Solving Math’s Transition-to-College Problem

Olszewski, right, and his Kenyan research partner, Dickson Owiti

Olszewski, right, and his Kenyan research partner, Dickson Owiti

Credit: Penn State Behrend

Students who excel in algebra and calculus while in high school often struggle with the same concepts in college. It is an equation that doesn’t seem to add up and an opportunity for School of Science faculty members who love nothing more than solving complicated math problems.

NSF Funds Two-Year Study

In 2016, Dr. Courtney Nagle, assistant professor of secondary mathematics education, and Jodie Styers, lecturer in mathematics education, received nearly $50,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation for a two-year study to help mathematics instructors better manage their students’ academic transition from high school to college.

“So much of math is sequential,” said Nagle, coordinator of the research study, which has paired six high school math teachers with instructors at area universities. “At every stage, you’re building on what you already know. If you fall behind, or if a different instructor presents the material in a way you aren’t accustomed to, it can be difficult to catch up again.”

In addition to establishing the teaching partnerships, the study included an immersive research component: Nagle and Styers attended high school and collegiate math classes to take notes on the materials taught and the manner in which they were presented. They also took the tests.

Currently, all the data has been collected and Nagle and Styers are analyzing it to identify specific challenges and offer best practice suggestions.

“Our goal is not to tell the high school teachers to do things differently,” Nagle said. “We have to be open at the college level as well to what the expectations are. We all have to make adjustments if we want to bring more students through that knowledge gap.”

Reaching Across The Globe

The old adage that two heads are better than one is certainly true at universities, where faculty members often collaborate with colleagues on research projects. Sometimes, like Nagle and Styers, the partners sit just doors away. Occasionally, they are on another continent.

Such is the case for Peter Olszewski, lecturer in mathematics, whose research partner, Dickson Owiti, is 7,600 miles away in Kenya. The two met at a math conference in San Francisco in 2013 and realized they had similar research interests.

“We are both interested in how math education should be set up at the high school level to adequately prepare students for the transition to college,” Olszewski said.

While you might think two different countries would have different problems, Olszewski said math students in Kenya struggle in the same ways students in the United States do, so the two began a joint research project interviewing their first-year students and teaching them effective study skills.

In June, Olszewski traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, to join Owiti in presenting their work at the Strathmore International Mathematics Conference.

Among their top findings: High school teachers are not using homework effectively and are giving students a lot of the same work, rather than challenging them to problem-solve through critical thinking; students are not being taught how to study; and they are often looking at improper sources, such as YouTube and Wikipedia, for more information.

Olszewski and Owiti are polishing their formal research paper now and looking forward to their next collaborative project.