Everett CC Math Teacher Blasts Traditional Algebra Instruction

November 25, 2016

Everett, Everett Schools

Got an interesting press release in this week from Everett Community College…


EvCC math instructor Christopher Quarles. Photo courtesy EvCc

Remember wondering “When am I ever going to use this?” in your algebra class?

As it turns out, the answer to that question is just as important as knowing how to solve for x.

Solving algebra problems without real-world context does not prepare students to succeed in college-level math classes, according to a recent study co-authored by Everett Community College math instructor Christopher Quarles.

“Math skills are most valuable when they’re connected to what students already understand,” Quarles said. “Students seem to forget how to do algebra problems within a few months, unless the problems were connected with real-world applications or represented math in multiple ways, such as graphs.”

The study, “Is Learning in Developmental Math Associated with Community College Outcomes?” was published Oct. 18 in Community College Review. Quarles and University of California, Berkeley education researcher Mickey Davis partnered to find out what students needed to know to be successful in college algebra.

“The faculty were asking very real, important questions about what students needed to know, but there was no research available,” said Quarles, who has taught math for 17 years. “We designed this study to give colleges the information they needed to design their math classes.”

The researchers looked at intermediate algebra, which is considered the final course high school students need to prepare for college math. The same subject is often taught in community colleges because many students arrive underprepared, Quarles explained.

Math instructors gave an assessment of algebra skills on the first day of class to 311 community college students taking intermediate algebra, then repeated the assessment the next term with 426 students taking introductory college math.

Quarles found that students who hadn’t taken a math class for four months or longer did 42 percent worse on procedural problems, such as equations, versus students who had recently taken a math class.

However, the scores on the conceptual problems, including data sets and graphs, were about the same, no matter how long it had been since students had taken a math class.

Students who perform better on the conceptual problem solving also end up getting better grades when courses are focused on real-world problems, Quarles said.

Quarles has worked with a variety of regional and national groups on mathematics education reform, including Achieving the Dream and the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas. He said he hopes his latest research will result in algebra classes being taught differently.

“There’s a lot of interest at the community college level in increasing conceptual math. This study shows that we should continue to move in that direction,” he said.

Funding for the research was provided by College Spark Washington, a non-profit foundation focused on helping low-income students earn college degrees.



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