Pre-statistics: A Better Course for Propelling Non-STEM Students Forward?

Male Asian student working alone in a classroom

The First Crack in the Veneer

Your heart pounds against your ribs as you greet your elementary algebra students. A mix of nervousness and excitement. It’s a brand new semester! Fortified with all you learned last semester, you’ve made the necessary adjustments to form a stellar course. Informing students of your expectations seems to be going fine, until you spot a student staring out the window. Disinterested or hopeless? Your stomach plunges at this first crack in the veneer of your perfect class.

Your first-day-of-class joke captures the distracted student’s attention and puts smiles on other students’ tense faces, but if you’ve lost a student in the first few minutes—and you haven’t even reached any math yet—how are you going to hold the class for an entire semester?

You buck up and remind yourself that you’ve got more in your teaching toolbox than cute math jokes and a winning personality. Pushing aside memories of past semesters’ frustrations, you begin the first lesson.

A Twist on Einstein’s Wisdom

As the semester progresses, no matter what new activities you spring on your students, no matter what new explanations you’ve come up with, the class dwindles down to half its size as has happened so many times before. It’s a different spin on Einstein’s wisdom that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. You are trying lots of new things but getting the same results.

You are not alone. Thousands of instructors across the country are trying a myriad of approaches, yet only about half of their students are passing elementary algebra and half yet again are also passing intermediate algebra. Throw in persistence rates from one course to the other, and we’re talking approximately 19% of students are navigating through the two-course sequence in one try.

It’s not only instructors that are prone to the same results. Thousands of students have depleted their maximum number of attempts at elementary or intermediate algebra, leaving them the discouraging options of trying once again at a different community college or giving up on their academic dreams.

“What is algebra good for?”

How many times have students asked you this question? Once? One hundred? One thousand? Students tend to mutter it in frustration, as if an honest reply would simply be “nothing.” But that’s nonsense, of course. There are copious applications of algebra, and a good deal of it is relevant to STEM majors. For decades upon decades, non-STEM majors have asked the wrong question.

“Who is algebra good for?”

This query chisels to the heart of the problem. For students who need to take statistics and no other college-level math course, the traditional algebra sequence does not serve them well. Such a sequence is an inefficient preparation for statistics. Factoring, simplifying complicated rational and radical expressions, performing operations with complex numbers, and many other algebra topics are not needed in introductory statistics. Furthermore, interpreting the meaning of concepts and results—key components of statistics—are not emphasized in traditional algebra sequences nearly enough.

Looking beyond graduation, it’s hard to imagine that students who have majored in psychology, sociology, political science, communications, kinesiology, art, music, and many other non-STEM majors will tend to benefit from the traditional algebra sequence.

It is time we respond to the right question with the right action.

A Course Whose Time Has Come

The good news is that many colleges throughout the country are designing pre-statistics courses as an alternative to the traditional algebra sequence for certain non-STEM majors. The courses vary to match instructors’ and departments’ styles, but there are many common threads. At my institution, College of San Mateo, only algebra concepts essential to statistics are addressed in pre-statistics. The rest of the course is devoted to descriptive statistics, but students become acquainted with the material from a different perspective than in introductory statistics so that the two courses give students a more well-rounded understanding of the course. My department’s goal is that students who have traversed the pre-statistics-statistics sequence will have a stronger understanding of crucial statistical concepts than by the former sequence. And that success rates through the new sequence will be much higher.

To be sure, once our department has offered pre-statistics for several semesters, we will assess pre-statistics students’ success rates in introductory statistics, but other colleges are already reporting strongly encouraging results. In the meantime, I’ve noticed a striking difference in students’ behaviors in my first pre-statistics course.

The Gleam in his Eye

Daniel is a student in my pre-statistics course. He already passed third semester calculus but suffered a head injury and has since failed elementary algebra three times. Daniel quickly stumbled in pre-statistics, earning a D on the second test. But as he modified his study practice, became acclimated to working collaboratively with three other male students, and gained confidence in a contextualized learning environment, his test performances quickly climbed to As and Bs. From that point on, there’s been a gleam in his eye.

No one else in class shares Daniel’s past, but several other students have improved just as significantly. In fact, even though the pass rate for most of the tests has been about 50%, an impressive 80% of the students passed a challenging test deep into the semester.

Not all students will succeed, of course, but throughout the entire semester, I haven’t spotted a single student staring out the window.

Students Aren’t the only Ones to Benefit

There are many factors at play—too many to list—that could explain the positive shift in students’ behavior and success. A likely key factor is that concepts have been contextualized, which is so easy to do in statistics. Another key factor is that students can see the light at the end of the tunnel. And I can, too.

Also, pre-statistics has such integrity, aligning so well with introductory statistics and students’ careers that I can’t help but be more enthusiastic. I’ve shed my calloused outlook on the perils of students being force-fed algebra, and I’ve regained hope in their academic and career success. As one student told me, “You seem different than other instructors. They are desensitized, but you’re still sensitive to us students.” And that’s what has surprised me the most: While designing my department’s pre-statistics course, I hoped that it would enrich my students’ lives, but I didn’t anticipate that it would also enrich mine.

I presented a webinar about my department’s pre-statistics course, and it gives more insights we learned in propelling non-STEM students forward.


About the Author
Jay Lehmann

Jay Lehmann

Jay Lehmann has taught for the past 22 years at College of San Mateo, where he received the “shiny apple award” for excellence in teaching. He has presented talks on pre-statistics, curve fitting in algebra courses, and directed-discovery learning at over 80 conferences including AMATYC and ICTCM over the past fifteen years. He has participated in grant projects on retooling an arithmetic course and on learning how to assess the effectiveness of teaching. He is currently on the board for California Mathematics Council, Community Colleges (CMC3). He plays in a rock band called the Procrastinistas. He has authored several algebra textbooks and has just completed a pre-statistics textbook, all published by Pearson.