Students are not doing as well in college mathematics as they used to, and there are many theories as to why that is the case. Some of the culprits are

1. Bad teaching. I don’t think this is the case, I think teaching has improved, although I discussed one reason there may have been better teachers in the past in a previous post. Much has been learned about teaching, and the improvements are visible in the classroom.

2. More students attending college. Only the best and brightest went to college before, now almost everyone goes. Students with money went before, and that says more about their parents then about them. But it is true that many more people go to college than ever before.

3. Students having a sense of entitlement, and a poor work ethic. I see that in many students, and I think this has to be part of the problem.

4. A continual culture of giving students another chance. This relates to the previous reason. This means students are not motivated to take advantage of their first chance and poor students are not flunked out. When looking at overall pass rates for a course, some students are counted three times for flunking.

5. A society with too many distractions, particularly electronic ones, make it so students cannot concentrate. Students are perfectly capable of concentrating on their electronic gadgets, meaning they haven’t lost the ability to concentrate, although they may not be able to translate that to concentrating on something they don’t like.

6. Mathematics is just too hard and some people are not good in it. Math isn’t harder than it used to be. In addition, most people without skill in mathematics can do pretty well, if they work hard enough at it.

There may be other explanations, but too often I read about people who see the symptom and believe they know the cure. I am not sure we can find a cure if we do not know the cause. I don’t claim to know the cause, but I doubt the answer is a simple one.

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Tags: Education, math

This entry was posted on January 5, 2011 at 10:35 am and is filed under Teaching. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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January 8, 2011 at 11:45 am |

Students are doing worse in college math in what way? According to this article, high school SAT scores are up, as well as the proportion of high school students taking calculus has also increased (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/31/education/31sat.html). This is related to your second point, but if you meant that students who take a given course (like calculus) in college are doing worse than the students who used to take calculus in college, it might be in part because the better students have already taken it.

January 8, 2011 at 3:56 pm |

You may be right about the students who’ve already had calculus. They are not seen by the community college teacher of an Algebra class. On the whole, community colleges do not get the best students. But point #4 is also relevant, because the additional chances mean that poor students bring down class averages not once but up to three times.

I should point out that the article you referenced also said, “But SAT and ACT scores show that college readiness skills, as measured by these indicators, have not improved significantly.”