cognitive domain:
    • Made me see that it is not impossible to grasp a particular mathematical task, but that it takes practice and time
    • Instead of just giving you the answer, the MLSC helps you and makes you get the answer yourself
  • And in the affective domain:
    • Maths isn’t scary any more
    • I am even starting to enjoy maths now

There is much more in the report than can be mentioned in this brief summary. Although the context is different, the similarities are considerable and a thorough reading of the report will be of benefit to mathematics support practitioners and researchers in Britain.

In his closing summary, Ciaran Mac an Bhaird thanked sigma for the considerable support and encouragement that the Network has given to those working in mathematics support in Ireland over many years. He highlighted the CETL-MSOR conference as the key event of the year and the opportunities that many Irish colleagues have had to work with sigma on secondments and projects as highly influential in the development of mathematics support in Ireland.

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Professor Nigel Steele

sigma Advisory Group, Honorary Secretary of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Coventry University

I am delighted to be a member of the sigma Advisory Group: I believe that learning support in mathematics is a very important activity in every university.  There are many reasons why students may struggle with the mathematical elements of their courses, such as deficiencies in the pre-university education system, late intellectual development by an individual or unexpressed (or under-stated) mathematical requirements of some subjects.  Whatever the reason, I believe that we owe it to the students we recruit to help them avoid unnecessary failure.

Nigel Steele, sigma Advisory Group

And, of course, this helps the department and university avoid unnecessary loss of income, something I know from personal experience has focussed the minds of some senior managers!  As mathematicians we might feel that the problem of students being ill-prepared is for us alone -  but I note with interest the establishment of academic writing centres in some universities: where we lead, others follow!"

My pre-retirement career was spent at Coventry University where I developed a particular interest in the mathematical education of engineers and with Mike Barry, then of RNEC Manadon, and others produced the European Society for Engineering Education (SEFI) Core Curriculum in Mathematics for Engineers. In turn this led to an interest in signal processing and then to research in the field of Artificial Neural Networks. This latter work gave me the opportunity to visit many universities in continental Europe. Prior to retirement at Coventry I took on something that to was to become my post-retirement career, namely Honorary Secretary of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications with responsibility for education. This has been a fascinating experience over several years, with many different aspects, notably the recent set of projects the Institute has taken on.

During my long period at Coventry University I saw the establishment of the first drop-in centre there - sponsored by BP complete with yellow and green chairs! It was obvious to us all in the mathematics department that such a facility was clearly needed and obviously successful. My colleague, Duncan Lawson, later managed the operation and in conjunction with Tony Croft from Loughborough University, established sigma as a Centre for Excellence and obtained on-going national recognition of the importance of this work. I am delighted to have this opportunity to be involved with the latest sigma initiative to develop a sustainable community of mathematics support practitioners and will happily share my experience and contacts to help this venture to be a success.

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Professor Abdel Salhi

sigma Eastern England Hub co-ordinator

Abdel has a background in computational mathematics and operational research. He has taught maths and OR at all levels for over 15 years. He is also an active researcher in OR; he has published over 40 papers. He has, recently, introduced the Strawberry Algorithm for global optimisation which is simple, yet effective on hard problems. In recent years he has championed the provision of mathematics and statistics support  to all students and staff at the University of Essex. With the help of colleagues, he has set up the Maths Support  Centre to that effect. The Centre is open to the whole community and not just members of the University.

Abdel Salhi, sigma Eastern England Hub co-ordinator

He believes that the responsibility for the decline in the popularity of mathematics, statistics and the so called hard sciences, in the last few decades, sits with us teachers of these disciplines and also with the parents of students. The lack of enthusiasm when we teach affects adversely the popularity of the discipline.  But, telling a child that “maths is hard” and showing pride in “not being good with numbers” is just as damaging if not more. The good news is that mathematics and statistics are now regaining popularity at great pace. Providing support to those who need it now and in the foreseeable future is of vital importance not just for the UK economy but also for the global one.

Abdel is Professor of Operational Research and is currently the Head of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Essex. He has, recently, taken on the role of Eastern England sigma Hub coordinator.  He is grateful for the help offered by his colleagues Dr Dan Brawn and Dr Chris Saker as well as colleagues across the sigma Network, to coordinate the Hub.

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The Importance of Building Links with Disability Services and Academic Departments

Ruth Fairclough, University of Wolverhampton

This is the second of a series of articles on supporting disabled students. We explore further why it is important to make links with other staff.


