BRINGING STUDENTS INTO THE PELOTON: LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD AT HIGHLY SELECTIVE UNIVERSITIES
One of the chief obstacles for student retention in the Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) disciplines is the difficulty in transitioning from high school to college mathematics and sciences. This is especially true for first generation college students and other disadvantaged populations. Building on the work of David Bressoud and others, mathematics educators and support staff at Duke University, a highly selective private university in North Carolina, aim to build support structures to enable these students to successfully navigate the transition.
Bressoud writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education that the pressure to offer calculus in high school is pushing underprepared students prematurely into the subject." He suggests that if we are to meet the challenges created by the growth of high-school calculus we must re-examine first-year college mathematics. His observations are consistent with the views of many mathematics faculty, especially at selective colleges and universities where students entering college with aspirations to enter the STEM disciplines often become discouraged during first-year mathematics courses.
Students entering selective universities with less preparation than the average student at the university are less likely to graduate with degrees in the STEM disciplines. At Duke, such students with aspirations of majoring in the STEM disciplines start their math sequence in Math 25L, Laboratory Calculus with Functions I. The class is recommended for students with a Math SAT score below 680. This score puts students in the class well below the average score at the university. Students in Math 25L are far more likely than the average Duke student to have come from lower-income families or be first-generation college students. Thus they often have not had the same educational opportunities as many of their peers.
This paper examines a support system created through collaboration between mathematics educators and the Academic Resource Center at Duke. Hastily organized support sessions in Fall 2008 had very mixed results. In subsequent semesters, having examined Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) literature, the collaborators decided to use Marilyn Carlson's Pre-Calculus Concept Assessment (PCA) as a diagnostic. Gaps were diagnosed in the students' understanding of functions as processes, and in their metacognitive skills. Support structures were adapted to take these issues into account, resulting in far greater success in 2010/11 and 2011/12.