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July-August 2008

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Addressing the Crisis in College Mathematics: Designing Courses for Student Success

For decades, Americans have taken for granted the United States’ position as the world leader in the development of new technologies. The innovations that resulted from research and development during World War II and afterwards were critical to the prosperity of the nation in the second half of the 20th century. Those innovations, upon which virtually all aspects of current society now depend, were possible because the United States then led the world in mathematics and science education. Today, however, despite increasing demand for workers with strong skills in mathematics and science, the proportions of degrees awarded in science, math, and engineering are decreasing.

The decline in degree production in what are called the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math) seems to be correlated with the comparatively weak performance by U.S. schoolchildren on international assessments of math and science. Many students entering college have weak skills in mathematics. According to the 2005 report of the Business-Higher Education Forum, “A Commitment to America’s Future: Responding to the Crisis in Mathematics & Science Education,” 22 percent of college freshmen must take remedial math courses, and less than half of the students who plan to major in science or engineering actually complete a major in those fields. Students in underrepresented minority groups, who suffer disproportionately in terms of weak math skills, are particularly underrepresented among college graduates in math, science, and engineering.

The result has been a decrease in the number of American college graduates who have the skills, especially in mathematics, to power a workforce that can keep the country at the forefront of innovation and maintain its standard of living. With the declining performance of American students in math and science has come increased competition from students from other countries that have strongly supported education in these areas. Many more students earn degrees in the STEM disciplines in developing countries, especially China, than in the United States.

Students’ Success in Mathematics
College students’ success in a course depends on many factors, including their ability and previous knowledge of the subject, the effectiveness of the instruction, and their motivation to work hard enough to succeed. Introductory courses, including many that satisfy general-education requirements, often pose a particular problem for students who are not interested in the subject or fear failure based on their high-school experiences. Students’ low success rates nationally in mathematics courses are particularly damaging because these courses are a gateway to many majors and hence a major stumbling block to students’ achievement.

At the University of Missouri-St. Louis, college algebra presented just such a problem. This course is required for several majors and is the prerequisite for calculus, the key course for students interested in math, science, business, and paraprofessional programs leading to advanced degrees in the health sciences. A fear of math and a lack of interest in algebra caused many students to avoid the course as long as possible, often delaying their progress toward a degree. In 2002, the success rate in college algebra (defined as a grade of C- or above) on our campus was about 55 percent. This problem is not confined our institution: There is substantial literature about college algebra as a barrier for many students, especially those from underserved populations.

Teresa Thiel is a professor of biology and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where Shahla Peterman is a teaching professor in mathematics and Monica Brown is a lecturer in mathematics.

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