From Data to Dialogue: Using Findings from a National Study of Precalculus and Calculus to Spark Conversations in Two-Year Colleges

by Helen Burn / May 31, 2017

Two-year college mathematics faculty tend to enjoy teaching at the precalculus and calculus levels and want to improve student outcomes in these courses. We strive to have many more students take these courses because they serve as the gateway to STEM fields for our next generation of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. Dialogues with our colleagues around improving these courses are constrained by concerns that making changes might have a negative impact on course transferability. One way to advance the dialogue is to learn from our mathematics colleagues at transfer institutions through data collected in the project Progress through Calculus  (NSF DUE #1430540).

What do the data results say?

First, four-year colleges and universities are helping students by offering alternatives to traditional precalculus and calculus courses (Voigt, Apkarian, & Rasmussen, 2017). According to a national survey completed by 223 math department chairs (68%) in US colleges and universities that offer graduate programs in mathematics, 30% of the institutions offered students the option of taking two or more courses (typically college algebra and trigonometry) in lieu of the traditional precalculus course.  At the calculus level, there was noticeably less in the way of course options. The national survey found that 9% (21 institutions) offered “stretched-out” calculus, where the standard one-term course is stretched over two terms, and only 3% (7 institutions) offered  a stretched-out calculus I and II option where this two-term sequence is taught over three terms. Other course variations included “calculus infused with precalculus” (11 institutions, 5%) and “co-calculus” (10 institutions, 4%). In the latter, students co-enroll in a calculus course and a second course that includes topics from precalculus or calculus. We see, then, that mathematics faculty in these institutions recognize the problem and are developing different pathways through precalculus and calculus as a way to help more students reach their goals.

Second, data collected during a convening of mathematics faculty in the summer of 2016 show that mathematics faculty are highly committed to improving instructional methods in precalculus and calculus but have difficulties choosing a different approach to teaching or knowing where to start (Apkarian, Kirin, Gehrtz, & Vroom, 2017). For example, mathematics faculty were interested in active learning, but they needed to better understand how exactly this instructional method impacts student learning and what resources are required to bring this practice to scale when multiple sections of a course are offered. Related to the latter, the idea of robust course coordination emerged as a strategy for implementing and sustaining change by promoting instructor collaboration.

Third, data collected during the convening indicate that, like us, our math colleagues in four-year institutions recognize the economic and moral imperative of improving outcomes for underserved students. However, while many campuses represented at the convening had good student support systems in place, these were not well-integrated into mathematics programs. The researchers also identified the need for faculty professional development in areas like stereotype threat and inclusive teaching.

What does this mean for two-year college mathematics faculty?

We encourage you to ponder the following questions and spark a dialogue!  

  1. What course options at the precalculus or calculus level have you tried?  What is working and what is not working?
  2. What evidence-based instructional methods are your colleagues interested in but need to learn more about?
  3. What are the main student support structures in place on your campus, and how are they integrated into the mathematics program?  If these supports are not well-integrated, how might you address this better?  
  4. What are your experiences with course coordination at the precalculus or calculus level? What can you share in terms of the benefits or limitations of course coordination?

Looking forward to hearing from all of you!