Algebra skills in a Calculus Course

Submitted by Becky Baranowski on

For many years now, math instructors have made the claim that a students' prior knowledge in algebra impacts their success in calculus.  If a student struggles with their algebraic skills, can they still pass calculus?  To test this hypothesis, I ran data for 188 students which spans from Fall 2005 to Fall 2013 comparing students' 1st exam scores (review exam of algebra) to their final grade in the course.  Correlation using Pearson's r showed a significant, strong positive relationship (r(186) = 0.75, p < .001). Thus, the 1st exam grade is a good predictor of their final grade in the course.  

The first two weeks of the semester is dedicated to reviewing algebra.  I will continue to try to improve students' algebraic skills in the first two weeks as well as throughout the semester.   One way I plan to try to improve algebra skills is to utilize Khan Academy and their coaching program.

See attached spreadsheet for the data along with the graph of the data.  

Completed Full Cycle
Course Number
Attachment Size
1st-exam-grade-vs-final-grade.xlsx 38 KB
Average: 4.8 (4 votes)


Becky Baranowski Wed, 12/04/2013 - 3:58pm

Question for other instructors:  Do you find this to be true in your classes?

Andrew Burch Thu, 12/05/2013 - 3:32pm

It is nice to have some data to back up what we feel in our "gut".

Peter Turner Tue, 01/07/2014 - 9:24am

Good use of data to support a supposition! I am curious as to your perception of the Khan Academy, and will you have data to support (or discontinue) the use of it?

Becky Baranowski Tue, 01/07/2014 - 9:31am

I will definitely update this with khan academy data.  Every semester, I do something new with reviewing algebra skills.  I can't seem to get improvement, so hopefully khan academy will be the "magic bullet".  

Bronwen Steele Tue, 01/07/2014 - 11:46am

Wow, this is so interesting. I have the same situation with BIO 181 and BIO 205. Unfortunately I don't have a dedicated time at the beginning for BIO 181 info but your CATS has provided me something to think about.

Erik Huntsinger Mon, 01/20/2014 - 5:29pm

I may find this particularly interesting as it is related to my dissertation in progress about understanding the predictors of student success in ECN courses.  So what are the implications of these findings?  Obviously it shows that we need to scaffold support for those that have received a "swiss cheese" education as Salman Khan as termed (i.e., there are missing pieces in the foundation of their education).  If after supplemental support, is it ethically imperative on our part to tell studnets that don't have a solid algebra background that they are likely not to pass the course (or is it more ethical to keep our mouth's shut and let them progress on their own)?