MUST-Know Pilot—Math Preparation Study from Texas

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Since 2007, the reported SAT (reading + math) scores for the state of Texas have steadily fallen from a high of 999 to an all-time low of 944. Solving this problem requires a multifaceted approach. For our part as instructors of a known gateway course, general chemistry, we chose to focus on the most fundamental crosscutting topic in STEM: arithmetic. Hence, the MUST Know (Mathematics: Underlying Skills and Thinking) study was conceived and implemented. General chemistry is widely considered a gateway course because students' success in general chemistry provides entry into several STEM and some non-STEM careers. Failure to succeed in general chemistry has been linked to students' mathematics fluency that other researchers have attributed to poor algebra skills. However, is it possible that this relationship should really be attributed to students' lack of "must-know" arithmetic skills? In Fall 2016-Spring 2017, a team of 11 chemical educators investigated the relationships between solving simple arithmetic problems and course grades for 2,127 students (60.3% female) enrolled in general chemistry I and II at six post-secondary institutions (3, large public research universities; 2 Hispanic Serving Institutions; and 1, 4-year private university) from varied geographic locations in the heart of the state of Texas overlaying 32,000 square miles. The arithmetic concepts evaluated for this study are introduced to most Texas students starting at the 4th-grade level. The selected concepts include multiplication, division, fractions, scientific notation, exponential notation, logarithms, square roots and balancing chemical equations. Results support that students, without the aid of a calculator, succeeded at the 40%-correct level (Chem I) and 60%-correct level (Chem II). Students' algebra skills might be a better predictor of overall success, but the initiator of the problem we posit starts with lack of automaticity and fluency with basic arithmetic skills. Correlations between final course grades and mathematics fluency ranged from 0.2-0.5 with the Hispanic-serving classes being among the weakest correlations and the research universities exhibiting the strongest. Building a strong profile of a successful general chemistry student is beginning to form from this continuing investigation. Future plans include implementation of High-Impact Practices (HIPs) to increase numeracy followed by dissemination of outcomes and expansion of the study to include other needed success-producing skills like logical thinking, spatial ability, and quantitative reasoning ability.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.