Wayne State University has suspended its requirement that all students take a mathematics course, striking at the heart of a debate over whether math should be a mandatory part of general education. Administrators say they will allow individual departments to develop their own math requirements, while higher education experts and mathematicians hope the public university in Detroit will maintain a broad commitment to quantitative reasoning.
The general-education math requirement will be suspended until fall 2018, said Monica Brockmeyer, associate provost for student success at Wayne State. At that point, the university will likely adopt an entirely new general-education program, she said.
Under the general-education math requirement, students previously had to complete Math 1000 with a grade of C or above. They could also satisfy the requirement by using comparable transfer credits or obtaining a certain score on the math portion of a standardized test such as the SAT.
Administrators decided to suspend the general-education math requirement because it echoed the demands of many high school math requirements, Brockmeyer said. “The level of mathematics preparedness of students coming to Wayne State has been rising in recent years,” she said. “So for more incoming students, our previous math requirement restated requirements that they had had in high school.”
The decision also stemmed from recognition that there is no one-size-fits-all math curriculum, Brockmeyer said. “As we committed to looking what students needed from a high-quality, 21st-century education, we realized that students needed a lot more choice beyond the traditional algebra course,” she said.
The change will affect a small portion of the student body, Brockmeyer said. Students in majors that are already heavy on math -- such as accounting, chemistry and engineering -- will likely see no changes to their curriculum, she said. But students in the fine arts, humanities and social sciences may gain more flexibility in how to study math.
The developments at Wayne State point toward a larger, ongoing conversation on college campuses about integrating general-education requirements with individual majors, said Debra Humphreys, senior vice president for academic planning and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. A 2015 survey by the AAC&U found that 58 percent of administrators thought their institution’s general-education program was well integrated with students’ major requirements, with 21 percent reporting that it was very well integrated and 37 percent reporting that it was fairly well integrated.
As Wayne State moves forward with the suspension of its general-education math requirement -- and its general-education redesign overall -- it should ensure that all students are graduating with quantitative-reasoning skills, Humphreys said. Quantitative-reasoning skills are vital for college graduates in terms of securing employment and becoming an engaged citizen, she said.
“There’s practically no career path today that doesn’t entail some degree of understanding data and being able to quantitatively reason,” Humphreys said. Even simple tasks such as reading a newspaper article on economic policy or managing personal finances require a grasp of quantitative reasoning, she said.
Michael Pearson, executive director of the Mathematical Association of America, echoed this sentiment. "Strong quantitative skills are increasingly important in our data-driven world, both for careers and informing decisions ranging the spectrum from health care to retirement planning," he wrote in a statement to Inside Higher Ed.
The survey by the AAC&U found that 94 percent of colleges and universities made quantitative reasoning an intended learning outcome for all students in 2015. In comparison, 99 percent of institutions did so for writing skills, and 82 percent did so for oral communication skills.
Brockmeyer said the suspension of the general-education math requirement does not reflect a shift away from emphasizing quantitative reasoning. She stressed the fact that Wayne State will still “highly encourage” students to enroll in math courses.
"Wayne State University continues to endorse learning in mathematics for all students," the university wrote in an email to students announcing the change. "If you wish to strengthen your mathematics knowledge and skills, you are encouraged to consider enrolling in mathematics courses. MAT 1000, while no longer required for general education, addresses many important applications of mathematics to modern life."
Wayne State will also seek to promote quantitative reasoning through the creation of required "quantitative-experience" courses, Brockmeyer said. The General Education Reform Committee called for the creation of these courses in its Proposal for a Revised General Education Curriculum, which it released May 4 and will gather faculty feedback on.
The class Math 1000: Math in Today’s World would count as a quantitative-experience course, Brockmeyer said. But so would other courses offered by a range of departments, including those in the humanities, she said. For example, a social science course on inequality in urban areas could include a mathematical component by asking students to gather data and calculate trends over time.
The quantitative-experience courses will be developed within departments and approved by an oversight body composed of representative faculty members, Brockmeyer said. The math department will play a consulting role by assisting other departments with developing these courses, she said.
"If we're called upon to do that, we're happy to play that role," said Daniel Frohardt, chair of the math department at Wayne State. "In recent years, the focus has been on hiring professors who have knowledge of statistics and how to apply it to other fields. Not all people would be appropriate to consult. But certainly the statistically knowledgeable people would be."
Humphreys said she approves of the intent behind the creation of the quantitative-experience courses. “I applaud them for making sure that even students majoring in the humanities will get those skills,” she said. “It will be interesting to see how they design curricular opportunities for those students.”
But T. Christine Stevens, associate executive director of meetings and professional services at the American Mathematical Society, said she worries that the math department will not play a central enough role in the development of the quantitative-experience courses. “I’m uneasy that the quantitative-experience courses are going to be offered by other departments,” Stevens said. “As a mathematician, I would ask what tools they would use to look at the data. Would students learn anything from the analysis of the data? If so, who would be teaching them about it?”
Stevens’s concerns do not stop there. She also worries that Wayne State is getting ahead of itself by suspending its general-education math requirement before redesigning general education overall in fall 2018. “Before Wayne State even finishes its reconsideration of general education, it’s rushing to eliminate the math requirement,” she said. “It’s been my experience that requirements get revised as a package.”
But Brockmeyer said she believes it was necessary to suspend the general-education math requirement now rather than waiting until fall 2018. “Our analysis and our assessment of the situation really showed us that we were not currently serving students as well as we would like to,” she said. “So it was out of a commitment to move forward and provide programs that were most appropriate for students.”
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