Most Israeli Students Stumped by High School Math

A recent study at the Technion reveals students' meager knowledge in math and English.

A recent test conducted by the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, reveals widespread ignorance among university students in various mathematical subjects, including geometry and trigonometry, and difficulty translating basic terms from English to Hebrew and vice versa.

For example, only 38 percent of the students answered the geometry questions correctly and only 35 percent translated terms from Hebrew to English correctly.

"We assume the students come to us with minimal knowledge they were supposed to obtain in high school, but this is a mistake. More than 60 percent of the students have difficulty in understanding basic geometry. This ignorance is evident in advanced courses as well," Dr. Adrian Biran, who conducted the test, said Wednesday.

Biran administered the test to 125 students, most of them in their second semester, about a month ago in a lesson in the Technion's Mechanical Engineering Department. The test included questions in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, technical English and others. Only 38 percent correctly answered the question, "What is the least number of points needed on a plane to define a circle passing through them?" (Three).

The students had great difficulty in translating "technical" English. Only about 34 percent knew the meaning of the word "perpendicular," while 52 percent knew the meaning of "inequality."

The students also received very poor grades in translating from Hebrew to English. For example, some 37 percent did not know how to translate the word "zavit" (angle) and 56 percent erred in translating "mishva'a" (equation); 81 percent mistranslated the word for "multiplication" and some 90 percent could not translate the term "cosine."

In addition, about one third of the students did not know the rules of arithmetic rounding and about a quarter did not identify the number 3.14 as Pi.

"The Technion is not responsible for the student's meager knowledge," says Biran. "They were supposed to learn these things in high school. However, the students are the raw material from which we are to mold engineers. Every serious molder checks the material he wants to use thoroughly. I'm afraid we are not meticulous enough in choosing our raw material."

Biran, 80, has been teaching at the Technion for some 35 years. In recent years, he says, the students' level of knowledge has deteriorated considerably. It's a gradual process which has accelerated over the last 10 years, he says.

"I keep the grades I've given over the years. In the '70s the grades were around 90, but today the average grade is about 60-65 points. There is a clear regression, everything is deteriorating. The problem isn't only in the introduction courses, but in the advanced ones. The students don't understand what they're being taught."

"Many students are unable to read technical or scientific texts in English and therefore cannot use the books they need," says Biran. "This is catastrophic. There have been cases of students in their final semesters making mistakes in their papers because they did not understand texts in English properly."