Embracing the Value of College Math

Too many students walk out of such classes questioning whether they'll ever make it to graduation, argues Aaron Altose.

October 11, 2018

This fall, thousands of students across the country have come to campuses with excitement about being there but also some trepidation that they may not succeed. And when they leave next spring, many will have a particular feeling of accomplishment -- and perhaps a sigh of relief -- that can be exclusively attributed to passing the mathematics courses required for their degree.

I know this because I see it every year: students arrive on the first day of my class unconvinced that they’re even capable of acquiring the skills they need to pass. That deeply concerns me, and I’d banish the statement “I am not a math person” from my students’ (and society’s) collective vocabulary if I could. I reject this notion across the board, and I see it as an essential function of my job to disrupt this destructive mind-set. No one casually tells their peers, “I just can’t read!” Why should quantitative literacy be viewed any differently?

The fact is that too many students have been conditioned to feel resigned to or defeated by the belief they won’t be successful in math. They have struggled in the antiquated college algebra classes that do nothing to convince them of their competency or motivate them to learn the seemingly irrelevant content. Many students walk out of those classes questioning whether they’ll ever even make it to graduation, and it pains me to watch students fall off the path toward their degree because of it.

That’s why I see it as the most important part of my job to lead students away from misconceptions surrounding their competency in mathematics and to help them realize that they can think quantitatively and apply what they learn to their everyday lives. Imparting useful quantitative skills that help my students navigate life in today’s society is also what I find to be the most rewarding aspect of being a professor.

Luckily for me, my institution’s adoption of alternative math pathways has provided the forum and catalyst for such learning experiences to take place.

I think often of a nursing student I had in one of my classes, a woman who devoted countless hours and proverbial blood, sweat and tears toward mastering algebraic procedures. It pained me to watch her struggle for no real benefit, all the while knowing she would never need to use those procedures again. I also knew I had concepts I could teach her that would be really useful to her career and her life, but that they’d have to take a back seat to the existing required curriculum.

The game changer, for me and for her, was my college’s adoption of quantitative reasoning pathways. They’re aligned with real-world approaches to problem solving and designed to help more students grasp the material. The Quantway curriculum, developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, is designed as a way for non-math and science majors to reach college-level quantitative reasoning without getting stuck in noncredit remedial courses or completing a traditional intermediate algebra course.

Put simply, the content I teach in these courses is far more useful in the real world than what a student would see in a traditional math class. We find new ways to challenge students with information that is both rigorous and relevant. A student studying office administration probably won’t be solving systems of linear equations, but they might instead need to understand how percentages and probabilities work. And it’s a much better use of a performing arts major’s time to develop statistical knowledge than to plug away at algebraic equations.

Once we adopted the quantitative reasoning pathway at my college, it was like a domino fell. It prompted crucial conversations among math faculty about what we really wanted students to do in our classes. It made us reconsider how we assess students, how we might need to adjust our teaching styles and how we should think about broadening, deepening and extending the mathematics a student learns in high school.

If our mission is to get students to think quantitatively and embrace problems that don’t have a clear answer, does it make sense to give them a closed-book, closed-note test to work on silently and individually? An essential component of what I’d consider problem-solving skills involves collaborating and using research to answer tough questions and determine where to get help.

That is how students solve problems in my Quantway classes. They communicate closely, working in groups, and form bonds with one another every day. They’re more reflective in their learning and able to articulate their thinking, and they come up with better strategies for how they approach difficult math problems. They’re willing to struggle, and in the process, they develop confidence as much as competence. I no longer see students reluctant to shout out an answer for fear it might be wrong.

One student, Paul, noticed the value of this kind of math class when he faced a challenging assignment a few weeks into the course. He told me, “I was about to send you an email saying I was stumped, but I didn’t -- I pushed through. Thank you for how you teach this class and for helping me think about approaching things in a different way.”

When students do make their way through their developmental and college level Quantway classes, they certainly appreciate the pathway that broke down the barriers to their college success. But they also truly recognize the value of their college math experience. Alice, a student who finished her associate’s degree and would go on to complete a four-year degree and start a career in human resources, told me, “I think applying concepts to real-life situations -- mortgages, car loans, GPA, etc. -- was what finally helped me understand certain concepts. Instead of simply telling me my answers were wrong, you engaged me in the thought process behind my answers. I truly appreciate that.”

Those are the actions and attitudes that help increase student success rates, and we’re seeing such results backed up with data. Cuyahoga Quantway students consistently outperform their peers in traditional remediation: in the 2015-16 academic year, we saw a 75 percent success/pass rate for Quantway students. By comparison, the national one-year success rate in a traditional development math course averages 29 percent. And perhaps most notable, when it comes to the number of students who enroll and stay in a course the entire semester, we frequently enjoy a 100 percent retention rate. It’s not uncommon for every single student who arrives to their Quantway class on the first day to be there at the end of the semester taking the final exam.

Colleges are noting of the impact of these pathways programs on student success rates, and the approach is rapidly growing in popularity. The Carnegie Math Pathways launched at 29 colleges in 2010, a number that has since climbed to more than 80 institutions nationwide. But while I’m encouraged by that growth, it represents just a fraction of the 1,000-plus community colleges in the United States.

Fortunately, Ohio has recently embarked on a push to create more pathways programs. Many math faculty members and administrators in our state agree that college-level quantitative reasoning courses are legitimate and that institutions should offer a college-level math class that doesn’t require intermediate algebra as a prerequisite. They know such pathways aren’t just somewhere you stop off as a detour on the way to calculus but rather routes to preparing students with meaningful learning opportunities relevant to their college, career and life goals.

I want the best for my students, my college, my state and the people who live here. I urge institutions like mine to prioritize adoption of alternative math pathways to give their students the best shot at success and a high quality of life.


Aaron Altose is an assistant professor of mathematics at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland.


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