Students Who Lack Math Skills

They just don’t add up … or do they?

( Updated March 1, 2010, with a 7th recommendation )

Faculty members at two-year colleges and at universities confront a similar situation each and every term. They have students in their classes who lack the prerequisite knowledge or skills required to be successful. In this post, I am going to focus on students who lack basic math skills. (Scroll rapidly down to the bottom of this post if you want to get to my recommendations quickly.

Many first-year General Education Science courses and many first-year Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses are void of mathematics prerequisites. At my college, the majority of these courses lack any prerequisite coursework at all. However, students should not assume that they need no prerequisite knowledge, particularly in math. This term, the spring of 2010, has brought a number of these situations to my attention. There was a returning adult student who didn’t know that our beginning electronics course required mathematical computations. In another case, the instructor in a CTE course indicated that one of his students didn’t know how to read a ruler.

Why does this occur? We design our courses under the assumption that college students have graduated from high school or have received their GED. This being the case, they all received a passing grade in basic algebra and intermediate algebra. If they carry that knowledge into any of the 100-level science or CTE courses at my college, they will be in excellent shape. However, there are students in these classes who lack that level of knowledge. At community colleges like mine, there are situations whereby a student can enroll without taking a mathematics placement examination. There are also situations whereby a student who places into a developmental math course, need not take that course before enrolling in non-mathematics 100-level courses. There are sound reasons for this, ones I will not explain in the posting.

By the way, this is one aspect of what I call the Community College Challenge. Let me expand on that. Yale University has a prerequisite for their Astronomy 110, Planets and Stars, that reads, “No prerequisite other than a working knowledge of elementary algebra.” The difference between the Yale’s of the world and most two-year colleges is that Yale students must qualify for acceptance. Conversely, most two-year colleges are open enrollment institutions. All applicants are accepted no matter what level of developmental (we used to call this remedial) help they need.

My Recommendations

So, what can you, as an adjunct instructor, do to address this issue? I have several actions you can take, all which are best executed during your very first class period. The first three are aimed at helping your students understand what they are in for so they can make an informed decision about staying in your course. The second three are relating to helping and encouraging your students.

  1. Refer your students to sections of their text that illustrate problems they will be required to solve using basic math skills.
  2. Provide your students with a handout that gives sample problems of the type you will assign.
  3. Explain to your students that the lack of prerequisite coursework does not mean that that there is no prerequisite knowledge required, particularly in math. (See my commentary above if you skipped down to this list.)
  4. Make your students aware of assistance that is available at your college. At my college we run a series of basic mathematics workshops throughout the term. We also offer free, walk-in tutoring.
  5. In order not to scare potentially successful students into dropping you course, you should provide words of encouragement also. (Keep in mind, a good way to lose your adjunct teaching position is to develop a track record for having students drop out of your courses.) You might want to mention that it is common for students to forget what they learned in high school, but that math skills often comes back with a little refresher. This is true! We see this at my college.
  6. In line with the above, spend some classroom time reviewing the basics. If you do, be mindful that you are taking away from time you could be spending on instruction related directly the learning objectives of your courses. Also, you run the risk of boring some students to death.
  7. Use YouTube videos to supplement instruction. You can use them during class or refer your students to them on their own. Check out my post entitled “YouTube and You.”

So what do you think? Do you think any of these suggestions would be helpful to you and your students? Do have other advice you wish to share? Let me know. 🙂

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Updated March 1, 2010

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.


Students Who Lack Math Skills — 3 Comments

  1. I want to thank [you] very much not only for this post but also for [all your] previous efforts. I found to be extremely interesting. I will be coming back to for more information.

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