How to Fix America’s Dire College Math Problem

Millions of students show up at college every year unable to do basic math. One professor has a novel solution.

college math

America's college students are woefully unprepared for basic math classes. One Pennsylvania professor has a new idea for fixing the problem. (Photo: Getty Images)

Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Math professor Barbara Lontz has created what may be the perfect college course for students lacking basic arithmetic knowledge.

Lontz’s “Concept of Numbers” is a novel approach to basic arithmetic for the millions of college students who must take remedial math courses each year.

More than 50 percent of students entering two-year colleges, and 20 percent of those at four-year schools, are placed in at least one remedial course, according to a 2012 study by Complete College America.

“It’s a nationwide problem,” Lontz, a teacher at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, told TakePart.

And one that needs to be solved if the United States is going to excel in STEM classes that President Obama has deemed critical in the 21st century.

Lontz says that most community colleges place 40 to 85 percent of their newly enrolled students in one or more developmental math classes.

The reasons are myriad.

Students may not have had the family support needed to learn at home. Another major problem facing American students is the widespread use of calculators, which does nothing to help students learn basic math like multiplication and division.  

Lontz also said that the pressure on teachers to teach to the test does not give them enough time or latitude to help students understand why they are even working on math problems.

“Unless students are mathematically inclined or good at memorizing, they learn the skill for the moment,” she said. “When they come to us, the skills aren’t there.”

With those issues in mind, Lontz created her course in 2008 when her college, located in suburban Philadelphia, received an “Achieving The Dream” grant.

While she was creating her class, Lontz examined many arithmetic books. She found that math was always taught, it appeared, by topics. Students learned whole numbers first, then fractions, decimals, percents and so on. She realized that this really didn’t make much sense. If students couldn’t master math using this way in elementary and high school, why would they be able to learn in college? They wouldn’t, she surmised.

Instead, she decided to teach math by combining numbers with math problems instead of segregating them into topics. She starts the class out by giving students a lesson in the history of numbers, with stories going back to the Babylonians and Mayans—something students seldom learn in math classes. That way, she says, students feel like they are learning something new immediately.

Then, instead of memorizing esoteric rules and following them with complicated exercises, students start with a problem, solve it as a group and learn the applicable algorithms. That way no one is left feeling alone and stupid.

“They take ownership of them and remember them more,” she said.

She said when students enter the class, which is not for credit, they are given a confidence assessment test on the first day of class. She said they are filled with fear and anxiety, and they don’t score very high on the test. But by the end of the course, their confidence level increases from 25 to 55 percent on their exit confidence assessment.

Lontz says that students succeed at 20 percentage points higher than those enrolled in courses that utilize a conventional approach to math. Now she has her own textbook, Concepts of Numbers, and her idea is spreading to other college campuses. So far, 10 other institutions have adopted her course with more in the queue, including a state prison.

She visits every institution that plans to use the course because she doesn’t simply want to give someone a textbook.

“I feel more comfortable when I give some training,” she said. “Piloting a new course isn’t as easy as you think it may be. Some schools have gotten as far as planning a training for faculty, but said we’ll keep the old way. But that doesn’t stop me from trying.”

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