Are Our Students Changing?

In most ways that matter, college mathematics has not changed in the past five decades.  Whether we are looking at developmental math, college algebra, or calculus, the mathematics has not changed … the changes have been in the mediating tools (computers), not in matters of substance.

Of course, that assessment is too harsh with respect to developmental mathematics.  At this writing, perhaps greater than 10% of students in remedial mathematics are enrolled in a modern course (Math Literacy, Foundations of Mathematical Reasoning, Quantway, or Statway).  However, those modern courses are too often implemented around the edges … only students needing non-STEM math courses are allowed to take the improved dev math course.

At the same time, our students have changed in basic ways.  One shift is the high school math they have experienced.  When our current remedial courses were designed, the median high school math experience ended in Algebra I.  Currently, the median experience includes Algebra II … and more, in many cases.













The lighter bars represent the graduating class of 2009; 76% of them completed Algebra 2 … and 35% completed something like pre-calculus in high school.  [This data is based on a detailed study of a sample of transcripts.]

Note that the high school courses have changed in basic ways, in response to the NCTM standards and even the Common Core State Standards.   Our college courses have held on to the abandoned property at the corner of 1965 and Elm Street.

Student intended majors have also shifted.  Using data from 4 year colleges, this is the pattern over an extended period.













[From “Insights and Recommendations”, MAA Calculus Project ]

That chart is not especially clear.  Notice the curve upward for one of the trends?  The steepest increase is in biological sciences, which used to be less than half the size of engineering majors … though now the bio sciences majors outnumber all other groups.  Our college math courses continue to emphasize the needs of 1965 engineering programs, with a fixation on ‘the calculus’.

I am not as concerned with whether students have ‘more skills’ now; they likely do, based on the long-term trends in national assessments.  However, talking about ‘more skills’ often limits our discussion to particular subsets of either high school or college mathematics.  My point is that we, in college mathematics, are significantly blinded by our viewpoint in the traditions of college mathematics … and that we would not notice changes in student mathematical knowledge because we are looking in the wrong places.

It’s time for ALL college students to experience a modernized mathematics curriculum, one which reflects student backgrounds and goals while providing content based on professional college standards.    Take a look at the guiding principles in the Common Vision document …

The status quo is not just unacceptable.  The status quo is a professional failure on our part.  We can fix that, and help both our students and society thrive.

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1 Comment

  • By schremmer, October 25, 2016 @ 3:42 pm

    Re. The status quo is not just unacceptable. The status quo is a professional failure on our part. We can fix that, and help both our students and society thrive.

    The first two sentences refer to a fact. The third one, I am afraid is a pipe dream which will go the way the “Common Vision”will go, which is the way the “Calculus Initiative” of the nineties went, that is nowhere.

    The one and only one thing we can do at this point is, because Mathematics is described by researchers for their own purpose while expounders of mathematics on the other hand have never realized that most¬†learners cannot see mathematics that way, to recast mathematics for the purpose of having it be learned by “just plain folks.” (J. Goldstein et al. “Calculus Syllabi, Report of the Content Workshop at the Tulane Conference.”).

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