Math and the Liberal Arts: How the University System of Maryland Will Create New Math Pathways for Social Sciences and Liberal Arts Students

An image of math homework


The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 18 colleges and universities that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

This was the second year of the First in the World grants. You can read our interviews with the 24 institutions that received 2014 grants here.

Both developmental and college-level math courses can often be a stumbling block for liberal arts and social sciences majors, who wonder if they’ll ever use college algebra in their future careers. While many institutions provide supplemental support for these students, officials at the University System of Maryland want to try a different approach. They plan to pilot new math pathways that are more relevant to the quantitative skills needed in arts and humanities disciplines.

They will use their $2.98 million First in the World grant to introduce a new statistics curriculum that will provide more real-world applications than traditional remedial algebra courses for liberal arts and social sciences students, and they anticipate that retention and graduation rates will increase as a result. Nancy Shapiro, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and special assistant to the chancellor for P-20 education, talked with us to explain the thinking behind the statewide initiative, what the new statistics pathways will look like, and how the grant funding will help make this a reality.

Making Mathematics Relevant

“If you’re really discouraged at the lower level and you’re paying for multiple years of developmental math, it’s easy to not finish.”
Nancy Shapiro, University System of Maryland

The idea to build multiple mathematics pathways started with a statewide conference in Fall 2014 in which Maryland higher education and K-12 representatives discussed what it really means for everyone to have some level of quantitative or mathematical competency. Uri Treisman, a University of Texas professor known for his work in mathematics, suggested to the group that institutions can teach math as if everyone is going to be a mathematician with a Ph.D., or they can teach it more accessibly in terms of life skills. That set the rest of the group thinking: how could they make math more relevant for students?

Maryland’s answer: multiple pathways, including a statistics pathway that will be just as rigorous as the traditional algebra-to-calculus curriculum sequence but will be more relevant to liberal arts and social science disciplines. To build the pathway, the University System of Maryland plans to:

  • Create a required 100-level statistics course that will become part of a sequence of optional 200- and 300-level math courses in the arts and humanities.
  • Engage math faculty with arts and humanities faculty and students to find out what students need to be successful in their discipline, including in courses such as psychology statistics or economic statistics.
  • Define learning outcomes for the new pathway and then build the pathway (including developmental education courses) up to the statistics outcome.

“The pathways are distinguished by what is useful to the people who need the mathematical structures to answer problems,” Shapiro notes. “We’re not lowering standards. We’re creating pathways and pipelines for students to be more successful and we’re not putting barriers in their way.”

Shapiro adds that they are also working with other groups on a third pathway involving a “concepts of contemporary math” course that isn’t part of the FITW grant.

Seven community colleges and five universities have signed on as project partners for the initial pilot, including Anne Arundel Community College; Cecil College; College of Southern Maryland; Garrett College; Harford Community College; Howard Community College; Montgomery College; Coppin State University; Towson University; University of Baltimore; University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and University of Maryland University College.

Transforming Math Education Across Maryland

Shapiro emphasizes that the project also is transformative for higher education in other ways, including:

  • They are collaborating across 12 Maryland institutions to develop common courses that differ slightly but produce the same outcomes.
  • They will share strategies for student engagement and pedagogy (not only content).
  • All institutions will engage in course redesign and share strategies and best practices for engaging students in learning.

In addition, a steering committee worked to change state requirements that required general-education math to be at or above college-level algebra. The rewritten standard requires general-education mathematics to be above the level of the Maryland college readiness standards. This links Maryland high school curriculum and achievement to college readiness in Maryland. “If you’re at the college readiness level when you graduate from high school, you should be ready to take the college-level course,” Shapiro explains.

Keys to Success

There are three elements crucial to the project’s success:

  1. Finding a way to accurately place students in the statistics pathway. Current placement exams test only algebra knowledge and do not determine whether students who intend to take statistics really need to be placed in a developmental course.
  2. Matching a subset of students who select the statistics pathway with students in the same discipline who chose the algebra pathway, in order to determine which pathway has the greater impact on student success.
  3. Tracking students who transfer from community colleges to four-year state institutions to see if they are successful.

The University System of Maryland will begin by developing new placement instruments or by working with existing testing companies like Accuplacer to see whether they can redefine what a placement test looks like for Maryland’s multiple pathways.

They are also working on data storing and data sharing agreements between the twelve institutions involved in the project. Having buy-in already from participating institutions will streamline the process. “We’re aligned with a common mission, which is to ensure that we give our students the best value for their investment in higher education, at the highest standards but with the least hassle,” Shapiro adds.

The FITW grant money will allow each institution to support faculty with research time and to hire experts to work out the best ways to collect and share data for the project.

Looking Ahead

Math pathways geared toward non-STEM majors answer the question, “when am I ever going to use this again?” and may help students be successful in math early in their college experience, in turn boosting persistence and graduation rates. The project isn’t about suggesting that there should be easier math for social science students, Shapiro emphasizes; the project is about creating more relevant pathways.