• Confessions of a Community College Dean

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When Students Put Off Taking Math

Questions for my wise and worldly readers.

February 14, 2020


I don’t have a good sense of the “right” answer for this one, but I’m hopeful that some of my wise and worldly readers do.


This year’s experiment in very, very low cutoff scores for developmental math was partly accidental.  But to the extent that there was a theory behind it, the theory was that allowing students who are likely to pass a college-level class to go directly into it would save them time and money, and increase the chances of eventual graduation.


It’s too early to know about graduation, but we’ve seen an effect that may cancel out any gains, and that none of us really anticipated.  Instead of skipping developmental math to go directly into a 100-level class, which is the optimal outcome, a disheartening percentage of students are simply skipping math altogether in the first year.  


The last time I saw an effect as large as this was at DeVry.  There, it made even less sense; all of the majors were technical, and all required some facility with math.  Every semester brought a new crop of students who were _almost_ ready to graduate, except for all the math classes they had put off.  With rare exceptions, those ended badly.


Here the effect may be less drastic, because some of the majors are non-technical; in many cases, one math class might be all they need.  But I’m still concerned. As the STEM Dean here likes to say, math is a language; if you don’t use it, you lose it. Letting too much time pass without math makes it that much harder when you pick it up again.  Speaking just for myself, I can attest that although I passed calculus back in the 80’s, it’s well and truly gone now. The same is true for my college Russian, so the comparison checks out.


We know that students who jump right into math classes do better in them than those who don’t. (To me, that’s the slam-dunk argument for requiring four years of math in high school.)  But there’s an element of self-selection, too: the students who are more confident of their math skills are less likely to put it off. So it’s hard to disentangle how much of the lower performance of the procrastinators is due to dusty skills, as opposed to having been weaker and/or less confident in the first place.


So, some questions for my wise and worldly readers:


Does math procrastination actually reduce student performance by itself?  If so, is the effect large enough to be worth addressing?


Other than flat-out requirements, has anyone seen an effective way to reduce math procrastination?



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