Walking the STEM Path III: Data on Intermediate Algebra

I have been getting ready for a presentation at AMATYC on the ‘bridge to somewhere’ … Algebraic Literacy.  A recent post described how to identify Algebraic Literacy, compared to Intermediate Algebra.  This post will look at some nice research on how effective intermediate algebra is, relative to preparing students for the typical kind of course to follow … college algebra, or pre-calculus.  #bridgesomewhere #AlgebraicLit #DevMath

ACT routinely does research on issues related to higher education.  In 2013, ACT published one called “A Study of the Effectiveness
of Developmental Courses for Improving Success in College” (see http://www.act.org/research/researchers/reports/pdf/ACT_RR2013-1.pdf  )  The data comes from 75 different institutions, representing well over 100000 students.  I was very interested in their results relating to intermediate algebra and college algebra.

Their methodology involves calculating the conditional probability of passing college algebra, using the ACT Math score as the input variable; this was done for two groups … those who took intermediate algebra and those who did not take intermediate algebra.   Their work involved a cutoff score of 19 for placing into college algebra (which seems low, but I trust that it was true).  Due to waivers and institutional flexibility, they had enough results below the cutoff to calculate the conditional probabilities for both groups; above the cutoff, only enough data was there for the group not taking intermediate algebra.

As an example, for ACT math score of 18: the probability of passing college algebra was .64 for those without intermediate algebra … .66 for those with intermediate algebra.  For that score, taking intermediate algebra resulted in a 2 percentage point gain in the probability of passing college algebra.  The report also calculates the probability of getting a B or better in college algebra for the two groups (as opposed to C).

Here is the overall graph:

ACT intermed alg vs college alg aug2015












The upper set (blue) shows the probability of passing (C or better) with the dashed line representing those who did the developmental course (intermediate algebra).  For all scores (14 to 18) the gap between the dashed & solid lines is 5 percentage points … or less.  In other words, the effectiveness of the intermediate algebra course approaches the trivial level.

The report further breaks down this data by the grade the student received in intermediate algebra; the results are not what we would like.   Receiving a C grade in intermediate algebra produces a DECREASED probability of passing college algebra (compared to not taking intermediate algebra at all).  Only those receiving an A in intermediate algebra have an increased probability of passing college algebra. [Getting a “B” is a null result … no gain.]

Our intermediate algebra course is both artificially too difficult and disconnected from a good preparation.  That’s what I will be talking about at the New Orleans AMATYC conference.

The results for intermediate algebra echo what the MAA calculus project found for college algebra/pre-calculus:  ‘below average’ students have a decreased probability of passing calculus after taking the prerequisite (when accounting for other factors).

Our current STEM path (intermediate algebra –> college algebra –> calculus) is a bramble patch.  The courses do not work, because we never did a deliberate design for any of them.  Intermediate algebra is a descendant of high school algebra II, and college algebra is a descendant of an old university course for non-math majors.

Fortunately, we have sufficient information about the needs of the STEM path to do better.  The content of the Algebraic Literacy course is engineered to meet the needs of a STEM path (as well as other needs).

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How to Recognize an Algebraic Literacy Course

The next AMATYC journal will have an update on the New Life Project (over 100 colleges, over 800 sections, and something like 16000 students this fall semester).  In order to prepare that update, I spent a lot of time searching various web sites and following up leads.  That detective work led me to a number of colleges using “algebraic literacy” as a course title … when the course was just ‘intermediate algebra’; I also found some courses titled ‘intermediate algebra’ that were closer to algebraic literacy. #AlgebraicLiteracy #MathLit #NewLifeMath

This post is a brief “field guide” to help us recognize an algebraic literacy course.  Algebraic Literacy (the course) is one of the New Life math courses (AMATYC Developmental Mathematics Committee) developed in 2008 to 2010, based on the professional work from the last two decades.  The material below comes from our wiki (http://dm-live.wikispaces.com/Algebraic+Literacy ).


The Algebraic Literacy (AL) course prepares students for mathematics pathways which include college algebra, pre-calculus, and other courses requiring a background beyond the Mathematical Literacy (MLCS) course.

