Diego Fonseca regarded the computer and exhaled. It was his penultimate attempt at the first-year college math placement exam. A pupil who aced honors physics and computer science in high school was relegated to pre-calculus on his first three attempts.
Functions and trigonometry came readily to him, but he struggled with the fundamentals. Algebra was a subject he only studied remotely for a year during his senior year of high school.
“I didn’t have a hands-on, in-person class, and the information wasn’t really there,” said Fonseca, a 19-year-old computer science major from Ashburn, Virginia, who wanted to take calculus. I had a great deal of difficulty with advanced algebra because I knew absolutely nothing.
Fonseca is one of one hundred students who chose to spend a week of summer vacation at George Mason University reviewing math concepts that did not stay during the pandemic. The school in northern Virginia initiated arithmetic Boot Camp in response to an alarming number of incoming students with arithmetic skill disparities.
COVID’s Academic Fallout: Universities Confront Math Skill Gaps Among Incoming Students
As academic setbacks caused by the pandemic accompany students to campus, institutions of higher education across the nation face the same problem. At numerous colleges and universities, engineering and biology specialists struggle with fractions and exponents. Even if they receive credit for the lower-level courses, more students are starting a semester or more behind in their majors after being placed in pre-college math.
The disruptions caused by the pandemic, which had a disproportionate effect on arithmetic, are primarily to blame, according to universities. Reading scores on the national test known as the NAEP plummeted, but math scores plummeted even more, by margins not seen for decades. According to additional investigations, recovery has been sluggish.
Fewer students at George Mason are enrolling in calculus, the first college-level course for some disciplines, and more are failing. Students who fall behind frequently disengage, leaving class.
The dean of the mathematics department at George Mason University, Maria Emelianenko, described this issue as “huge.” “We’re talking about pre-calculus and calculus classes at the college level, and students can’t even add half and a third.”
Last year, as Jessica Babcock, a math professor at Temple University, graded exams for her intermediate algebra class, the lowest option for STEM majors, the magnitude of the problem struck home. The softball exam at the beginning of the autumn semester required students to subtract eight from negative six.
“I graded a large number of papers consecutively. “No two papers had the same answer, and none were correct,” she explained. It was a startling realization that this is significant and profound.
Prior to the pandemic, approximately 800 students per semester were enrolled in this class, which corresponds to ninth-grade math. It increased to nearly 1,400 by 2021.
“It’s not just that they’re unprepared, they’re almost damaged,” said Brian Rider, chair of mathematics at Temple. I dislike using this term, but they are so far behind.
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Challenges in Math Education: Factors Contributing to a Decline in Learning
According to researchers, math education has declined for a variety of reasons. Math, an intensively hands-on subject, was difficult to adapt to virtual classrooms. As students moved on to subjects such as geometry or trigonometry, algebra-related deficiencies could go undetected for a year or more. And at home, parents are more comfortable assisting with literacy than with arithmetic.
As with other learning delays, math problems are most prevalent among Black, Latino, low-income, and other vulnerable pupils, according to Katharine Strunk, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education and leader of a Michigan study on learning delays.
“These are the students most affected by the pandemic, and they are the ones who will endure the longer-term effects,” she said. They will not have the same accessibility.
Universities claim there is no fast remedy. Many are implementing placement exams with a deeper focus on arithmetic skills in an effort to identify deficiencies earlier. Some are adding summer programs similar to George Mason’s, which helped participants improve their average placement test scores by 59%.
In lieu of traditional remedial classes, which some research suggests are ineffective, an increasing number of schools are offering “corequisite” classes that help students strengthen their foundational skills while simultaneously enrolling in advanced courses such as calculus.
Penn State addressed the issue by increasing peer tutoring. According to Tracy Langkilde, dean of Penn State’s College of Science, professors indicate that students who partake in the program earn 20% higher exam scores.
What is becoming a persistent issue at some colleges is an isolated incident at others. At Iowa State University, which is renowned for its engineering program, incoming students in 2020 were significantly more likely to be assigned in lower-level math courses, resulting in lower grades. That group of students has had continued trouble, but numbers improved for the following year’s class, said Eric Weber, math department chair.
There has been no rebound at Temple. Professors experimented with minor adjustments, such as expanded office hours, a new tutoring center, and lessons that emphasized the essentials.
However, students did not seek assistance, and they continued to receive Ds and Fs. Babcock is redesigning the algebra course this year. Instead of a traditional lecture, it’ll focus on active learning, an approach that demands more participation and expands students’ role in the learning process. Class will be more of a group discussion, with lots of problems worked in-class.
“We really want students to feel like they’re a part of their learning,” Babcock explained. We cannot alter their initial preparation, but we can make every effort to meet their needs.
George Mason also is emphasizing active learning. Its new placement exam helps students identify knowledge deficits and replace them before retaking the exam up to four times. During the school year, math-challenged students can transfer to slower-paced courses that span two terms rather than one.
Fonseca felt he was making up distance at math camp. He diligently studied, completing practice issues on the train to camp. But when he got to the placement test’s algebra portion, he made the same mistakes. His final score again placed him in pre-calculus.
The setback would have meant spending at least one extra semester catching up on math at George Mason. In the end, Fonseca decided to start at Northern Virginia Community College. After two years, he plans to transfer to one of Virginia’s public four-year universities.
A couple weeks after camp, Fonseca again found himself taking a placement test, this time for the community college.
“I managed to use the knowledge of the boot camp, and I got into calculus,” he said. “I didn’t have any expectation that I’d do that.”