Math Lit: A developmental math option that works



Can developmental math work? That’s the question many have wondered about and worked hard to answer. In this blog post, I’ll share about a course that offers a successful accelerated developmental math experience to students. We’ll look at why it works and how you can incorporate some of its traits into your current algebra classes.

In 2009, I had been working on course redesign in my department for two years. We had already made significant strides in improving our traditional algebra courses. Pass rates in those courses and the outcome courses were on the rise but I knew we weren’t serving all of our students, especially those headed to non-STEM courses.

In that same year, AMATYC (American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges) began working with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Charles A. Dana Center Foundation to develop alternative developmental math course options, called pathways courses. I was interested in working on something truly new in developmental math, so I wrote objectives and topic outlines with other instructors for Carnegie’s Quantway initiative and AMATYC’s New Life for Developmental Math initiative. One course that came out of this work was Math Literacy for College Students, known as MLCS or Math Lit for short.

Math Lit is an alternative to beginning algebra, creating a path to certain non-STEM college level math courses or further algebra. It integrates numeracy, proportional reasoning, algebraic reasoning, and functions with statistics and geometry as recurring course themes. Throughout the course, college success components are integrated within the mathematical topics. The course focuses on developing mathematical maturity through problem solving, critical thinking, writing, and communication of mathematics.

Upon completion of the course, students are prepared for a statistics course or a general education mathematics course like liberal arts math or quantitative reasoning. Students may also take traditional intermediate algebra upon completion if they choose to pursue STEM courses. Because Math Lit has a significant amount of algebra in it, students do not need to retake beginning algebra if they change their major.

It’s natural to wonder if it has so much algebra in it, how is Math Lit different than traditional developmental algebra courses? The success of the course lies not just in what content is taught, but how and when it is taught. Let’s look at closer at the course as well as ways you can incorporate some of its components into your existing courses.

Effective content development

The content is ordered in a specific way to build connections, deep understanding, and retention. Connections are made regularly so that topics do not constantly seem new or different. Some key features:

  • Fractions, percents, and unit conversions are addressed early and often
  • Concepts are developed over time instead of all at once

Use it in your current algebra course: When teaching adding like terms, incorporate a variety of terms such as those with radicals and rational expressions, not just polynomials.

Realistic problem solving

Topics are usually motivated by authentic contexts so that students can improve their problem-solving abilities and see a need for further mathematical techniques, which can include algebra. When algebra is used, it serves the purpose of solving a problem in a faster or clearer way. Some key features:

  • Real data is used whenever possible
  • Excel is used regularly as a numeric and algebraic tool to solve problems

Use it in your current algebra course: When solving equations, use Excel to generate the value of each side of an equation for various x-values. Ask students to determine the solution numerically.

Student engagement

Students are encouraged to work with others to solve problems because the problems are not routine and can be quite challenging when done alone. The class is very interactive which can lead to more motivated and engaged students who achieve more. Some key features:

  • Rich problems and open-ended projects are used to connect topics and elicit interaction
  • Topics are developed in novel ways to differentiate the course from previous high school algebra classes

Use it in your current algebra course: Consider giving a group quiz for a small amount of points in which each group gets only one paper. You can also use Learning Catalytics to increase student interaction with or without group work.

Higher order thinking

Problem solving and critical thinking are used in every section of content. Students regularly evaluate which process to use when and why so that they become flexible problem solvers. Some key features:

  • Students are expected to understand multiple ways of solving a problem
  • Students are expected to apply their knowledge to new situations regularly, including contexts that may be unfamiliar to them

Use it in your current algebra course: Consider giving students choice on the method of solving a problem, even if it’s not algebra, as long as they can organize and defend their response.

College readiness built into the course

A separate college readiness course is not needed because the structure of the course develops traits all successful college students need. The content requires students to sit with something and struggle. They improve at this over time and learn how to deal with challenges which helps them learn how to persevere. Some key features:

  • Words are used in every section often so that students improve their reading and comprehension abilities
  • Students are expected to work in groups, communicate, write, read, synthesize, and use technology

Use it in your current algebra course: Use math examples that allow for a natural discussion of student success ideas, such as working with GPA’s when finding weighted averages.

We’ve taught the Math Lit course for five full years and are in our sixth year of offering it. We now offer it fully online as well as the face-to-face format. The course has evolved and improved over time, becoming a very successful accelerated option for developmental students. At our school and many others, students are passing their outcome courses more quickly than before and at a higher rate, making it a very successful offering.

If you are interested in creating a Math Lit course, please check out my blog. It contains a Math Lit starter kit with videos, sample syllabi, instructor resources, presentations, and a new instructor forum where instructors can discuss the course and exchange ideas.


Kathleen Almy will be speaking at the 29th International Conference on Technology in Collegiate Mathematics(ICTCM) held in Chicago, Illinois, March 9-12, 2017. Register today to gain access virtually or attend in person and explore how educational technology can enhance teaching and learning.

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