Two stone cutters were asked what they were doing. One said that he was cutting stones into blocks. The other said he was a member of a team building a cathedral.
The Need to Refocus College Algebra
The pragmatic reason students take College Algebra is to fulfill a college or state requirement. Most of these students will confront a traditional College Algebra course based on a 1950’s curriculum developed to prepare students to take Calculus, a course that over 90% of them will never enter.Typically students view the content of traditional College Algebra as irrelevant. and the course itself as a tedious and incomprehensible barrier to obtaining a college education. Currently this College Algebra barrier is terminating the college graduation ambition of approximately half a million students per semester.
The use of technology, in the form of graphing calculators, is slowly penetrating traditional College Algebra courses. However, it has not materially changed the courses even though the use of technology can trivialize the majority of the exercises found in these courses.
The outdated curriculum, lack of goals to address student needs, student and faculty dissatisfaction, and unacceptably high “F or D or withdraw” (FDW) rates, support the claim that traditional College Algebra is not working. In the words of a Dean of Science and Mathematics, at the Conference to Improve College Algebra held at the U.S. Military Academy, February, 2002,
Traditional College Algebra is a boring, archaic, torturous course that does not help students solve problems or become better citizens. It turns off students and discourages them from seeking more mathematics learning.
A new approach to College Algebra
Rather than preparing students for Calculus, today’s reality is that College Algebra is, currently, the terminal mathematics course for most students. If, rather than fixate on pre-calculus, College Algebra could refocus on the practical, quantitative needs of today’s students … in society … in the workplace … and in other disciplines …. then College Algebra could not only help reverse today’s unacceptably high rate of college failure but it could also give students a more positive attitude toward mathematics and a greater ability to use mathematics in their personal and professional lives.
While many factors contribute to the current high FDW rate (high school preparation, placement, content, attitude, pace, pedagogy, etc.), several improved College Algebra programs have already succeeded in lowering FDW rates by 15 to 25 percentage points while reversing the negative student attitudes. Students in these programs were drawn from the same pool and were subject to the same placement as students in the traditional sections. The difference was in the content and the pedagogical focus.
Improved college algebra courses better serve the approximately 90% of students who do not enter into math-intensive programs. They also provide a more effective preparation for those who do go on to Calculus I. More importantly, improved College Algebra courses have demonstrated in a variety of schools ways in which College Algebra can be transformed from extracting an unacceptable cost to providing a valuable asset.
Contemporary College Algebra
To meet the needs of today’s students, College Algebra needs to be transformed by refocusing both the content and pedagogy in order to develop competent and confident problem-solvers.
Content needs to be real-world problem-based, to emphasize problem solving in the modeling sense and to include elementary data analysis.
Pedagogy needs to be student-centered, involving development of communication skills, appropriate use of technology and small group activities. Projects should be designed to create student confidence and positive experiences.
The gateway function of college algebra means that transformed or improved courses can provide a basis on which to develop a college-wide quantitative literacy program.
The interdisciplinary collaboration that is important to the development and ongoing assessment of an improved college algebra course provides opportunities to link problem solving to the quantitative needs of other disciplines.
In this sense, these disciplines provide laboratory experiences for college algebra students.