Covid & college math

The northern Virginia school [George Mason University] started Math Boot Camp because of alarming numbers of students arriving with gaps in their math skills. Colleges across the country are grappling with the same problem as academic setbacks from the pandemic follow students to campus. At many universities, engineering and biology majors are struggling to grasp fractions and exponents…

“This is a huge issue,” said Maria Emelianenko, chair of George Mason’s math department. “We’re talking about college-level pre-calculus and calculus classes, and students cannot even add one-half and one-third.”

For Jessica Babcock, a Temple University math professor, the magnitude of the problem hit home last year as she graded quizzes in her intermediate algebra class, the lowest option for STEM majors. The quiz, a softball at the start of the fall semester, asked students to subtract eight from negative six. “I graded a whole bunch of papers in a row. No two papers had the same answer, and none of them were correct,” she said…

“It’s not just that they’re unprepared, they’re almost damaged,” said Brian Rider, Temple’s math chair. “I hate to use that term, but they’re so behind.”



Do kids still learn the multiplication tables?

Could it be too much dependence on calculators? No need to learn attitude. Machines are everywhere.

When it comes to balancing a checkbook, can they add and subtract.

Slippage in math skills could be bigger than mentioned.

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There’s probably a lot of variability in what kids learn based on where they live. I can say that in our district memorization is no longer emphasized; problem-solving is.

And I know very few young adults or teens who even know what a check is, much less a checkbook. To them, it’s a curious artifact of times before smartphones.

Not very much help either way if you’re a biology major and having trouble with exponents, something you should have nailed in high school.



International comparison of children’s maths grades (2019), the USA looks reasonably high:

Which means they are completely dependent on the bank or credit card service to get it right.

Put another way, they are technology dependent.

High is two ways to put it.


Calculators have been around a long time. I think COVID is the most likely explanation.

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That’s not a covid problem. Math with fractions is a 5-7th grade topic. College freshmen today were in high school during the pandemic.

If they are having problems with fractions now, they’ve been having problems since well before covid hit.



Fractions are a fourth-grade subject.

Do they know what a slide rule is? Do they know what a sextant is?

Progress happens.

The Captain

A sailor friend of mine complained about digital watches, “How do you explain clockwise with a digital watch?”


My Apple watch has tons of different faces, many (most?) of which include an analog clock form!

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“If they are having problems with fractions now, they’ve been having problems since well before covid hit.”

totally agree. To learn math, one can’t have any gaps in previous lessons/foundations. So, as stated in OP, if they can’t compute
8-(-6) = 14, then they have no hope of moving forward into higher mathematics, as everything builds on the previous lessons.

As far as fractions, teach kids carpentry, and measuring with a tape measure, then have them make cuts based on their measurements. It will show them how important it is to be able to work with simple fractions with different denominators, etc…


Very true.

I think the problem was “subtract eight from negative six”…
(-6) - 8 = ???



lol,just got back from a cross country trip, so a little foggy minded.
I remember being admonished in Calc class by instructor, telling me I definitely know how to do the work, but that I was changing the problem from what he actually asked for. Told me I was 100% correct with “my” problem, but not his problem,lol. Just had to learn to take a deep breath and slow down.


Not to worry! When I was doing remedial tutoring for very smart math students I discovered the issue was often precisely that they

and that their issues were really of reading comprehension (those sneaky question writers mostly lit majors I bet) rather than math.

david fb

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I was a remedial student when I first went to college. Was totally unprepared coming out of HS, and it was 100% my fault. Only reason why I didn’t drop out of HS was because I was really into sports, and had to maintain a bare minimum gpa to play.

I fairly quickly learned the error of my ways when I became an adult,lol. Worked my behind off, had to take classes I should have mastered as a 9th grader in local JC, and had to pay for them out of pocket,lol. Was on Dean’s list, but never mentioned it to anyone, as I remember being pretty embarrassed about the level of classes I was taking. But once I got the basics down, was able to excel in all of the actual “college” classes I took, so it all turned out good.

“Youth is wasted on the young” describes me, lol.

Off to do a trail run, shake this travel brain fog off.


Technology has caught up and now I use the DeWalt construction calculator. Type in 8’ 4&3/8" + 9&15/16" and out comes 9’ 2&15/16".

Typo? Or not? New calculator time? Or just new batteries? PEBCAK?


Touch your left thumb to your left index finger. Your index finger is pointed in a clockwise direction.
Move around a circle from top to bottom going to the right. This is clockwise.