Preparing Students for College Math

October 2013

A major hurdle to postsecondary success is students’ lack of academic preparedness for college-level math. A number of studies of incoming community and four-year college students show that referral rates for developmental (or remedial) math far outpace those for developmental English. Education Northwest researcher Michelle Hodara has examined the problem and investigated three types of interventions and reforms to address under-preparedness and to foster college math success.

In Improving Students' College Math Readiness: A Review of the Evidence, Hodara points out that there are high stakes involved in being underprepared for and/or unsuccessful in college math.

Beyond posing an obstacle to college math success, academic under-preparedness in math can have consequences for students’ probability of completing college; interest and success in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields; labor market opportunities; and lifetime earnings.

The study explains that improving college math preparation is a critical yet complex endeavor, which requires action at both the secondary and postsecondary levels. The report focuses on strategies that postsecondary institutions currently employ such as intervening before students start college with early assessment programs, bridges, boot camps, and brush-ups; reforming developmental math on college campuses; and improving math instruction in developmental and college math classrooms. For each strategy, the report first describes typical interventions and reforms and provides some idea of the extent of their implementation across the country. Then, the report offers a summary of the evidence on the effectiveness of the interventions and reforms. A concluding section summarizes the evidence and lessons learned.

An overall lesson of this review is that while many of the reforms and interventions aimed at improving students’ math readiness appear promising, they may need to be more connected and comprehensive to have an enduring impact on students’ educational outcomes. For example, interventions that take place over the summer should be one small component of a larger support framework for high school students as they transition from high school to college; developmental math reforms should also attend to students’ non-academic needs; and effective math pedagogy should be integrated into all interventions intended to improve students’ college math readiness. Hodara writes, “These recommendations broaden the reach and scope of math interventions, requiring partnerships between high schools and colleges and the collaboration of faculty and staff from different departments and offices within the same college. While demanding greater effort, collaborative efforts to improve students’ college math readiness may have a significant and lasting impact on students’ math learning and overall college success.”

Hodara’s full report can be downloaded at the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment website.