Many disabled students are in receipt of Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) which meets the additional costs incurred for disabled students; this can be for expenses such as additional equipment, and also for specialist disability tuition.

However disability tuition is not subject specific – it is for disability related issues such as help with time management, study skills, university related administration and breaking down assessments. Usually this is organised by a University’s central disability services team. Students with Dyslexia, dyspraxia and other, often hidden, disabilities find the specialist disability tuition essential to remove some of the barriers faced in their academic studies.

Mathematics, statistics and numeracy support is often referred back to the academic departments, as it is seen as academic tuition. Disability tutors cannot assist with academic tuition, even if they do have the specialist subject knowledge. They can refer disabled students to a Mathematics Support Centre, but only if they are aware that this is an option.

Maths Support Centre Managers can help students by building contacts within central disability services and the academic departments where mathematics, statistics and numeracy skills are required. This helps students get pointers to where they can access the support they need. When there are solid links between a Maths support centre and disability services, students are less likely to become lost in the system. As one dyslexic undergraduate Civil Engineering student said “I wouldn't have had the same opportunities that I have had… for instance I would never have known about the maths support in the library!

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2014/15 sigma Resource Development funding call

Moira Petrie, sigma Project Manager

We are pleased to announce the successful projects that will be funded under the 2014/15 sigma Resource Development funding call. The focus of the resource development funding call is to enable practitioners to share their expertise with the wider community through the creation and dissemination of resources. This year, the following projects are being funded:

  • Birbeck, University of London - To develop video based resources to support Computing Science students, focussing on binary numbers and Boolean logic,
  • Brunel University - To develop 27 SPSS video tutorials, including Initial analysis and descriptive statistics, Charts and graphs, Correlations and T-tests,
  • Central St Martins (University of the Arts London) - To develop resources for Arts and Humanities students, covering some key themes and ideas in geometry while emphasising practical skills, mathematical thinking and points of cultural and historical interest,
  • University of Kent - To develop a set of numeracy self-study guides to support pharmacy students,
  • University of the West of England To develop a suite of statistics e-Assessments with supporting materials.

Each of the projects receives a grant of £2,000, with the expectation that the resources created will be made available to the wider community via mathcentre and statstutor before the end of May 2015.

There will be a final funding call in Autumn 2015.

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sigma Directors visit the Department for Education

Tony Croft, sigma Director

On Thursday 30th October 2014, sigma directors Tony Croft, Duncan Lawson and Michael Grove met with ministerial officials Varsha Stroud and Vanessa Pittard  from the Department for Education in London. The aims of the meeting were to ensure that the Department was fully aware of the challenges surrounding mathematics and statistics education at university level and how members of the sigma community were trying to address them. The sigma team was able to draw attention to the very broad range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses which required some level of mathematical or statistical knowledge but which was often found lacking. The officials were keen to draw to our attention developments in Core Mathematics - courses aimed at those post-16 students who would not normally choose to study mathematics at AS or A2 level (note: MEI and OCR have jointly developed two new qualifications designed to meet the Core Maths requirements; both are accredited for teaching from 2015 and pending DfE approval as Core Maths qualifications).  There was also interest in the current sector needs analysis being undertaken by sigma and due to report later this year. We intend that a joint DfE and sigma event to promote findings from this report will take place in due course. Further developments will be reported in future issues of this newsletter.
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"Data Skills at University: Developing Students’ Numerical and Statistical Literacy" seminar

Duncan Lawson, sigma Director

On Monday 24th November, an event run by Westminster Briefing and sponsored by the British Academy and House Magazine, entitled “Data Skills at University: Developing Students’ Numerical and Statistical Literacy” took place at the British Academy in London.

The day was primarily focused on developing the quantitative skills of social scientists. Presentations had a number of common themes including the low level of quantitative skills of those coming onto social sciences degrees, the poor quality of the school statistics curriculum, the increasing need for quantitative methods in the social sciences, the resistance of some academic colleagues to change, the hope (rather than expectation) that the new Core Maths qualification might have a positive impact and the need for Learned Societies in the social sciences to be much more interested in both the school curriculum and school outreach.

Duncan Lawson presented an overview of the national situation with regard to mathematics and statistics support. This included information about the sigma Network and the current HEFCE-funded project.

A more detailed report on the seminar is available from the sigma Network website. Click here.

