Contemporary College Algebra
Educate Students for the Future rather than Train Then for the Past
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   Contemporary College Algebra: Data, Functions, Modeling, By Don Small

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Updated 04/27/2011
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"Two stone cutters were asked what they were doing. One said that he was cutting stones into blocks. The other said he was a member of a team building a cathedral."


The Need to Refocus College Algebra

The pragmatic reason students take College Algebra is to fulfill a college or state requirement. Most of these students will confront a traditional College Algebra course based on a 1950's curriculum developed to prepare students to take Calculus, a course that over 90% of them will never enter.

Typically students view the content of traditional College Algebra as irrelevant. and the course itself as a tedious and incomprehensible barrier to obtaining a college education. Currently this College Algebra barrier is terminating the college graduation ambition of approximately half a million students per semester.

The use of technology, in the form of graphing calculators, is slowly penetrating traditional College Algebra courses. However, it has not materially changed the courses even though the use of technology can trivialize the majority of the exercises found in these courses.

The outdated curriculum, lack of goals to address student needs, student and faculty dissatisfaction, and unacceptably high "F or D or withdraw" (FDW) rates, support the claim that traditional College Algebra is not working. In the words of a Dean of Science and Mathematics, at the Conference to Improve College Algebra held at the U.S. Military Academy, February, 2002,

"Traditional College Algebra is a boring, archaic, torturous course that does not help students solve problems or become better citizens. It turns off students and discourages them from seeking more mathematics learning."

A new approach to College Algebra

Rather than preparing students for Calculus, today's reality is that College Algebra is, currently, the terminal mathematics course for most students. If, rather than fixate on pre-calculus, College Algebra could refocus on the practical, quantitative needs of today's students ... in society ... in the workplace ... and in other disciplines .... then College Algebra could not only help reverse today's unacceptably high rate of college failure but it could also give students a more positive attitude toward mathematics and a greater ability to use mathematics in their personal and professional lives.

While many factors contribute to the current high FDW rate (high school preparation, placement, content, attitude, pace, pedagogy, etc.), several improved College Algebra programs have already succeeded in lowering FDW rates by 15 to 25 percentage points while reversing the negative student attitudes. Students in these programs were drawn from the same pool and were subject to the same placement as students in the traditional sections. The difference was in the content and the pedagogical focus.

Improved college algebra courses better serve the approximately 90% of students who do not enter into math-intensive programs. They also provide a more effective preparation for those who do go on to Calculus I. More importantly, improved College Algebra courses have demonstrated in a variety of schools ways in which College Algebra can be transformed from extracting an unacceptable cost to providing a valuable asset.

Contemporary College Algebra

To meet the needs of today's students, College Algebra needs to be transformed by refocusing both the content and pedagogy in order to develop competent and confident problem-solvers.

Content needs to be real-world problem-based, to emphasize problem solving in the modeling sense and to include elementary data analysis.

Pedagogy needs to be student-centered, involving development of communication skills, appropriate use of technology and small group activities. Projects should be designed to create student confidence and positive experiences.

The gateway function of college algebra means that transformed or improved courses can provide a basis on which to develop a college-wide quantitative literacy program.

The interdisciplinary collaboration that is important to the development and ongoing assessment of an improved college algebra course provides opportunities to link problem solving to the quantitative needs of other disciplines.

In this sense, these disciplines provide laboratory experiences for college algebra students.

The Contemporary College Algebra website exists to share resources that can assist educators in bringing about this transformation in the College Algebra curriculum.

Resources at this website

Contemporary College Algebra: Data, Functions, Modeling — By Don Small

A textbook based on work supported by the Exxon Education Foundation and by the National Science Foundation, developed as a practical tool for mathematics educators wishing to offer a refocused College Algebra course — a Contemporary College Algebra course in which students are empowered to use mathematics to quantify real-life situations and evaluate potential solutions to these problems through modeling.

Vision — Potential
Newsletter of the HBCU College Algebra Reform Consortium

Among our visions are:

  1. Students empowered with the necessary mathematical knowledge, confidence, and skills, enabling them to continue in more advance mathematics or quantitatively based courses, to get degrees in these areas, and to be successful in mathematics - dependent careers;

  2. A curriculum that changes from one of symbolic manipulation, skill building and emphasis on mechanics, and memorization of algebraic techniques to one that emphasizes variables and functions, mathematical models and representations, data based interdisciplinary applications that are relevant and meaningful, and more and better use of technology.

  3. Energized and enthusiastic teachers with high expectations, who are using multiple approaches, teaching and learning with technology, accomplishing learning objectives using exercises, small group activities, and projects connecting mathematical ideas within the discipline and across disciplines, using a variety of assessment methods, and discussing issues, questions, and ideas with colleagues;

  4. Students who are actively involved in learning algebra through individual and group activities which involve mathematical modeling, who are solving problems arising from a variety of disciplines, and using computers and calculators to generate numerical examples, graph data points, and, conjecture and reason about mathematics;

  5. Small class sizes.

— From Vision - Potential, Issue # 1, October 1996, "Our Vision", by Della Bell, Texas Southern University

Articles In Support of the National Movement To Refocus College Algebra

The link above will take you to a library of articles in support of the National Movement to Refocus College Algebra. These articles provide useful arguments, explanations and examples for educators seeking to develop a more relevant, contemporary college algebra program in their own institutions.

Discussion Forum

We welcome your contributions to our interactive Discussion Forum. You may use this Forum to ask questions, answer questions by others or simply contribute your thoughts, insights and experiences relating to College Algebra and its related topics. We thank you in advance for your contributions.

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Contact Don Small


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