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Changing the Role of College Calculus as a Gatekeeper to STEM

College calculus courses have long been viewed as weed-out courses. Unfortunately, that reputation is all too accurate, as we found in research for Just Equation’s latest report. At the same time, we uncovered numerous promising strategies for ensuring calculus instruction can nurture a more diverse generation of math and science talent in California and beyond.

Developed in partnership with the California Education Learning Lab, Charting a New Course: Investigating Barriers on the Calculus Pathway to STEM confirms that traditional approaches to calculus contribute to the large numbers of students—disproportionately women and minoritized students—in California and nationally who end up being diverted from their goal of earning a degree in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Amid the growing demand for STEM skills and the needs of a racially diverse population, barriers associated with calculus engender a significant loss of potential not only to individual students, but to the STEM professions and society writ large. 

Charting a New Course, written by Melodie Baker, Francesca Henderson, and myself,  highlights numerous opportunities for postsecondary institutions to tackle these barriers. Many of these require addressing exclusionary assumptions and practices that ration access to high-quality instruction and advanced courses based on stereotypes about who can and cannot do math. These patterns begin during students’ K–12 experiences, where students can face differential access to high-quality advanced math courses due to practices such as tracking. But students’ prior experiences don’t need to dictate their STEM destinies. The report points to promising approaches to demonstrate that college math courses needn’t be a detour out of STEM for so many students. 

Placement and the pathway to calculus. How entering college students are placed in mathematics has a significant effect on their subsequent academic trajectories. Math placement tests used by colleges have limited validity. Plus, taking remedial math courses doesn’t enhance students’ chances of succeeding in their educational journeys, compared to similarly prepared students who don’t take remedial math. Many students who pass the prerequisite remedial courses still don’t complete the sequence. Research highlighted in Charting a New Course notes similar patterns for students who are placed into precalculus, underscoring the need for greater attention to calculus placement practices. Strategies to consider include: 

  • Reducing reliance on traditional placement tests; this includes offering students opportunities to review and retest to avoid having to take lower-level math classes. 
  • Allowing students to enroll in Calculus I or other advanced math classes, while providing targeted instructional support or corequisite courses for those with less prior preparation. 
  • Modifying the curriculum to offer different versions of calculus: one for students with high school calculus experience and one for those without. 

Redesigning course content and on-ramps to STEM. Though required by a wide range of majors, traditional calculus courses are designed primarily for engineering and physical science majors, who represent only about a third of calculus enrollment. Other STEM disciplines increasingly want students to have math preparation more tied to problem-solving in their disciplines—for example, statistics and modeling for biology majors and grounding in discrete math and linear algebra for computer science majors. Life science faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles developed a new two-course series called Mathematics for Life Scientists that they say serves to “bridge … the gap between the way math is taught and the way it is applied in STEM fields.” Students in the course outperformed students who took traditional calculus in subsequent chemistry and physics courses. 

Even within engineering, a field that does rely on traditional calculus, repositioning the course yields considerable benefits. In a project funded by the National Science Foundation, Wright State University in Ohio developed a new math course emphasizing the math topics engineering majors need in their first two years, which allowed students to tackle the calculus sequence later in college. The approach has doubled graduation rates for engineering students, with students with less math preparation and members of historically underrepresented groups benefiting the most. At least 15 other universities—including Cal State Long Beach, the University of San Diego, and California Baptist University—have replicated the model.

Improving Classroom Instruction and Support. Impersonal, lecture-based instruction and large class sizes remain the norm for many calculus classes, though research shows that students often experience such classes as dull and isolating. The discouraging effects are particularly pronounced for students contending with stereotypes about their math abilities, including females but especially Black and Latinx students. Colleges are supporting more positive math experiences in several ways: 

  • Fostering more interactive classrooms, in which students have opportunities to work in groups and engage in higher-level thinking about math concepts. 
  • Ensuring that faculty demonstrate an interest in students and a belief in their learning. 
  • Incorporating diverse social and cultural contexts into instruction in ways that have relevance to students’ lives. 
  • Using student networks and peer collaboration approaches, such as the Emerging Scholars workshops first popularized by mathematician Uri Treisman (now at the University of Texas at Austin) when he was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. 
  • Requiring students to attend “recitation” sessions or labs in addition to lectures, so they can ask questions and review concepts in a smaller class setting. 
  • Increasing instructor diversity. In fact, having just one Black STEM instructor has been shown to eliminate the persistence gap between Black and white students in STEM. 

Deepening Professional Learning. Professional development for math faculty and graduate student instructors, who commonly teach lower-level math courses, is also key, particularly to address misconceptions. One effective method to improve practices is for faculty to share ownership of courses and meet regularly to align their practices. In addition to improving teaching quality, this approach ensures greater fairness by limiting variation in course content, grading, and assessments. At California State University, East Bay, this approach was associated with an increase in the proportion of calculus students earning a C or better from 64 percent to 83 percent and an elimination in racial gaps in success rates. A related practice is analyzing student outcomes data to inform improvement efforts, build buy-in for reforms, and strengthen adoption of effective practices. Another is the use of professional development strategies to address how faculty implicit bias can play out in the classroom and influence students’ sense of belonging.  

In addition to these approaches to mitigating the barriers students face while attempting calculus, Charting a New Course also points to the need for further research to understand the effectiveness of these and other strategies. What stands out is that successful efforts shift the focus from measuring students’ readiness to designing calculus experiences that better serve students, so that prior math preparation doesn’t dictate their destinies. 

The California Education Learning Lab is releasing Charting a New Course in conjunction with a request for proposals, Seeding Strategies to Close the Calculus Equity Gap, which will award 25 or more grants of up to $100,000 for STEM departments at California public higher education institutions to address equity gaps in calculus success. 

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