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sigma Advisory Group Meeting - 13 November

Moira Petrie, sigma Assistant Director

The 3rd meeting of the sigma Advisory Group took place on Thursday 13th November 2014 at the University of Birmingham. The Advisory Group meets every 6 months and provides support, advice and guidance with regard to the progress of the project, with a particular focus on sustainability issues. There had been a number of changes to the membership of the Group over the summer and this meeting enabled the new members to become familiar with the governance of the project.

We are especially pleased that Sammy Davis, (Peer Support Coordinator, Student Voice, Loughborough Students Union) has joined as the student representative on the Group. The next meeting will take place on 19th May 2015.

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New statstutor and mathcentre Community resources


A series of 16 bite-sized video tutorials on aspects of using SPSS have been contributed to the statstutor Community Project by by Christine Pereira, Brunel University. They have been reviewed by Vikki O'Neill, Queen's University Belfast and Kate Richards, MEI. The topics covered are :

  • Compute a total score in SPSS
  • Compute a mean score in SPSS
  • Create dummy variables from an existing categorical variable in SPSS
  • Change the coding of a variable using 'Recode into same variable' in SPSS
  • Recode a scale variable into categories in SPSS
  • Reduce the number of groups of a categorical variable in SPSS
  • Reverse the coding of a variable in SPSS
  • Enter data and define variables in SPSS
  • Import data from Excel in SPSS
  • Missing values in SPSS
  • Define the level of measurement of data in SPSS
  • Enter data from a questionnaire Example 1: Single response
  • Enter data from a questionnaire Example 2: Single response Likert scale questions
  • Enter data from a questionnaire Example 3: Multiple response questions (tick all that apply)
  • Enter data from a questionnaire Example 4: Ranked response questions
  • Enter data from a questionnaire Example 5: Open response questions

Click here to view the resources.


A new Welsh language Facts & Formulae leaflet, Mwy o Ffeithiau a Fformwlâu (More Facts & Formulae) has been made available in mathcentre in both print and onscreen versions. The Welsh language versions of mathcentre Facts & Formulae leaflets were translated by Dr Tudur Davies, a Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol Lecturer of Mathematics, at the Institute of Mathematics, Physics & Computer Science, Aberystwyth University. Funding from the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol is gratefully acknowledged. The source files have been contributed under a Creative Commons licence and are available here.

Two new resources for pharmacy and health science students have been contributed to the mathcentre Community Project by Abigail Francis from Liverpool John Moores University. Abi was a sigma funded intern at LJMU this summer.

The Quick reference leaflet resources are:

  • Pharmacy calculation I: Solid trituration
  • Pharmacy calculations II: Isotonicity

They may be accessed here :

As with all mathcentre Community Project resources, the source files have been made available under a Creative Commons licence so that others may adapt and develop resources further.

If you have developed resources for staff or students that you would like to share, please contact or Details of the Communities Project may be found on the Communities tab at statstutor and mathcentre.

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sigma Student Summer Intern Projects 2014

Moira Petrie

This year, sigma funded 6 summer student intern projects: 

  • University of Bath: Developing resources to overcome specific language barriers in HE Mathematics and Statistics
  • University of Brighton: Developing resources for mathematics and statistics on the University of Brighton Academic Study Kit (ASK)
  • University of Liverpool: Creating online maths questions to enhance student learning in maths in a chemistry context
  • Liverpool John Moores University: Designing a collection of practice questions to improve the numeracy, capabilities and confidence of pharmacy students
  • London Metropolitan University: Data collection and analysis relating to usage of the maths support provision at London Met
  • Sheffield Hallam University: Investigating ways to promote engagement with students from subject areas which are under-represented as users of Maths Support
Each of these 6 institutions provided match funding through employing a second intern to work alongside the sigma funded intern, although not necessarily on the same project.  All 6 projects were all completed on time and each project team have submitted a report reflecting on its methodology, results, impact and next steps. 
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Student interns answering questions after their presentations at CETL-MSOR 2014

Where the project’s focus was on the development of resources, these are being made available to the wider community.  For example, you can access the bilingual Mathematics dictionaries and non-English Mathematics terminology list being developed by the University of Bath via Two pharmacy-specific “Quick Reference” sheets developed as part of the project at Liverpool John Moores University have been submitted to the mathcentre Community Project.

“The resources that have been developed will be available widely, and we are happy to share our internship model and associated resources with other practitioners that would like to do the same.”
University of Brighton

Students from these projects (Morgan Evans, University of Bath and Tom Hobson and Matt Wheatley, Sheffield Hallam University) presented as part of the students’ keynote session at the CETL-MSOR 2014 conference.