This is similar to an intermediate algebra course … on the surface.  There is a fundamental difference, however:  intermediate algebra is a derivative of an earlier “Algebra II” course from K-12, while Algebraic Literacy is engineered to meet the mathematical needs of college mathematics (backwards designed).

The focus of the AL course is on building understanding of mathematical systems with a dual emphasis on symbolism and application. The Algebraic Literacy course includes quantitative topics from areas besides algebra, which supports the needs of both STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) bound students and other students.

A typical intermediate algebra course is heavily symbolic, with applications playing a minor role (and often using trivial applications with little payoff for preparing students).  The Algebraic Literacy seeks a balance between procedural fluency and higher level skills.  For some Algebraic Literacy courses, the applications form the context within which the mathematics is developed; for others, the mathematics begins first with applications integrated.  In considering applications, the Algebraic Literacy course includes problems with numeric solutions which would be solved symbolically in calculus.


Basic proportional reasoning and algebraic reasoning skills, and some function skills, are required prior to the Algebraic Literacy course.

We do list 5 specific areas of prerequisite skills following this general statement.  However, the Algebraic Literacy course is designed to allow ‘co-requisite remediation’ at the appropriate level: Building on basic algebraic reasoning skills, for example, we aim for deeper understanding and solid symbolic skills.  By contrast, the typical intermediate algebra course presents a conflicted approach: students must show higher levels of symbolic mastery before enrolling but then intermediate algebra reviews many of those skills (without directly dealing with the development of reasoning directly).

More students are able to begin an Algebraic Literacy course than a typical intermediate algebra course.


1. Numbers and Polynomials
2. Functions
3. Geometry and Trigonometry
4. Modeling and Statistics
The content is intended to be integrated and connected.

In the Algebraic Literacy course, we would not see a chapter on “radicals and rational exponents”; we might see a section dealing with fractional exponents in an early sequence dealing with functions, including an application in half-life models … and a later section working on radical notation focusing on domain and range, followed by a section on translating between radical and exponential forms.  Either of these sequences of topics might also include geometry and/or trigonometry, and modeling concepts such as parameters.  Almost all topics will be presented as connected to one or more other topics, both conceptually and in terms of applications.

For most intermediate algebra courses, the content is usually 9 to 12 ‘chapters’ of material arbitrarily divided up … and separated.  A minimum of connections are made to other ‘chapters’.  Overall, the intermediate algebra course does not tell any story; the intermediate algebra course is a long series of vignettes only loosely connected by ‘category’.

By contrast, the Algebraic Literacy course tells a story of mathematical reasoning with both symbolic and application dialogues.  The design of the Algebraic Literacy course is based on being the first step along a path which includes calculus and/or other significant mathematics.  We seek to build covariational reasoning, a step up from Mathematical Literacy, on the path towards a good pre-calculus experience.


This field guide would not be accurate without  emphasizing a fundamental difference: Algebraic Literacy supports other STEM fields in addition to those needing the traditional Calculus Path.  This is primarily a distinction for the two-year college situation, where our programs often include mid-skill to high-skill fields (manufacturing technology, engineering technology, health careers, electronics, computer science, etc).  This inclusive approach is why Algebraic Literacy is not just algebra … geometry, basic trig, and statistics are included.  Most intermediate algebra includes some non-trivial geometry (right triangles, for example); however, you can recognize an Algebraic Literacy course by the presence of non-trivial geometric reasoning and symbolic representations, trig functions at a basic level, and enough statistics to interpret models developed from data.

Recognizing an Algebraic Literacy course involves multiple factors — goals, prerequisites, content, and the nature of the ‘story’.    A instinctive evaluation is based on this:

As a mathematician, can I get excited about teaching this course … is the focus on good mathematics, with the goal of developing abilities as opposed to “Algebra II all over again”?

We will see colleges move in this direction; I hope that you will consider joining the work!

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Does College Mathematics Have a Future?

I have been wondering about something over the past few months. The concerns originated much earlier, as it seems that people are trying to avoid algebra within college math classes for non-STEM students.  More concerns were added as policy experts suggest that we align mathematics requirements with programs and, ideally, contextualize math for non-STEM students.  #CCA #STEM #MathPaths

There seem to be two premises at work:

  1. STEM students need lots of algebra, like we’ve been doing.
  2. Non-STEM students are harmed by algebra, and need something less ‘challenging’.

