Credit: Fermin Leal / EdSource
Discussing math problems during a summer course offered by Cal State Fullerton to help prepare students for college-level math.

Calculus is expected to be difficult; it should not be impossible. But, too often, this course becomes a gatekeeper that pushes students out of careers in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — fields, especially women and marginalized students.

However, it is not certain types of students, but certain instructional approaches and learning conditions that ensure deeper learning and even enjoyment in college calculus classes.

The evidence is undeniable that math classrooms can support greater success for women and marginalized students, according to a report I recently co-authored. Charting a New Course: Investigating Barriers on the Calculus Pathway to STEM, published by the California Education Learning Lab and Just Equations, is based on a review of more than 200 books, journal articles, research reports, other online and print sources and a dozen interviews.

Preventing calculus from becoming a roadblock for students begins with rethinking traditional assumptions about the types of students who can succeed in STEM fields. Students’ prior preparation influences their performance in college math courses, but not all students have access to the courses that would best position them to succeed in college calculus. And excluding students from STEM fields simply because they haven’t taken the right prep courses reinforces inequity and absolves math faculty of responsibility for the disproportionate numbers of women, Black and Latino students leaving a STEM path after taking calculus.

College math departments have an important role in creating conditions that promote math success for diverse students. Rather than assuming students don’t have what it takes to pursue STEM majors — and putting them through a gauntlet of math prerequisites that few students survive — effective classroom instruction and support can make a difference in calculus success, especially for students with less preparation.

Positive student-faculty rapport plays a central role in students’ success in calculus, as documented in a study by the Mathematical Association of America. Student-centered teaching methods — also known as active learning or inquiry-based learning — devote less time to lecture and more to students working with classmates to interact with mathematical concepts. In one such example, Cal State East Bay’s reformed calculus classes use Wikki Stix to model functions, and trains of dominoes to represent integrals and derivatives.

These approaches help students develop their own conceptual understanding of math topics and promote a higher level of student engagement. They also provide more opportunities for instructors to get to know students and observe their learning to help identify which concepts need reinforcement.

Another piece of the puzzle is fostering students’ math identity and sense of belonging, especially among student groups that have historically been excluded from STEM fields.

“A sense of belonging happens in the classroom,” noted an instructor from a California community college where more than two-thirds of students are from marginalized populations. “If they’re feeling math anxiety, imposter syndrome in their calculus classes, they’re out of there.”

The Emerging Scholars Workshops at the University of California Berkeley popularized support for peer learning networks after founder Uri Treisman saw sharp increases in the success rate of Black students placed in study groups with other Black students, which contributed to a sense of belonging.

For such efforts to succeed, it’s also important to address implicit bias on the part of faculty, through professional development and training for faculty and staff. Explicitly addressing race and gender stereotypes also can support underrepresented students who are more likely to experience math identity issues. One university, for example, found a correlation between participation in a calculus workshop on identity issues and students’ GPAs and STEM persistence. Diversifying STEM departments is another strategy, as research reveals that same-race instructors can increase persistence in STEM among Black students.

Corequisite approaches, in which students enroll in a course while receiving concurrent support, can also improve students’ chances of completing a STEM degree as compared with lengthy sequences of prerequisite courses that students must pass before they reach calculus. Though corequisites have been used more commonly for courses such as college algebra, precalculus, and statistics, there is promising evidence that such courses can also help more students succeed in calculus.

In a similar vein, UC San Diego runs a program called Summer Bridge that serves first-generation and under-resourced students. The credit-bearing program is designed to fill gaps in students’ prior knowledge by providing supplemental instruction and opportunities to engage with instructors or teaching assistants while taking Calculus 1 or other gateway courses.

For too long, STEM classes have been dominated by students who are white, male and privileged. Math departments must acknowledge their responsibility to build a diverse pipeline and address institutional barriers that bar access to STEM for historically excluded groups.

After all, racial equity and global competitiveness will not happen by recruiting better students, but by providing better instruction to serve existing students and attract new ones.


Melodie Baker is national policy director for Just Equations and an author of Charting a New Course: Investigating Barriers on the Calculus Pathway to STEM.

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  1. Robert L Crawford 1 year ago1 year ago

    We need to do more to prepare students before College …. anything after that can help but is only a half measure. We need to aim at teaching students Calculus before College!