The University of Liverpool’s project has been presented at the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) Teaching Fellow Meeting in September 2014. As a result, RSC colleagues have shown interest in using the online maths questions, answers and feedback on their website. 

The project at Liverpool John Moores University formed the basis of the “Meeting the mathematics needs of pharmacy students” seminar, offered jointly by the sigma North West & North Wales Hub, the British Pharmaceutical Students’ Association and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society on 19th November 2014.

If you would like further information on any of these projects, please contact Moira Petrie (

A call for proposals for sigma Student Summer Intern Projects for 2015 will be announced on 12 January 2015 with a closing date of 12 February 2015. The call will be posted to the sigma Network website and the sigma Network mailing list (

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sigma Regional tutor training workshops

Tony Croft & Michael Grove

Many mathematics support centres, including the majority of those established during the National HE STEM Programme in 2010-2013, make extensive use of postgraduate students to act as tutors.  In some important ways, providing mathematics support is not the same as the routine tutorial support that many postgraduate students undertake.  To prepare mathematics support tutors, sigma has developed a one day training workshop, with supporting materials, that was delivered several times during the National HE STEM Programme. As one of the Work-packages agreed with HEFCE, sigma is offering support to each regional hub in organising an annual tutor training workshop which will be led members of the core team, with local input where this is available.

During October and November 2014 four such workshops have taken place. The first was held at the sigma centre at King’s College, London, on 6th October. At that event 11 postgraduates from King’s explored the purpose of mathematics support and ways in which they would be offering support within their centre. On October 14th postgraduates and staff from the universities of Greenwich, Bournemouth and Portsmouth attended a tutor training session at the University of Portsmouth hosted by Dr Mateja Presern, Academic Learning Support Coordinator in the Faculty of Technology. (See elsewhere in this newsletter for an event report.) The workshop moved to the University of Sheffield on 29th October where local hosts Dr Chetna Patel and Ellen Marshall welcomed delegates from their own centre and from the University of Leeds. On 5th November the workshop ran for a fourth time at the University of Lincoln, hosted by Phil Assheton, MASH Centre Manager, and was attended by staff from Lincoln and postgraduates and staff from the University of Leicester.

The feedback received from the postgraduates has been overwhelmingly positive, with participants commenting that it provided opportunities for networking with others, a chance to explore some scenarios mathematics support tutors might encounter and the vast range of supporting resources that are available.

Each of these workshops was based around the guide Tutoring in a Mathematics Support Centre – a guide for postgraduate students, available here

The next tutor training events will be held on the 16 December at Coventry University (contact Ruth Fairclough, the sigma Midlands Hub co-ordinator at and at Lancaster University (contact Sharon McCulloch, Student Learning Advisor, Lancaster University Management School at Further events are planned for next year. Enquiries can also be made of the sigma project manager, Moira Petrie (
sigma Tutor training at the University of Shefiield

Tony Croft running the sigma tutor training session at the University of Sheffield MASH Centre

Lincoln tutor training

Phil Assheton and Federica Menchinelli from the University of Lincoln MASH Centre

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Fine Art Maths Centre, Central St Martins

Dr Rich Cochrane, Dr Andrew McGettigan & Alex Schady, Head of Fine Art

The Fine Art Maths Centre is based at Central Saint Martins (CSM), 'one of the world’s leading centres for art and design education' and constituent college of University of the Arts London (UAL). It is the first maths support centre to be funded by sigma in such an institution.

After piloting our activities in 2013, we extended our workshop and tutorial provision to roughly 400 BA and MA students in October.

Fine art students are assessed on creative work with final assessment based on a degree show, which is subsequently open to the public. During their studies, students pursue their own practice and interests. All life, intellectual and otherwise, is open to art practice and mathematics is no exception. Many students encounter mathematical ideas or find that the technical execution of envisaged work may hinge on mathematical skills.

The specialist nature of CSM and UAL means that there are few academics with quantitative backgrounds. Artists with mathematical interests have found it difficult if not impossible to go outside of their programme to find support or resources elsewhere within the institution.

Our aim is to enhance practice and artistic outcomes by opening up possibilities otherwise closed down for lack of mathematical support. As well as helping students to overcome problems, our ambition is to stimulate and provoke new directions in their practice by exposing them to mathematical ideas they may not encounter otherwise and to provide them with the skills to carry out their own investigations.

We will use one-to-one tutorials to guide and devise bespoke programmes for structured independent study. We are already offering group workshops in geometry and related areas: e.g. Euclidean, Perspective & Projective Geometry, and Topology & Higher Dimensions. These workshops have as outcomes collaborative public artworks, such as programming the piazza fountains outside the college last December.

