Black and Hispanic Failure Rates in Calculus (Abstract)
This lecture is based on a project that began in 1975 at the University of California, Berkeley. The subject of the study was the failure rate of Black and Hispanic students in calculus. This subject had been the cause of much concern since the failure rate of minorities in calculus had served as a barrier to their entrance into many science-based careers.
In the lecture, Treisman states that the problem of minority student failure was initially treated as a political issue. Today, it is seen as an issue that affects institutional survival, and the survival of society as a whole. Involvement in the study on "why the minority failure rate in calculus was so high" began accidentally while Treisman was conducting research for a doctoral dissertation. The work involved developing and piloting a new training program for teaching assistants, with no particular focus on minority students' performance.
This project afforded Treisman the opportunity to try out some innovations on the curriculum of a section of freshman calculus. He found that, in general, students were more interested in getting through the course than in the material itself. They were interested in becoming business professionals, engineers, and physicians. As a result, the focus of the project shifted from how calculus should be taught, to how students learn calculus. Projects were designed to answer this question. The reports showed that the minority students were disproportionately failing calculus. This led to an inquiry into why this was the case.
Several possible explanations were proposed. The first was that minority students were unmotivated. The next argument proposed that the minority students were inadequately prepared for entering a university, having acquired fewer credit hours of mathematics and science in high school than whites. The third argument put forward was that the minority students lacked the family support, because many of their parents had not themselves attended college, and thus could not teach the skills needed to survive in the college environment. The fourth argument was that low family income had served as a major limiting factor. These arguments formed the basis of Treisman's second attempt to explore why the failure rate of minority students in calculus was so high.
A study was done using 20 Chinese students and 20 Black students. In the study, a comparison was made of the two ethnic groups, one that generally did well in calculus and one that did not. An attempt was made to understand how both groups studied calculus. The research project, which was only supposed to last 10 weeks, lasted for over 4 months, after which there still was no conclusive data to support any of the arguments presented previously. What the study showed, however, was a difference in study habits. It was found that the Black students studied for 8 to 10 hrs/week, typically alone, and handed in all their assignments on time, yet many were still failing. In contrast, the Chinese students studied for 14 hours a week, working 8 to 10 hours alone and about 4 hours with other students, checking each other's answers and their English. Their family members would quiz them regularly and they worked on problems kept in a public file in the library. Unlike the Black students, they knew exactly where they stood relative to the rest of their classmates.
Treisman states that up to now, universities have attempted to deal with the problem of minority failure in a rather misguided fashion. Many of them have set up affirmative action offices that have little connection with the faculty. They have also set up remedial programs despite overwhelming evidence that such programs are unsuccessful. The minority students have tended not to use the systems designed to help them.
In 1978, an "anti-remedial" system was set up. This program was designed to encourage group learning and a community life focused on a shared interest in mathematics. In the lecture Treisman states that the project worked because the question never was whether minority students had the ability to succeed, but rather what was the environment which would allow this to happen. The Black and Hispanic students found it comfortable to participate in the group format because it presented to them the multiethnic social environment in which they were most comfortable. The results were dramatic. Black and Hispanic students who participated in the program outperformed their white and Asian classmates. By 1982, more than 200 ethnic minority students were served by similar workshops.
In the mid-1980s such adjunct programs were discontinued, and this forced the issue of the efficacy of freshman courses to the forefront. It was found that the problem was not the students, but the format of the courses themselves. The courses had become compressed, making it difficult to master the ideas presented. Treisman suggests that this was because the math and science courses were developed during a period in which there was a surplus of math and science students and a process of "weeding out" had to be used. Today, however, the situation is reversed, and there is now a need to encourage students to major in science, math, and related fields.
Attempts were made to intensify certain sections of the regular freshman calculus course. Several problems were encountered. The first was the absence of math problems of a suitably challenging level; the second was defining a method for teaching generalized problem-solving skills; the third was incorporating members of staff who were interested in working on the course reconstruction. Treisman recognized that there had to be a shift in emphasis on this topic, and administrators would have to rethink the responsibilities of their departments.
Treisman concludes by stating that a reexamination of undergraduate instruction is necessary so that it will be more responsive to today's society's needs.
abstract by Rae Lewis
Cite this page:
"Black and Hispanic Failure Rates in Calculus (Abstract)"
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Sunday, May 19, 2013