You can see by my phrasing that I am not objective about these premises.  Many people — mathematics educators, policy experts, and more — presume that STEM students, especially those headed towards calculus, are well-served by a college algebra experience.  The problem is that (1) the typical college algebra experience lacks development of covariational reasoning needed in calculus, and (2) our client disciplines have a more diverse need than we work with.  We continue to dig deep into symbolic calculus (which is one of our great achievements) but we downplay the usefulness of numeric methods that are heavily used in engineering, biology, physics, and more.

The STEM life is much more than putting calculus on top of algebra.

A brief story:  At a recent state MAA meeting, I attended a student session on mathematical modeling in biology.  The presenters where all about to get the BS in biology, and reported on fitting models using Matlab (Matrix Laboratory).  After the session, I asked one of the presenters where they learned the techniques … in a math class?  Nope — their biology professor taught them mathematical modeling because their math courses did not.

The non-STEM students are being tracked into statistics or quantitative reasoning, with statistics having the bigger push.  Policy experts push statistics because it is ‘practical’, and people will ‘use it’; these statements are true to some extent.  The problem is that almost all mathematical fields are practical.  In particular, algebra is practical.  Mathematics courses have failed to present algebra as a practical tool for living and for basic science & technology.

Even in a quantitative reasoning courses, we tend to de-emphasize great mathematical ideas.  Sure, we cover finances and statistics, voting and logic; however, the symbolic work combined with the concepts for transfer to new situations tends not to be there.  We use one of the best QR books on the market, and I supplement heavily on functions and related concepts; still, I do not think it is enough.  Some QR courses only apply a couple of concepts (such as proportional reasoning, or math in the news); great components of a QR course … terrible foundations for a QR course.

The risk I see is this: At some point, mathematics will be eliminated.  Non-STEM students get tracked into statistics and weak QR courses; mathematics is thereby eliminated for these students.  STEM students outside of mathematics are only required to show some basic background, and then all of their mathematics is taught by other departments (see biology story above).  The only mathematics students around will be mathematical science majors, and (in most institutions) this is far too small to support mathematics.

We need to do two difficult things:

  • Get our heads out of the sand, in terms of modern mathematics (what we should be teaching)
  • Effectively argue against the decay of mathematics requirements (especially in two-year colleges)

Fortunately, we have resources from people wiser than I … such as the Mathematical Sciences 2025 material (http://www.nap.edu/catalog/15269/the-mathematical-sciences-in-2025 ).  Please take a look at the diverse nature of mathematics needed in STEM fields, and think about how narrow of a focus we have.

The major threat to mathematics requirements comes from policy influencers (CCA, JFF, Lumina, etc).  Just because they say it, and have ‘data’, does not mean the idea is good or safe.  The degree requirements in institutions are the responsibility of faculty (including mathematics faculty).  It is our job to honor that responsibility, which does not belong to these external agencies.

Let’s keep mathematics as a valid component in a college education.

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Meaningful Mathematics … Learning Mathematics

Among the pushes from policy makers is ‘meaningful math’ … make it applicable to student interests.  Of course, this is not a new idea for us in mathematics; we’ve been using ‘real world applications’ to guide some reform efforts for decades. #realmath #collegemath #learningmath

Some current work in reforming mathematics education in college is based on a heavy use of context, where every new idea is introduced with a situation that students can understand.  We know that appropriate contexts with meaning to students helps their motivation; does it help their learning?

Before I share what I know of the theory and research on these approaches, I would like you to envision two types of textbooks or instructional materials (print, online, or whatever).

  1. Opening up the start of a lesson or section, repeatedly and randomly, generates a short verbal introduction followed by formal mathematical symbolism related to the new idea(s) in almost all cases.
  2. Opening up the start of a lesson or section, repeatedly and randomly, generates a variety of contextual situations and mention of a mathematical idea or tool that might be used.

Many traditional textbooks are type (1), while a lot of current reform textbooks are type (2).  Much of the change to (2) is based on instructor preferences, and I am guessing that much of the resistance to change is based on instructor preferences for (1).