Our hope is that Fine Art Maths Centre can help produce creative work that would otherwise be abandoned unrealised. In this way we would contribute fresh perspectives on pedagogical practice in art and extend the ability of the institution to support a broader range of art practice. At the same time, if successful, we would expand sigma's activities, with the public dimension of artworks providing a distinct, attractive take on the value of mathematics support centres. We also believe that what we learn in this endeavour will be applicable to those undertaking future mathematics initiatives in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Yi Zhang, BA Fine Art

Student's work from Autumn 2014 Euclidean Geometry workshop: Yi Zhang, BA Fine Art. Photo: Daniel Malheiro

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New Maths Centre at University of East London (UEL)

Andrea Didier

We are delighted to have been successful in winning funding via the sigma Network to set up a mathematics support centre at the University of East London. This term, we are running weekly drop-in sessions and bookable individual appointments with a Maths adviser at both campuses. We are piloting 4-week general workshops and developing   tailored sessions in collaboration with academic staff across a range of schools. Students so far have sought help with topics ranging from percentage calculations to calculus. Our new maths centre will sit within an established support service, which also provides help with academic writing and information technology, and is part of the language and learning services within the library.

Over the coming year, we hope to build on these pilots with additional drop-ins, bespoke sessions and the creation of a group study “ Maths Space” at our Docklands campus. This will be a place where students can come and work on their maths, seek help and access mathematical study materials and resource sheets.

While our official launch is not until early in 2015, initial indications suggest that there is a large appetite among both students and staff for the development and promotion of students’ mathematical and statistical skills.  Informal feedback received from our pilots so far has been positive.
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The Lancaster University Management School Maths and Stats Help (MASH) Centre

Sharon McCulloch

Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) was delighted to receive funding from the sigma Network in 2014 to set up a brand new Maths and Stats Help (MASH) Centre.

LUMS students have been closely involved in planning and running the centre. A team of mainly undergraduate students working as student learning development partners carried out research to establish the extent of need and find out what type of maths support would be most appropriate. Once funding had been secured, they also designed promotional leaflets and posters, arranged for shout-outs at lectures to inform students about the centre, and designed feedback forms to help us evaluate it.

The centre is staffed by a team of postgraduate student mentors and a professional tutor, who have provided 55 one-to-one consultations in the centre’s first three weeks of operation. At the moment, the Maths and Stats Help (MASH) Centre opens for two 2-hour slots per week, with 2 or 3 mentors on duty, but demand has been higher than expected and we are already planning to recruit more student mentors, with a view to opening up an additional drop-in slot in the second term.

Yi Zhang, BA Fine Art

Lancaster University MASH student mentors

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Establishing Maths and Statistics support at Royal Holloway

Sophia Stavrakakis – Senior English Language Tutor, Centre for the Development of Academic Skills (CeDAS) at Royal Holloway

September 2014 saw the establishment of the Centre for the Development of Academic Skills at Royal Holloway. In a former guise this department had dealt exclusively with reading, writing and oral communication skills for international students. However, research clearly revealed that students from a range of backgrounds also needed maths and statistics support.

The expertise and funding available via sigma means that CeDAS is now able to develop this important area. Early achievements include support beginning in January 2015 for first years in Earth Sciences and Computer Science, using PhD students with maths teaching experience. Two further departments seem likely to follow this model of embedded support.

For the spring term we aim to recruit an experienced maths tutor who can have oversight of the support, and also establish a physical and online presence for sigma operations equipped with appropriate resources. We look forward to this exciting new chapter in our department’s story.


Royal Holloway

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Maths Support at Greenwich

Tony Mann

A new maths support provision at the University of Greenwich opened at the end of October 2014 (with support from sigma).  The aim is to provide drop-in support for students of subjects like business and computing who are having difficulty with the mathematical content of their studies. 

A space has been made available for 2014/15 in the former library building at the Greenwich campus and tutors have been appointed and trained (through one of the excellent sigma workshops).  Drop-in support is initially being offered on two days each week during the teaching term.  Although the facility is, for the moment, available only on one of the University’s three campuses, students can use the University inter-campus bus service to attend. 

Although the drop-in support provision has been provided for only four weeks, already students from all four faculties and from all three campuses have attended.  It is clear that the service fills a gap and we expect demand to rise as assessment deadlines and exams become nearer.

