The Ugly Head of Lower Level Math troubles

I have noticed a number of students in this area struggling with Algebra I and Algebra II. The students are at different levels of their educational process from High School to adult students re-entering the collegiate experience. In my experience having taught upper division sciences is that students who find that they have deficiencies in their lower level math skills, generally, 6-8th grade math, don't 'see' these deficiencies show up until they move into upper division college programs where more critical, cross-disciplinary thinking is required of them.

Here is the problem. There is an aspiration to be a science teacher, for instance, or a doctor of some sort. Because a math deficiency was not addressed earlier, they struggle in Chemistry or Cell Biology. The assumption on the part of the faculty is that the poor grade reflect ineptitude with a given subject. Hence, it is presumed that the student is not 'able to compete' for careers in these kinds of careers. The student, obviously, becomes frustrated because, "This is what I've always wanted to be!" As an example, I have had a music major, as a college senior, come and tell me that she wanted to be a nurse but couldn't do the math. In her case, I asked some questions about her music to show her that she understood more math than she thought she did because she understood what a musical chord was, a series of string frequencies added together to make a sweet sound. What typically happens to these students is that they tend to fall away into other career tracts assuming that what they have been told is correct.

Some work was done at Xavier University in New Orleans several years ago where students were brought in who had very low SAT scores. Hence, they had deficiencies at different levels of learning. The university established a policy that 50% of its faculty would be dedicated to academic research and the other 50% would be dedicated to working with a student and understand/diagnosing a particular deficiency. What they found was that, many times, the deficiencies were not huge but fundamental. When these fundamental misunderstandings were addressed, the students performed much better because they now had what I refer to as "educational continuity" versus what I have seen as, again another personal phraseology, "A Hopscotch Education." With this latter mode of learning, there is no continuity, no logical flow of information and, hence, it becomes difficult to handle subject where quantification of some sort is a necessary component of the higher level of learning.

At Xavier University, it was found that when these student who, by all standards, could not compete for medical school applied to Medical School some 70% were admitted and 95% graduated. I believe my statistics are correct. Hence, this says that identifying fundamental gaps in learning with respect to things like mathematics and then fixing them can generate a radically different academic outcome.

While a faculty member at a university in California, I tried a similar tact with some of my students who desired to be nurses or doctors, etc. but were failing in their upper division science courses. When I examined their grades outside the science, at the upper division level, they were performing well. This means that their ability to learn is no the issue because they were quite competent in some areas of their academic pursuit. Spending time with an individual student(s), in one case, I found that the student did not understand the concept of a mathematics ratio. In other cases, a student could not understand the concepts associated with variable assignment where the variables were not 'x' and 'y' but some other assignment. While the principle are fundamentally the same, they didn't look anything like what they had thought they had already learned back in 8th grade math. My colleagues concluded that these students were incapable of competing and, hence, achieving their goals at becoming a science teacher or nurse. When, however, these deficiencies were formally addressed, these same students came back to physics and passed with a 'B' rather than the previous 'F.'

This is all very telling to me. In closing this particular blog, I want to encourage you that if you are having difficulties with math, it may simply be related to the fact that one of the major building blocks to your learning is missing. Filling in that building block can potentially lead to success. While out in California, I had actually wanted to gather 4th Grade through College Science Professors into one room and present this problem of student math deficiencies showing up later in a collegiate career and ask what can be done to prevent this. I never had the opportunity to actually do that problem solving process due to family health care issues that caused me to need to move away from California but this remains a prominent issue which truly needs to be addressed by the professionals rather than waiting until a student is failing and frustrated.


Dr. David,

Thank you so much for you spot-on view!. I too, have noticed the systemic problems of fundamental deficiencies as it pertains to furthering education. We must continually invite the students to 'begin again' where they are in a way that encourages instead of belittles. So many students have been allowed to continue along their academic path without successfully understanding the material. It is so often a problem of finding how the student processes the information and then translating the text or teacher into the student's language. We must remind the students that "I don't know" is where we begin and not where we end. Thanks again!


David W C.

Ph.D. Biochemistry, Multi-Disciplinary Ed & Res, Student Mentoring

10+ hours
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