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Testing Our Assumptions: Mathematics Preparation And Its Role In Engineering Student Success

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

Mathematics in Transition

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Page Count


Page Numbers

12.1385.1 - 12.1385.9



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Paper Authors


John Gardner Boise State University

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John F. Gardner is Professor & Chair of the Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering Department at Boise State University. He is also Director of the Hewlett Foundation funded Engineering Schools of the West Initiative at Boise State. His current research interests, in addition to engineering education, include dynamic systems and sustainable energy systems.

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Pat Pyke Boise State University

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Patricia A. Pyke is the Director of Education Research for the College of Engineering at Boise State University. She oversees projects in freshman programs, math support, mentoring, outreach, and women’s programs. She earned a B.S.E. degree in Mechanical Engineering from Duke University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley.

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Marcia Belcheir Boise State University

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Marcia J. Belcheir is the Associate Director of the Office of Institutional Analysis, Assessment and Reporting at Boise State University. She earned a Ph.D. in Educational Measurement and Evaluation from the University of Florida. Her research interests focus on college student retention with a particular emphasis on classroom experiences and their relationship to retention.

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Cheryl Schrader Boise State University

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Cheryl B. Schrader is Dean of the College of Engineering and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Boise State University. Dean Schrader has an extensive record of publications and sponsored research in the systems, control and engineering education fields. She received the 2005 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Engineering and Mathematics Mentoring from the White House for an enduring, strong, and personal commitment to underrepresented engineering students and faculty.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Testing Our Assumptions: Mathematics Preparation and its Role in Engineering Student Success


Two studies are presented that attempt to test commonly held assumptions regarding mathematics preparation as a predictor to success and retention in engineering programs. Many engineering educators, high school teachers and guidance counselors recommend that engineering programs should only be attempted by students who excel in accelerated and advance placement high school mathematics. The underlying assumption behind this belief is that success in high school mathematics is the best predictor of success as an engineering student and, by extension, a practicing engineer. Boise State University, as a metropolitan university in a region that is not supported by a community college system, is uniquely situated to test these assumptions. We have found that more than 30% of our successful students (those who earn bachelors degrees) began their college career at the eighth or tenth grade algebra level. Even more significantly, we found that the grade earned in their first college level mathematics class was significantly correlated to whether or not they persisted in engineering while the level at which they began mathematics study at the university was not. These results, if they prove to be representative, have significant implication for policy, admissions standards and program development to improve retention in engineering schools.


Nearly every discussion about recruitment and retention of students in engineering involves, or focuses on, mathematics and student preparation in mathematics. Many of the recent studies that have been published about the looming crisis in American competitiveness cite mathematics preparation as a major, if not the only, area that must be improved1, 2. The common observation that college mathematics courses are responsible for the majority of attrition in engineering programs has led to the widely held assumption that lack of mathematics preparation is the underlying problem facing engineering education today. Surprisingly, there is little research to critically and quantitatively put that assumption to the test. An alternate hypothesis might be that students are discouraged by their experience in their college mathematics classroom for reasons that might or might not be related to performance. Over a six year period, in conjunction with a well-funded effort to develop student support programs, we have studied a number of factors to see how they correlate with student success in engineering.

Due to the nature of our institution, we provide access to students with a wide range of mathematics preparation, from those with advanced placement (AP) credit for two semesters of calculus to students who require developmental algebra at the eighth or tenth

Gardner, J., & Pyke, P., & Belcheir, M., & Schrader, C. (2007, June), Testing Our Assumptions: Mathematics Preparation And Its Role In Engineering Student Success Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--2314

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2007 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015