It is intended to provide other forms of support, such as workshops to help students prepare for psychometric tests when they apply for graduate jobs, but with limited resources the initial focus is very much on the drop-in sessions.  Early feedback from users has been very positive, and tutors are identifying points with which students have particular difficulty to feed back to their lecturers.  It is hoped that the maths support provision will be of significant benefit across the University.
Greenwich maths support centre

Part of the Greenwich Maths Support area

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Building a MegaMenger Sponge in Bath!

Emma Cliffe, University of Bath

A Menger sponge is a three-dimensional fractal which can be made by starting with a cube and removing a square section a third the width of the cube through the centre in each of the three directions. Each of the remaining smaller cubes is then cut out in the same way, and so on (the picture helps!). A cube can be made from 6 business cards. With 20 such cubes a level one Menger sponge can be built. With 20 level one sponges a level two can be built and with 20 of these, a single level three. The resulting fractal cube is nearly 1.5m tall, made of 8000 individual cubes and nearly 50,000 business cards!

University of Bath - MegaMenger sponges

MegaMenger Sponge(s) at the University of Bath

The MegaMenger project set out to build twenty level three cubes around the world and so to complete a distributed level four Menger sponge! More information about the ongoing international project can be found at

The University of Bath was one of the twenty locations and the build was led by Ben Sparks of the Further Mathematics Support Programme. It took a week and involved other members of the Further Mathematics Support Programme, University staff and students, family members, local teachers and school children.

MASH, the University of Bath Mathematics and Statistics Resource Centre, helped out and used this as an opportunity to promote our services, talk to students and staff about mathematics and even give some maths support along the way! Information about our build and those involved is at

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sigma Midlands Hub Report and forthcoming events - 2/3 December and 16 December 2014

Ruth Fairclough, sigma Midlands Hub co-ordinator

It is with great pleasure we can announce new Maths and Stats support provision in the sigma Midlands Hub area. Firstly, we have our first FE colleges in the network at Halesowen College and West Nottinghamshire College. They are providing maths and stats support to students studying Higher Education courses at their colleges. In addition, Leicester University and Nottingham Trent University have successfully acquired sigma funding to enhance their mathematics support provision.

It was good to meet so many mathematics and statistics support practitioners from the Midlands area at the CETL MSOR conference in September 2014 at Cardiff University. I did hear many people saying this conference was ‘the best yet’.

Statistics for Mathematicians - 2/3 December

sigma have been working hard over the last few months planning mathematics and statistics tutor training within the Midlands and there are two tutor training sessions in December. The first training event is on the 2/3 December focussing on training new tutors from a mathematics background who need to brush up their statistics skills and learn more about SPSS. For more information, click here.

sigma Tutor Training - 16 December

The second event is on the 16 December at Coventry University focussing on more generic mathematics and statistics tutor training. See the article on regional tutor training events elsewhere in this newsletter for further details and contact Ruth Fairclough if you would like to attend.

There will be further meetings and training events to be held later on in the academic year. Please contact the Midlands regional coordinator via email at if you have any particular topics you would like to be covered at these events.

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sigma Eastern England Hub event – 16 December 2014

Dan Brawn, sigma Eastern England Hub assistant co-ordinator

sigma Eastern England is holding a free networking event, Models for the delivery of Maths/Stats support, on Tuesday 16 December 2014 at the University of East London from 10:30 am to 3pm.

This will be a networking event organised by the sigma Eastern England Hub for people involved in the provision of mathematics and statistics support in higher education. Attendees will have the opportunity to share experiences, explain what works well for them, and seek ideas for the further development of their service. Attendees will be encouraged to leave with an “action plan” for the further development of their service.

Different models of mathematics and statistics support will be explored and the following will be considered:

  • Is support provided by individual arrangement, drop in, bookable slots or extra classes?
  • How often is support offered and by whom, staff or PG students?
  • What are the objectives beyond provision of support to clients?
  • How are participation levels, and what is done to promote the service?
  • What resources are used and found most helpful?
  • How do you evaluate success and impact?
  • What challenges have been experienced and how have they been addressed?

To book a place, or for further information, please contact: Dan Brawn, sigma Eastern England Hub Assistant Co-ordinator:

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sigma North East and Yorkshire Hub event: Being inclusive: the whole kit and caboodle in the maths and stats support environment - 19 January 2015

Chetna Patel, North East & Yorkshire sigma Hub co-ordinator

The sigma North East and Yorkshire Hub are arranging an event Being inclusive: the whole kit and caboodle in the maths and stats support environment at the University of Sheffield on Monday 19 January 2015, starting at 10am and finishing at 4pm. The day will be a combination of talks and activities and aims to give delegates an opportunity to consider their inclusive practice of mathematics and statistics support and learn ways of developing it further.

