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Undergraduates lack the numeracy skills required for their courses and the work place, according to new exploratory study

By Nuffield Foundation

An exploratory project from National Numeracy, and commissioned by the Nuffield Foundation, has found that many undergraduate students do not have the numeracy skills required to fully understand their course.

In some cases this lack of numeracy skills might also compromise students’ future employability, especially in relation to certain graduate careers. The study shows that in many cases numeracy can be improved upon with additional support or by students having access to good learning resources.


This project built on concerns about the numerical capabilities and expectations of young people entering and graduating from UK higher universities, highlighted in reports from the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

National Numeracy worked alongside nine Q-Step Centres and affiliates across the UK to investigate different approaches to assessing students’ numerical ability. The assessment method used in the project was a new version of National Numeracy’s online Challenge tool, which any adult can use to assess and improve their everyday maths skills.

The project set out to explore different approaches to engaging students to use the Challenge tool and to develop an attitudinal measure to support our understanding of ‘maths anxiety’ amongst Q-Step students. The project was not set up as a rigorous academic study but rather a ground-clearing, exploratory and practical exercise.  

The report’s findings

In the explanatory study, only 26% of the undergraduate students that completed the Challenge assessment demonstrated that they had the Essentials of Numeracy – the numerical skills and understanding identified as generally necessary for daily life and work. Or in other words the functional equivalent of a ‘C/4’ at GCSE.

After the initial assessment, 71% of students who went on to use the National Numeracy learning resources and undertook a second assessment improved on their original score.

The outcomes from this project suggest that universities would be better equipped to support students if they had a greater awareness of students’ numerical abilities. This would help universities to identify gaps in student skills and knowledge lie prior to embarking on a degree where data and numbers may be central to successful study.

What is Q-Step?

Q-Step is a £19.5 million programme designed to promote a step-change in quantitative social science training. Over a six-year period from 2013, fifteen universities across the UK are delivering specialist undergraduate programmes, including new courses, work placements and pathways to postgraduate study. Q-Step is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the ESRC and the HEFCE.

By Nuffield Foundation

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We improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in EducationWelfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

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