Letter to Editor: College algebra not a ‘weed-out’ class

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To the editor:

The column, “Classes meant to ‘weed-out’ STEM students unfair to non-majors,” badly mischaracterizes College Algebra. College Algebra is not a “weed-out” course. The vast majority of the students are not STEM majors, and there are just a handful of math majors. The goal of the class is not “to weed out students from the major for which it is required.” The goal is to give students the algebraic tools they need to be successful in whatever field they are studying.

For example, journalism students need to be able to handle quantitative arguments when looking at budgets and economic growth, statistical patterns of crime, population growth and immigration, or even (perhaps especially) sportswriting. We do not have a target for the number of students to pass or fail, and we would be thrilled to have every student demonstrate adequate skills to pass the course.

Since the establishment of the Center for Quantitative Education and the hiring of a permanent College Algebra Coordinator six years ago, we have made many adjustments to the course in order to support student success. We now offer two versions of Math 100, Studio and Traditional, so students can choose from different approaches to find the one best for them.

Neither version is a “weed-out” course; since both courses are Math 100, both satisfy the same requirements for every major. We have online assignments that students can repeat multiple times with no penalty. We want to give every student every opportunity to be successful, not just select the ones who catch on quickly.

We have added clickers and other techniques to make for active lectures, which have been shown to improve student success. And these techniques have worked, without compromising on academic standards. Last semester over half the students got an A or B and fewer than one in seven failed.

Mathematics faculty are continually involved in efforts to improve student learning in Math 100. One issue we have discovered in our work is that student attitudes toward learning mathematics play a significant role in their success in College Algebra (see R. Manspeaker’s Ph.D. dissertation, “Using data mining to differentiate instruction in college algebra,” for example).

In view of this, suggesting that College Algebra is designed to fail students not only does a disservice to the faculty who are involved in continuously improving the class, it also sets up students to not reach their potential. Students who “feel defeated before the class even begins” are certainly less likely to succeed. Spreading false rumors about course goals helps no one.

Signed,
Andrew Bennett
Director, Center for Quantitative Education
Rekha Natarajan
College Algebra Coordinator

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