Launchings from the CUPM Curriculum Guide:
Attracting and Retaining Majors

David M. Bressoud November, 2006

This column brings us back to an issue that I visited in the December, 2005 column and that is ever-present in most departments: How do we get more majors? Since 1980, the number of students majoring in Mathematics has stayed roughly constant, between 10,000 and 11,000 graduating each year. This has been despite tremendous growth in the number of students going to college and the number majoring in the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematical Sciences). We as a profession are failing to attract and retain students in mathematics. The intention of this recommendation is to highlight some of the obvious steps that can be taken.

The study Talking About Leaving: Factors Contributing to High Attrition Rates Among Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Undergraduate Majors by E. Seymour and N. Hewitt [1] (see reviews at [2] and [3]) makes it very clear that across all types of institutions, the main reason why students leave engineering, science, and, especially, mathematics is poor teaching. It is not the difficulty of the material that stops them, but the way it is taught. Too often, mathematics is presented as a series of hurdles that have little meaning. In “The Classroom Encounter,” [4] Reuben Hersh expands on this theme, imploring us to think about how we teach, not just what we teach. Explaining the heuristics, the struggle to understand the ideas, and their connection to the world beyond the mathematics classroom should be part of every class. Beyond that, the emotional connections between teacher and student that come from sharing excitement, expressing concern, and being aware of each student’s individual struggles is critical.

A large part of the process of caring about student aspirations and frustrations should be carried by the academic advisor. Several successful advising programs are described in the Illustrative Resources. Bill Velez has overseen a very effective program at the University of Arizona and has written several articles (including [5], [6]) on what makes a successful advising program and how it can be used to recruit and retain mathematics students. As he makes very clear, advising is far more than passively waiting for students to come to us with their questions. Too many students with the potential to take more mathematics and even major in it arrive in college with a very poor understanding of what mathematics really is or how it can serve them. They will never walk in our doors unless we actively recruit them. Advising must be aggressive, what Velez calls inreach.

My own math department at Macalester College conducts exit interviews with each graduating major, a useful and enlightening exercise. It is informative to discover what drew students to the major, and what might have almost caused them to leave. Specific courses loom large. Some of our majors arrived with a clear goal that they simply followed, but most found a teacher early on with whom they connected, who aroused their passion for the subject, and who guided them toward the courses and instructors that best fit their abilities and interests.

Getting students to take mathematics when they get to college is the first step. Then we have to ensure that the courses they take are engaging and challenging, courses that enable students to build a sense of accomplishment while pointing to what more could be learned if they only took the next course. That after all is the key to building a strong group of majors, that students finish each math course wanting to take one more.

[1] E. Seymour and N. Hewitt, Talking About Leaving: Factors Contributing to High Attrition Rates Among Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Undergraduate Majors, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997

[2] Margaret Eisenhart, Review of Talking about Leaving, American Scientist Online.

[3] Robert C. Thomas, Review of Talking about Leaving, The Montana Professor, vol. 3, no. 7, Fall, 1997.

[4] Reuben Hersh, The Classroom Encounter, Humanistic Mathematics Network Journal,

[5] William Y. Velez, Academic Advising as an Aggressive Activity, Focus, vol. 14, no. 4, 10–12.

[6] William Y. Velez, Increasing the Number of Mathematics Majors, Focus, March 2006,

Do you know of programs, projects, or ideas that should be included in the CUPM Illustrative Resources?

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We would appreciate more examples that document experiences with the use of technology as well as examples of interdisciplinary cooperation.

David Bressoud is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, he was one of the writers for the Curriculum Guide, and he currently serves as Chair of the CUPM. He wrote this column with help from his colleagues in CUPM, but it does not reflect an official position of the committee. You can reach him at