The Trap of Not Filling in the Gaps .....Larry Martinek, CIO

Apr 14, 2016 | Burlington

Please let me explain the problem of “Algebra Too Soon,” - That is, the situation where students are programmed into Algebra while lacking the knowledge necessary for success in the course.   The “trap” is that students are put under such tremendous pressure to perform in their current class that they don’t have the time or the interest to acquire the “missing” knowledge, the “gaps,” that will make future success possible.  When confronted with the stark reality that genuine learning is not taking place, many students, parents, and school counselors con themselves into believing that if we can “just get past this test, this class, everything will be all right.” This is an illusion whose consequences may not manifest themselves for many years to come.  Here is a quote from The Mathematics Association of America website outlining reality for far too many students.

We begin with a familiar story:

 “A student, we call him Tom, arrives at the University, happy to begin his college adventure. Almost immediately he is confronted with the Mathematics Placement Exam, designed to see if he is ready to enroll in a general education mathematics course (or in a credit-bearing course required by his major). The results of the Placement Exam unfortunately indicate that Tom is not prepared for the course he wants, and he must instead take a developmental mathematics course.

The result: he faces a delay in completing the needed mathematics course, he must take (for no credit) a course that he feels he has already taken, and to add insult to injury, he must pay an extra fee for the developmental course. Unhappiness, frustration and despair set in, the course is treated as a lowest priority (and often failed because of it), and an angry and frustrated student emerges.” (

This happens thousands of times each year to students who have “passed” all of their required high school math courses, many times with good grades, only to discover that they are being placed in a “developmental math class” because they lack the knowledge and skills necessary for success with college–level math courses. Many colleges and universities are now giving students a maximum of one year (one semester in some cases) to “catch up” or else be required to leave the college or university until they are “ready” for college–level work.

Not surprisingly, the curriculum of most developmental math  courses is exactly the material that students and parents choose to bypass in earlier years so that the students could “get ready” for college. The “inconvenient truth” is that all of the dire warnings about a “lack of foundation being a real problem in the future” are in fact absolutely correct. 

Larry Martinek , Co-Founder and Chief Instructional Officer