Faculty and Teaching Matter: Building the Next Reform Movement in Postsecondary Mathematics

By Susan Bickerstaff and Mina Dadgar

Math professor in front of college class

Changes to placement policies and reforms to course sequences and curriculum have reshaped the landscape of mathematics in community colleges. More students have access to college-level mathematics in their first semester, they have more choices for transferable introductory college-level mathematics that fulfill degree requirements, and corequisites are increasingly available for students who need extra academic support.

As a result of these reforms, more students have been enrolling in and completing college-level mathematics. Given that college-level mathematics has been a significant stumbling block for students, these encouraging changes mean more students are on the path to graduation and transfer. Yet despite these important gains, course pass rates in introductory mathematics remain low and inequitable.

Within this new and improved landscape, researchers, leaders, and advocates must turn their attention to teaching quality and its role in improving outcomes in mathematics.

A new study by Education Equity Solutions (ESS) on factors influencing success in introductory mathematics—which we both worked on, Mina Dadgar as lead researcher and Susan Bickerstaff as an advisor—points to the importance of teaching. Researchers found that among factors that may contribute to a community college student’s course success, the instructor was more influential than the student’s prior academic preparation, the type of course, student demographic characteristics, or any other factor they studied. By linking faculty survey and syllabi data to student outcomes, the research team identified practices that appeared to disproportionately benefit Latino/a and Black students and therefore may lead to more equitable course outcomes. These include fostering a sense of belonging by assuring students that challenges are normal and do not reflect inadequate academic potential, implementing transparent and growth-oriented grading practices like providing opportunities to practice before exams and providing clear criteria for success, and destigmatizing help-seeking, among others. This study provides quantitative evidence for an idea that seems intuitive but can be hard to measure: Faculty and teaching matter.

The decades-long movement to change policy to broaden access to college-level math has been transformative. We now need an accompanying movement that puts the mathematics classroom at the center of research, advocacy, and reform. We offer three strategies to launch and sustain a reform effort focused on improving teaching in college-level math.

Investigate the How

The ESS report provides valuable empirical evidence on instructional practices positively related to student success in mathematics. But because the study relied on syllabi and survey data, more information is needed about how these practices are implemented. As the authors note, the study design captured limited information on the pedagogical approaches the most successful instructors use. Researchers and mathematics faculty should build on this research to develop case examples and implementation resources to provide more detail and guidance about how to enact these strategies in in-person, online, and hybrid settings. These detailed approaches can be tested to substantiate and add nuance to the findings from the current study.

Invest in Faculty

Community college faculty work under challenging conditions. As many as half of course sections are taught by part-time faculty. Full-time faculty have high teaching loads and demands on their time that distract from instruction. Available professional development opportunities are likely to be low impact and focused on topics not directly related to the courses faculty teach. To change teaching, faculty need long-term, collaborative, and reflective opportunities to practice applying evidence-based strategies into their own courses. They need time to redesign their courses to incorporate new philosophies and approaches. Some may need to adopt new mindsets about students’ capabilities, the relative importance of skills and content, and the role of the instructor in the course and classroom. To institutionalize high-quality instruction, community college leaders must find ways to include adjuncts in these opportunities.

Stay Focused on the Why

As challenging as it has been to change placement policies and course structures in mathematics, changing teaching is even harder. But the case for focusing on the classroom is compelling. Students from historically marginalized groups benefit from validating classroom experiences that promote belonging, inclusion, and care. The normative cultural climate in mathematics, STEM, and higher education more broadly often implicitly and explicitly promotes anxiety, affirms stereotype threat, and encourages competition and individualism in ways that advantage White students and other students of privilege. Changing students’ experiences inside classrooms may be the most effective way to disrupt these patterns of marginalization.

Susan Bickerstaff is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center (CCRC), and Mina Dadgar is the executive director of Education Equity Solutions and a former research associate at CCRC.