Let’s take as a given that contexts that are accessible to students improve their motivation, and that we have a goal to improve student motivation; further, let us assume that we share a goal of having students learn mathematics (though that phrase means different things to different people).  There seem to be a number of questions to answer dealing with how a context-intensive course impacts student learning of mathematics.

  • How uniform is the impact of context on different learners?  (Is there an “ADA-type” issue?)
  • Do students learn both the context and the mathematics?
  • Is learning from a context more or less likely to be used and transferred to new situations?

I know the answer to the first question, based on research and experience: The impact is not uniform.  You probably understand that there are language issues for quite a few students, perhaps based on a class taught in English when the primary language is something else.  However, most of the contexts have a strong cultural factor.  For example, a common context for mathematics work is “the car”; there are local cultures where cars are not a personal possession, as well as cultures outside the USA where cars are either generally absent or relatively new (and, therefore, people know little).  The cultural problems can be overcome with sufficient scaffolding; is that how we want to spend time … does it limit the mathematical learning?  There are also ADA concerns with context: a sizable group of students have difficulties processing elements of ‘a story’ … leading to problems unpacking the context into the quantitative components we think are ‘obvious’.

The second question deals with how the human brain processes different types of information.  A context is a type of narrative, a story; stories activate isolated memories and create isolated memories.  To understand that, think about this context:

You are standing on a corner, and notice a car approaching the intersection.  When the light turns red, the car applies the brakes so that it stops in about 2 seconds.  You estimate that the distance during the stopping process is about 100 feet, and the speed limit is 30 miles per hour.  Let’s look at the rate of change in speed, assuming that this rate is constant through the 2 second interval.

The technical name for a story in memory is “episodic memory”.  This particular story might not activate any episodic memories for a given student; that depends on the episodes they have stored and the sensory activators that trigger recall.  Some students will respond strongly and negatively to a particular story, and this does not have to depend upon a prior trauma.  More of a concern are students who have some level of survival struggle (food, shelter, etc); many contexts will activate a survival mode, thereby severely limiting the learning.  Take a look at a report I wrote on ‘stories’ http://jackrotman.devmathrevival.net/sabbatical2006/2%20Here%27s%20a%20story,%20Ignore%20the%20Story.pdf

What happens to the mathematics accompanying the story?  If we never go past the episodic memory stage, the mathematics learned is not connected to other mathematics; it’s still a story.  In the ‘car stopping at an intersection’ story, the human brain might store the rate of change concepts with the rest of this specific story, instead of disassociating the knowledge so it can be used either in general or in new ‘stories’ (context).  Disassociating knowledge is another learning step; many context-based materials ignore this process, and that results in my biggest concern about ‘problem based learning’.

Using knowledge (Transfer … question 3) depends upon the brain receiving sensory input that activates the knowledge.  This is the fundamental problem with learning mathematics … our students do not see the same signals we see, ones that activate the appropriate information.  For this purpose, traditional symbolic forms and contextual forms have the same magnitude of difficulty: the building up of appropriate triggers to use information, as well as creating chunks of information that work together.  We need to be willing to “teach less mathematics” so that we can focus more on “becoming more like an expert with what we know”.  For more information on learning mathematics based on theoretical (and research-based) points of view, see http://jackrotman.devmathrevival.net/sabbatical2006/9%20Situated%20Learning.pdf and http://jackrotman.devmathrevival.net/sabbatical2006/6%20Learning%20Theories%20Overview.pdf 

I can’t leave this post without mentioning a companion issue:  Contextual learning is often done by ‘discovery’.  Some reform materials have an extreme aversion to ‘telling’, while traditional materials have an extreme aversion to ‘playing around’.  From what I know of learning (theory and research), I think it is safer to take the traditional approach … telling does not provide the best learning, but relying on discovery often results in even more incomplete and/or erroneous learning.  Just for fun, take  a look at http://jackrotman.devmathrevival.net/sabbatical2006/8%20Telling,%20Explaining,%20and%20Learning.pdf

Looking for a brief summary of all of this stuff?

Contextualized learning comes with significant risks; use it with caution and a plan to overcome those risks.
Mathematics is, by its nature, a practical field; all math courses need to have significant context used in the process of learning mathematics.

These ideas about context are related to the efforts of foundations and policy influencing agents (like CCA).  We need to keep the responsibility for appropriate instruction … including context.

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