For many community college students, gateway math courses—required for entry into many programs of study—have functioned more like gatekeeper math courses. These classes, such as Introductory Algebra, Statistics, and Trigonometry, have some of the highest rates of failure among all offerings at two-year schools and are considered one of the biggest barriers to an associate degree and to upward transfer, particularly for Black and Latinx students.
“Students have a lot of trauma around math,” said Dr. Laura Schueller, strategy director for Complete College America. “Students come in with a lot of experiences where they feel like math has been used as a proxy for ‘smart,’ so they bring a lot of baggage into those classes.”
Research on gateway math as a barrier has mostly focused on students—their demographic backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and high school grades. But a new study is shining a light on an area that has been largely neglected: the instructors.
To study the elements causing success—or failure—in gateway math courses, a team of researchers at Education Equity Solutions (EES), an organization focused on higher ed policy reform, examined records for over 22,000 students at four California community colleges. The colleges were in different regions and settings, ranged in size from small to large, and had racially diverse student bodies. Using this data, the researchers performed calculations to find out which factors were responsible for differences in student performance.
What they found was striking. Math instructors were the factor most responsible for variance in student outcomes by far. Thirty-four percent of the observed difference was attributable to teachers, more than twice as much as the amount explained by a student’s previous academic preparation (14%). A student’s high school (11%), personal demographics (7%), and the attributes of the course itself (1%) played smaller roles still.
According to Dr. Mina Dadgar, founder and executive director of EES and lead author of the study, what’s making the difference isn’t whether the professor is a strong teacher, at least as skill has been traditionally measured. And an instructor’s age and gender don’t seem to make a difference. (There were too few Black and Latinx teachers to study the impact of race, although research has shown that instructors of color can improve the performance of minoritized students.) Rather, the impact seems to come from a professor’s attitude towards making his or her students comfortable.
“The way instructors anticipate and address power dynamics, the way they provide messages of support to students and encourage help-seeking, the way they communicate that everyone, regardless of background, can succeed, all these things matter, especially for Black students, especially for Latin[x] students,” said Dadgar.
Dr. Roberto Rubalcaba, an associate professor at San Diego City College who teaches gateway math courses, was unsurprised by the findings.
“The usual way that gateway math classes are taught is most often Euro-centric and most often sort of abusive,” he said. “You’re kind of hazed, to some extent, in your math classes.”
Rubalcaba said that many professors view gateway math courses as opportunities to weed out students who they believe aren’t ready for rigorous STEM programs. These instructors don’t go out of their way to support students.
“I’ve heard professors bragging, ‘Oh, I only had five students pass this class,’” said Rubalcaba. “It’s an environment where students have fear [and are] doubting themselves. That doesn’t work.”
He tries to avoid this in his own teaching.
“I think of myself as a glorified cheerleader,” said Rubalcaba. He tries to give his pupils the message that “this is going to be a real challenge, but I’m rooting for you the whole way on it.”
In support of his students, Rubalcaba holds extended office hours at times that are convenient for them. He incorporates student cultures and interests into his classroom as much as possible, whether it’s explaining probability using a pre-Columbian game or teaching trigonometry via hip-hop sampling.
However, instructors needn’t extend themselves as far as Rubalcaba does to help minoritized students. Through a faculty survey and a review of syllabi, Dadgar and her team found a number of practices that were particularly helpful to Black and Latinx students in gateway math courses. Particularly significant, said Dadgar, was encouraging students to ask for help.
“Part of it is saying ‘if you come and see me, I will work with you to succeed,’” said Dadgar. “[It tells students] you’re not alone. I am not some intimidating person that you should be really careful around. You should come and talk to me if you need help.”
The researchers also found meaningful improvements in student performance from faculty who fostered belonging by creating opportunities for students to connect and work together. They also found benefits from instructors who proactively addressed racial equity, for example by providing guidelines in syllabi about how to do group work in ways that value diverse backgrounds.
The study also suggests a policy shift: a move away from assessing, sorting, and tracking students and towards supporting faculty development. All faculty, the study argues, should have access to high-quality professional development and be compensated for time spent in trainings and offering mentorship.
Although wholesale change may be far off, the research gave Schueller, of Complete College, hope.
“When you have a study like this, that has some instructional practices that benefit students, particularly Black and Latinx students, it’s exciting,” she said. “There’s an opportunity to really change student success rates.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at [email protected]