Deficiency Mind-Set Bedevils Developmental Math

Colleges should design pathways to meet students’ different preparation levels and goals rather than foist algebra on everyone in the name of numeracy, Ben Weng writes.

November 30, 2022
A close-up image of a person's hand writing an equation in chalk on a blackboard.
(Tero Vesalainen/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Developmental math poses one of the biggest and most immutable challenges in higher education. Interventions to improve student success rates such as corequisite designs, curriculum alignment with high school math and increased support services provide certain levels of improvement but do not address the underlying issue: the student-deficiency mentality common among higher education practitioners.

Students sometimes may be underprepared, but we cannot resolve the issue by refusing to teach them until they make up for all their deficiencies. Unfortunately, that is exactly how developmental math is used in higher education. When the instructors of business or science courses cannot (or would rather not) deal with the students who do not know certain basic math, they send the students to a developmental math class and make it a prerequisite. For college algebra, the underprepared students must take a developmental course called Intermediate Algebra. For those who cannot handle intermediate algebra, there is an even lower course called Introductory Algebra. And the list goes on.

To help more students complete their college math requirements, higher education must stop using the student-deficiency mentality and start adopting a student-growth mentality. Administrators and faculty members should understand the math needs of different academic programs, acknowledge the reality of the students’ levels of math preparation and find ways to teach them from there. Whenever developmental math is necessary, it should be concise and not be used as a tool to force more algebra on students in the name of improving their general numeracy. This applies not only to math departments but to all the other disciplines that use math as a prerequisite.

From 2019 to 2021, Minneapolis Community and Technical College launched three pathways that allow students to complete their college-level math within one year. The math faculty created a Math for Liberal Arts course that requires no developmental math, and faculty members redesigned the Statistics and College Algebra courses to require only one semester of developmental math as a prerequisite. Whereas before students typically needed up to four developmental math courses before enrolling in College Algebra or Statistics—the majority needed two—now most students can either directly enroll in Math for Liberal Arts or take just one developmental course before enrolling in College Algebra or Statistics.

These pathways were received by the college community with enthusiasm. Math for Liberal Arts is a college-level course designed for non-STEM students to appreciate math. It introduces real-world mathematical ideas and applications—topics include math and COVID testing, analyzing racial inequities using math, and debunking misleading statistical graphs in the media—without asking students to do a lot of algebra drills.

The college-level Statistics and College Algebra courses use a backward-designed developmental course to focus only on the essential skills. For the other topics they may lack, students receive reviews or just-in-time remediations embedded in the curriculum of Statistics or College Algebra.

Students do well in these courses. The course success rate of Math for Liberal Arts is constantly above 70 percent. The course success rates of Statistics and College Algebra classes, at about 70 percent for Statistics and 50 to 55 percent for College Algebra, remain on par with their respective rates when they required multiple semesters of developmental math as prerequisites. (EDITOR'S NOTE: This paragraph has been corrected to accurately reflect the course success rate for statistics.) We’ve made minor, routine adjustments to course content as we’ve gone along—for example, we’ve cut probability from College Algebra to align better with national norms, and we added several new learning outcomes to Statistics to improve the course’s transferability to four-year institutions—but for the most part the content of these courses remains the same, with the main difference being the embedding of just-in-time remediation and reviews in the curriculum.

Students welcome these classes, and the enrollment shows it. Math for Liberal Arts became an instant student favorite and accounts for more than 10 percent of all math enrollment as of this fall. Since the introduction of these math pathways, the math enrollment (developmental and college-level combined) has consistently outperformed the overall enrollment trend of the college. During 2021–22, the college even set a record in the numbers of students enrolled in and successfully completing college-level math, surpassing earlier records when the college had a lot more students.

The Minneapolis Math Pathways are the result of a coherent effort by the faculty, academic advisers and the administration. It takes a progressive math department to meet students where they are, redesign the curriculum accordingly and put student success above faculty members’ own ideals of math competency. Specifically, it requires:

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  • the administration to invest in the math department’s curriculum innovation and professional development;
  • the administration to implement guided pathways and direct students to the specific math courses designed for their majors;
  • the faculty and the advisers to abandon the myth that College Algebra is the most versatile and transferable math course and therefore all students should take it;
  • math instructors to re-envision college math education and master the art of teaching math courses that do not place algebra skills front and center.

Students spend most of their time in class. Any effort to improve their academic success should begin with the curriculum and the instruction. The Minneapolis Math Pathways are an example of how higher education’s developmental math problem can be solved with curriculum innovations that nurture student growth instead of holding students back for their deficiencies.

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Ben Weng is dean of STEM at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

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