For quite some time, college math courses have focused almost solely on the mathematical knowledge students would need for success in their chosen careers.  If we’re honest, students in non-STEM fields don’t really need much in the way of mathematical knowledge.  What they do need is the ability to think critically about life situations, to be informed citizens, and to be good employees.

The most prominent movement in college math over the last several years involves pathways to completion for non-STEM students.  From a math literacy course designed to replace beginning and intermediate algebra for developmental students to quantitative reasoning courses at the college level, it’s an exciting time for curriculum development.  These new non-STEM math courses have included slight changes to the topics covered and significant changes to the way those topics are covered.  Gone are the boring math lectures that lull students to sleep.  Instead, students are engaged daily in teamwork, communication, and contextual problem-solving with a goal of helping students to become more prepared to enter the workforce.

The National Association of College and Employers (NACE) is a leading resource when it comes to spelling out key career competencies employers really want from recent college graduates.

According to NACE, four of these key competencies are:

  1. Critical Thinking/Problem Solving—Being able to reason and analyze issues, make decisions and overcome problems.
  2. Oral/Written Communications—Articulating thoughts and ideas clearly and effectively in written and oral forms to persons inside and outside of the organization.
  3. Teamwork/Collaboration—Being able to collaborate with colleagues and customers representing diverse cultures, races, ages, genders, lifestyles and viewpoints.
  4. Professionalism/Work Ethic—Demonstrating personal accountability and effective work habits such as being punctual, productive, responsible and having integrity.

These new non-STEM math courses have helped students find success in the classroom while preparing them for success in the workforce.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

Sadly, many students have come to think that math consists of a set of rules and formulas that must be memorized to solve problems according to some prescribed steps.  This group of new non-STEM math courses is working to change that perception.  In these courses, students engage in problem solving every day.  Students are expected to apply skills to solve math problems they have never seen before rather than mimic what an instructor has just done.  Most employers don’t want to hire someone to solve a problem they’ve already solved.  Instead, they want to hire folks equipped to solve problems that haven’t even occurred yet.


In these new courses, students get experience working as a team.  Students are arranged in groups, where they remain for the duration of each unit.  Students work as a team to solve math problems and to complete projects.  Having the experience of dealing with the team member who doesn’t contribute or who tries to take over everything is good preparation for what they will encounter in just about any job.

Oral and Written Communication

As students work in groups they are expected to communicate with each other and the instructor.  Assignments focus on interpretation of results, so students practice written communication of what an answer really means. Through group projects and other group assignments, students gain experience communicating with team members through email and other forms of technology.  Presentations of final projects offer yet another opportunity to practice good communication skills.

Professionalism and Work Ethic

The overall structure of these courses along with embedded assignments requires that students are ready for class, participate and contribute to group discussions, and complete tasks on time in situations where others are relying on them.  Instructors often find that students help hold each other accountable, which improves attendance and student engagement.

Over time, abstract college math requirements became a roadblock to success for students in non-STEM fields.  New math pathways flip that script and give us the opportunity to help students develop marketable skills while still being exposed to relevant, meaningful mathematical concepts that better align with the philosophy behind general education mathematics requirements for students in non-STEM fields.

For more information about the new math courses that focus on these types of skills, contact McGraw-Hill author Brian Mercer (, Professor of Mathematics and Faculty Chair at Parkland College.