To the Editor:
The recent essay by Steve Newman, “Replacing Remedial Courses? Be Careful” (The Chronicle, February 18), advocates for remedial mathematics courses for those students deemed “underprepared” for college-level mathematics over the increasingly popular co-requisite model being introduced in many U.S. colleges and universities. He warns that replacing “challenging” remedial courses with co-requisite courses will result in lowered academic standards, as well as students having weak foundational knowledge for subsequent courses in STEM disciplines and other fields.
We share his concern about the importance of foundational knowledge. However, we reject his assertions about the inevitable consequences of new approaches to placement and remediation in postsecondary mathematics. In fact, the evidence so far suggests that the opposite is true.
A recent workshop at the National Academies (Increasing Student Success in Developmental Mathematics) highlighted a variety of initiatives that have already demonstrated substantial improvements in succeeding in initial mathematics courses and continuing through subsequent courses. Some of these involve more holistic approaches to placement, some involve the use of co-requisite courses and other supports, and still others are using innovative curricula that replace traditional pre-algebra and algebra courses while also providing a basis for subsequent quantitative work. Some of the data on these programs is already available on the website noted above, and a full report on the workshop is anticipated sometime in fall 2019.
As students begin to experience the power of reasoning mathematically, they are more likely to persist and continue in STEM fields. Perhaps just as important, students who develop mathematical competency are likely to make better decisions across a variety of domains, as has been documented by Ellen Peters and her colleagues in the Decision Sciences Collaborative at Ohio State.
Our perspective is grounded in research, and aligns with the general goals and practices articulated in the MAA Instructional Practices Guide, as well as the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. As the authors of the Instructional Practices Guide write, “We owe it to our discipline, to ourselves, and to society to disseminate mathematical knowledge in ways that increase individuals’ access to the opportunities that come with mathematical understanding.”
Given the documented failure of remedial courses to attract students to mathematics or achieve noticeable gains in their learning of foundational ideas, we believe it is time to change the conversation about remediation in mathematics. We must focus on devising and studying interventions to support the development of students’ mathematical thinking and understandings. In our own work we have made progress toward this goal that began with our characterizing learning of foundational knowledge.
We believe a way forward in improving mathematical learning at all levels will require a fundamental shift in the U.S. cultural practice of demonstrating methods for working specific problem types to supporting students in learning to think mathematically. It is time to make student thinking central to students’ mathematical experiences!
Professor, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences
Arizona State University
J. Michael Pearson
Mathematical Association of America