Widening participation initiatives and changes in confidence in our society has led to an increase in numbers of students from non-traditional backgrounds.  In the maths support community we are good at helping students get to a level playing field when it comes to mathematics and statistics skills but I think we have yet to engage as a whole community with the trickier support for students with challenging mental and physical health conditions.  This event hopes to not only increase awareness but will help to take us forward pre-empting the increase in student numbers and support needs.

Clare Trott from Loughborough University has played a leading role in developing methods for helping students with dyscalculia and low maths confidence, Victoria Mann (Specialist SpLD tutor) with 14 years of experience from University of Sheffield and Dylan Griffiths from Bangor University will be some of the speakers at the event. The full programme is yet to be finalised.

If you would like to contribute to the event, please let me know.  There is no charge for attending and refreshments including lunch will be provided. Preliminary enquiries can be sent to

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sigma SW&SW Hub event: Embedding and sustaining maths support - 23 January 2015

Emma Cliffe, sigma South West and South Wales Hub co-ordinator

The sigma South West and South Wales Hub is holding an event on Embedding and sustaining mathematics support, at the University of Bath on Friday 23rd January. The main focus of the meeting is to consider how the community of mathematics and statistics support practitioners may best embed and sustain mathematics support locally in their own institution and within our regional hub. This meeting will also have plenty of time for networking and sharing information and ideas between attendees. Please note the requests for short talks, activities and discussion points to enable this and consider volunteering!

Abdel Salhi, Professor of Operational Research and Head of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Essex, will open the day. He will describe how his department has designed and delivered sustainable maths and stats support including offering consultancy services to local businesses. This will be followed by short talks offered up by attendees to highlight work they have completed to ensure their maths or stats support is embedded and sustainable. In the latter part of the day there will be activities and discussion with a focus on local and regional embedding, sustainability and sharing of practice. For further information and to register for the event please see

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sigma Network Mailing list (SIGMA-NETWORK@JISCMAIL.AC.UK)

The sigma Network uses the sigma Network mailing list (SIGMA-NETWORK@JISCMAIL.AC.UK) to promote events and announce funding calls. The mailing list is also used by mathematics and statistics support practitioners to seek information and discuss items of mutual interest. Recents topics have included the use of registration forms in drop-in centres and the evaluation of support. Archives of previous posts are accessible from the SIGMA-NETWORK JISCMAIL home page.

Please encourage your mathematics and statistics support colleagues and tutors to sign up to the mailing list. It is possible to opt to receive a digest weekly instead of ad-hoc email communications.


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CETL-MSOR Conference 8/9 September 2014

The CETL-MSOR Conference 2014‘Mathematics and Statistics Teaching, Learning and Support: Real, Virtual, Mobile’ was held on Monday 8 – Tuesday 9 September 2014 at the College of Physical Sciences and Engineering, Queens Building, Cardiff University. 106 Delegates representing 50 institutions attended. The Conference Dinner was held at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff and was preceded by a tour of the stadium.

Keynote speakers were:

  • Dr Colin Jones, University of Tasmania – Beyond pedagogy content knowledge: retrofitting heutagogy to mathematics
  • Professor Dame Celia Hoyles, Institute of Education – The potential and challenges for mathematics teaching & learning in the digital age
  • Professor Paul Harper, Cardiff University – Maths saves lives!
  • Staff–Student Partnerships in Teaching and Learning: Hearing from the students themselves! – Morgan Evans, Kingsley Webster, Tom Hobson, Matt Wheatley, Brodie Burton, Gemma Clarke & Hannah Bartholomew

The conference program, conference booklet and presentations are available from

____________________________ ____________________________ ____________________________ ____________________________ ____________________________ ____________________________
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sigma SE SW&SW Tutor Training - 15 October 2014

Emma Cliffe, sigma South West and South wales Hub co-ordinator

Delegates at the sigma SE and SWSW Tutor Training

Delegates at the sigma SE and SWSW Tutor Training at the University of Portsmouth

A sigma SE and SW&SW Tutor Training event for mathematics and statistics support centre tutors was held on Wednesday 15th October at the University of Portsmouth. The training was delivered by Tony Croft and Michael Grove of sigma and was based around the sigma guide for tutors.

