Are college freshman prepared for STEM classes?

Grading has got to be the worst part about teaching, no contest. It’s so time consuming and, frankly, a bit depressing at times as well. As a teacher I genuinely want all the students to do well. I really want everyone to test well and score high. More importantly, I want to know that these young people are actually absorbing this information.

Right now I am teaching intro statistics for non-majors -a course in how to understand and interpret information. The material seems very basic to me, but I know that after so many years in school and doing research, it’s difficult to have perspective. I try to look at it with fresh eyes and remember it is their first time seeing this stuff. But often I find that there is more of an issue than the newness of the concepts.

One interaction made me realize that what I consider totally basic may be very advanced for some students – even in their first or second year of undergrad. I was in office hours, and explaining the difference between two measures of center – the mean and the median. We were calculating the mean of a bunch of numbers. This is stuff I remember learning in middle school, but here we covering it a bit of a different way – like when is it more appropriate to use the median or the mean in describing different datasets. After I finished my schpeal, the student asked me how you know when to round up or round down. Honestly, I was shocked. I think I hid it well and went on to explain the rules of rounding.

Several other students have asked me similar questions about fundamentals in math such as the order of operations (remember PEMDAS from high school or middle school?). One student even asked how to take the square root of something. These building blocks should have been mastered before starting college, but there is evidence that high schoolers are not well prepared.

What is my responsibility as a college instructor? Am I meant to fill in these gaps? Do I press forward with the material that is meant to be covered? Because of course there are many other students that are ready for all of coursework and then some. At some point a bar must be set.

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One thought on “Are college freshman prepared for STEM classes?

  1. Determining (and testing for) mastery of prerequisite skills is the best way to avoid the frustration many students feel when they face new concepts in “introductory” classes. Mastery of Basic arithmetic is one of the most overrated prerequisites of college math.

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