Math for Life: Preliminary Results From the CAPR Study of Dana Center Mathematics Pathways

By Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow

students working in class

Developmental (or remedial) education is an obstacle for millions of students and one of the thorniest problems in community colleges. About two thirds of community college students are required to pass developmental courses in English or math before taking the college-level courses in those subjects required for graduation. Fewer than half of these students ever complete developmental education, even fewer pass college-level courses, and a large majority never earn a two- or four-year degree. Students assigned to developmental math face especially low odds of graduation, and some experts view it as the single biggest obstacle to their success.

In the past decade, education reformers have sought to improve developmental math students’ success in a variety of ways, including breaking up these math courses into short modules, compressing two or more math courses into a one-semester course, and letting developmental students enroll directly into college-level math courses. Another set of reformers is seeking to change what is taught in developmental and college-level math courses in the hopes that content more relevant to students’ intended careers will better engage them and thus improve their performance.

In 2014, CAPR launched a random assignment study of one of these interventions, the Dana Center Mathematics Pathways (DCMP) model, in four colleges in Texas. The DCMP, formerly known as the New Mathways Project, is a major reform effort that alters the traditional sequencing, content, and pedagogy in developmental and college-level math courses. The DCMP diversifies the traditional algebra-only math sequence into three math pathways aligned with students’ intended fields of study: statistics (for students in the social sciences), quantitative reasoning (for liberal arts students), and a path to calculus (for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students). Developmental students begin the DCMP in an accelerated, one-semester developmental math course and, upon successful completion of this course, enter a college-level statistics, quantitative reasoning, or path-to-calculus course. A key goal of the DCMP is to have students complete a credit-bearing, college-level math course within one year.

The CAPR evaluation of the DCMP is examining students’ performance in these courses and in college more generally, as well as the colleges’ challenges and successes in implementing and scaling the mathematics pathways. In May 2017, CAPR released a research brief with preliminary results from this study that looks at students’ performance during the first semester of the pathway, when most students were enrolled in developmental math courses. The report also documents the colleges’ efforts to implement and scale the DCMP pathways within their institutions.

How do the DCMP courses differ from traditional math courses?

The Dana Center’s curricular models seek to alter both the content and the pedagogy of developmental and college-level math courses. These changes are most distinct in the DCMP developmental math course, Foundations of Mathematical Reasoning (Foundations). Unlike traditional developmental math courses, which tend to focus on algebraic concepts such as linear equations, exponents, and manipulating formulas, Foundations emphasizes the development of students’ numeracy, statistics, and algebraic reasoning skills. Whereas traditional developmental math is primarily taught through lectures, DCMP pedagogy emphasizes active learning, with students working closely with one another to solve math problems in the context of real-life examples. Rather than being presented with formulas or algorithms, DCMP students are expected to wrestle with larger mathematical ideas and apply previously learned concepts in multistep math problems, which are often presented in narrative form or require students to dissect and compare figures, graphs, or tables. Instructors are encouraged to promote students’ constructive perseverance, or ability to struggle through challenging concepts. Course materials integrate content from other academic disciplines, such as health and science, and students are expected to develop multiple strategies for solving complex mathematical problems. Additionally, the course seeks to develop students’ reading and writing skills, as students are routinely asked to complete word problems and to explain their solutions in writing.

How are students experiencing these courses?

Based on classroom observations and focus groups with students and a survey of both DCMP and non-DCMP students, the CAPR research team found that students enrolled in the DCMP Foundations courses were having a qualitatively different experience with classroom instruction. Students in focus groups at all four colleges consistently remarked on how different their Foundations courses were from math courses they had taken in high school or college. Students commented on how much more the course content related to their lives and noted that they expected to use the math they were learning in their careers or everyday lives. In the survey, they also noted reading, writing, and working in small groups much more often than did students in traditional courses. DCMP students also tended to express more positive opinions about the courses, noting that what they were learning was interesting and that the course had increased their interest in math.

How are students performing?

The DCMP students are making good progress through their developmental math courses. After one semester, DCMP students were more likely to have enrolled in and passed developmental math courses and earned developmental math credits than were students assigned to the traditional math sequence. The estimated impact on taking developmental math was about 10 percentage points, and the estimated impact on passing a developmental math course was almost 11 percentage points. These numbers are promising, especially because the DCMP students who passed have now completed their developmental education requirement and can take college-level math, whereas the students in the control group have not. These are still early estimates, however, and the key outcome for the longer term study will be passing college-level math.

What’s next?

CAPR’s final report on the DCMP, scheduled to be released in 2019, will include information on program implementation, a larger sample of students, and longer term impacts on students’ academic outcomes, including students’ performance in college-level courses. One of the key questions this study hopes to address is whether the DCMP’s changes to math course content, sometimes highlighted as a key concern about the program, serve students well in the long run, as they seek to complete their math requirements and other college courses. The final report will shed light on this question as it examines a full year or more of data on students’ college course taking.