The day commenced by considering what mathematics support is; this was followed by problem solving and principles of mathematics support sessions. In the afternoon further sessions covered statistics support and an exploration of possible scenarios. There was also time in the day for networking, questions and answers.

The eighteen attendees came from the University of Greenwich, Bournemouth University, the University of Portsmouth and Brunel University. They felt that helpful things included: “talking about different sides of maths support”, “guidance on what is and is not appropriate”, “really useful tips on how to set up a support centre and what to expect”, “selection of resources provided”, “different approaches to tackling problems”,  “interactive sessions”, “problem solving session”, “how to get them to self reflect” and “real scenarios from experienced tutors”.

Delegates working with materials at the sigma SE and SWSW Tutor Training

Delegates working with materials at the sigma SE and SWSW Tutor Training

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Meeting the mathematics needs of pharmacy students - 19 November

Leslie Fletcher, sigma North West & North Wales Hub co-ordinator

The sigma North West and North Wales event "Meeting the mathematics needs of pharmacy students" held at Liverpool John Moores University on 19 November attracted 29 participants from 16 institutions, with a good representation of both mathematics support practitioners and pharmacy teachers.

Tony Croft opened proceedings with a presentation on the issues with numerical and mathematical reasoning which plague all HEIs and all disciplines. He also outlined the contribution that maths support centres make to overcoming them. Next Emma Bolton, Educational Development Officer of the British Pharmaceutical Students' Association, presented the results of a social media poll of pre-registration pharmacists (those in their first year of practice after graduation) asking about their experiences with mathematics in their undergraduate courses. She also asked about their preparedness for the calculation part of the qualifying examination which all graduate pharmacists have to pass, with quite high marks, in order to become fully registered pharmacists. The final invited presentation in the morning was given by Lisa Smith, Question Writing Coordinator from General Pharmaceutical Council who manages the setting, marking and moderation of this calculation part of the qualifying examination, nicely complementing Emma's presentation. In the afternoon there were contributed presentations on an interesting range of approaches to creating capability with and confidence about the calculations which pharmacy students encounter.

I am extremely grateful to my colleague Bob Morris from the School of Pharmacy at LJMU who did all the organisation of speakers and participants from the pharmacy side of the event. I heartily endorse his comment that "I personally took something of value from each session and the comments arising from them. I know Leslie learned a great deal about pharmacy mathematics that will help him and his team support students here at Liverpool." I am sure that the other maths support staff who came will also have gained a great deal from the day.

A longer report on the day, including speaker presentations, will appear on the sigma website in due course. It is also important to reflect on the issues raised to see how to best take forward the production of tailored maths resources to support all those involved in learning and teaching of numerical and mathematical reasoning for pharmacy undergraduates.

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Recent reports and research publications

This regular column lists recent publications relevant to mathematics and statistics support practitioners. If you are aware of any publications that may be of interest to this community, please will you send them to It is our intention to compile a bibliography which will be available from the sigma Network and mathcentre websites.


Ciaran O’Sullivan, Ciaran Mac an Bhaird, Olivia Fitzmaurice and Eabhnat Ni Fhloinn. (2014) Student Evaluation of Mathematics Learning Support: Insights from a large scale multi-institutional survey. NCE-MSTL. IMLSNFinalReportPrePrinters.pdf

Journal and Conference Publications

Ahmed, S., and Honeychurch, S. (2014) Improving transition into university life through real and virtual groups. In: HEA STEM Annual Learning and Teaching Conference 2014: Enhancing the STEM Student Journey, 30 April - 1 May 2014.

Jonathan Gillard, Vincent Knight, Julie Vile and Robert Wilson. (2014) Rostering staff at a mathematics support service using a finite-source queueing model. IMA Journal of Management Mathematics, 25 (4).  doi: 10.1093/imaman/dpu017

Conference Presentations

Duncan Lawson and Tony Croft (2014) Mathematics: embrace it because you cannot escape it. HEA STEM Annual Conference 2014.

Michael Grove, Tony Croft and Duncan Lawson. (2014) The sigma Mathematics and Statistics Support Network. HEA STEM Annual Conference 2014.

CETL-MSOR 2014 Conference presentations.

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The sigma e-Newsletter is a quarterly community publication and the views expressed do not
necessarily constitute recommendations from the sigma Directorate.

We welcome contributions on any topic that may be of interest to practitioners and academics
supporting higher education students in their learning of mathematics and statistics. Please contact
Janette Matthews (

The deadline for contributions for the next edition (March 2015) is 13 February 2015.

For more information, visit
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