The question in the title mostly covers the question I want to ask. After seeing a number of questions here on ME and having taught/TA'd a number of introductory math classes, I wonder what people think the essential skills high school should teach students in terms of math. It might be interesting to see both what math major type people think is necessary and what just general population think is necessary. To limit the question though, let's say that we care what people who teach STEM based math (for non US, that's essentially the non-humanities based academics disciplines) think. What would you like your incoming students to have learnt in high school?

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    $\begingroup$ The underlying problem here is Goodhart's Law. Any usable answer invariably falls prey to it. $\endgroup$ Jul 10, 2022 at 4:12
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    $\begingroup$ I'm afraid if you ask this question to, say, two instructors in mathematics, two in physcis, and two in computer science, you'll get at least twelve different answers... $\endgroup$ Jul 10, 2022 at 18:33
  • $\begingroup$ Have you seen this post? It outlines what I believe is essential mathematics that students should learn by high-school. It requires teachers who know FOL inside-out, but it is definitely achievable since technically it is simpler than learning programming. $\endgroup$
    – user21820
    Jul 10, 2022 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ I deleted some mini-answers in the comments. If your comment is a short answer, please post it as a short answer! Thanks all. $\endgroup$ Jul 11, 2022 at 14:14

6 Answers 6


This is entirely opinion based, but I don't really care what content is "covered" at all. I care that students are engaged with thinking about problems which involve quantitative and spatial reasoning, and that they develop progressively more sophisticate logical reasoning abilities. They should be able to communicate their ideas effectively, produce logically coherent arguments, critique the arguments of others, produce examples and counter examples of claims generated by themselves and their peers, etc. In other words, they should engage with the real process of mathematics. Too often prescribing content leads to mimicry of these fundamental skills. We need the real deal.

It would be nice if the topics they are thinking about "build up" to something. Another important feature of mathematics is how mastery of one body of knowledge can lay the groundwork for beginning on another. What was at first insurmountable becomes routine. I would like students to have this experience so that they know what it feels like, and that it is possible.

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    $\begingroup$ I realize this is opinion based. And will understand if it gets closed for that reason, but it seems like an important question and body of answers for an exchange which is to be about mathematical education. My experience is that right now many (most) students especially in the US but more and more in Europe too, don't actually leave high school with most of the essential and important skills needed for further education. They might leave with "Calc 1"skills that in some strange way don't include understanding what equality means. $\endgroup$
    – DRF
    Jul 9, 2022 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ @DRF: don't actually leave high school with most of the essential and important skills needed for further education --- In discussions like this I think it's important to more precisely identify the students under discussion, otherwise the participants may wind up talking past each other. Many high school students (no longer most, but definitely most at my high school back when I was in high school) do not obtain further education (and of these, probably nontrivial percentage have no desire to do so), (continued) $\endgroup$ Jul 10, 2022 at 10:31
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    $\begingroup$ and also a nontrivial percentage of all students (5% to 10%) have sufficient mental disabilities to require special treatment that is likely not under consideration here. Indeed, by saying They might leave with "Cal 1" skills $\ldots$ seems to me to be only looking at the top 10% to 20% of high school students (indeed, about top 1% to 2% at my high school, which did not offer calculus; I was the "1" in my graduating class that generated the 1% in my class, although the situation is much better now, probably 10% or more now at my high school). $\endgroup$ Jul 10, 2022 at 10:31
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    $\begingroup$ Another important feature of mathematics is how mastery of one body of knowledge can lay the groundwork for beginning on another. What was at first insurmountable becomes routine. – If you acknowledge this, how can you not care what specific topical groundwork students bring to university? Any university-level course will build on the expectation that students have already seen certain topics, even if they are repeated from scratch. Students who have never seen a topic will be clearly disadvantaged compared to those who are seeing it for the third time. $\endgroup$
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jul 11, 2022 at 9:46
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    $\begingroup$ I loved your and Ryang's answer, too me these answers are nearly exhaustive and also the need of the day in today's classrooms. Present classrooms can even do without the teachers if the students are told the books' names. Unless what you have proposed happens, I think that the teachers are not required. $\endgroup$ Jul 17, 2022 at 17:25

The nominal entry level into university-level mathematics is first-semester freshman calculus. The way that class is customarily taught, it makes only extremely modest demands on students' high-level reasoning skills, such as reading comprehension, creativity, and sense-making. There are almost no "word problems," and the class consists almost entirely of differential calculus, at which students can succeed simply by mastering rules.

Students need skills like the following in order to succeed in such a class:

  • ability to manipulate fractions
  • order of operations
  • ability to solve an equation for an unknown
  • knowledge of some very basic trigonometry, such as being able to tell what is the sine of 90 degrees and explain why without recourse to rote memorization
  • knowledge of exponents and logarithms and basic properties such as $\log(ab)=\log a+\log b$

Many students at this level have only been exposed to solving multiple equations in multiple unknowns in the case where the equations are linear. That is probably sufficient in most cases for success in such a class.

The classes that will more stringently test their preparation are second-semester calculus (because integration is not algorithmic) and first-semester physics (because it's all word problems and interpretation, and one often has to solve multiple nonlinear equations in multiple unknowns).

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    $\begingroup$ I think it would be good to specify the country to which your answer applies. (For instance, your first sentence is not correct where I live.) $\endgroup$ Jul 11, 2022 at 6:16

TL;DR: Most students need to already have a basic understanding of common concepts to cope with doing them again more quickly and abstractly at university.

My perspective: I am involved in teaching physics to students of physics and some other disciplines (e.g., math) in Germany. I studied physics and maths in Germany myself.

University mathematics education does almost everything from scratch. Moreover, before the first semester, every physics department in Germany offers a mathematical repetition course of about three weeks, covering all the mathematics you require for the first semesters. This will cover mathematics that the physics lectures require and that the parallel mathematics lectures haven’t got to (e.g., integrals). If a student has missed a particular topic in school, they will see it here. So, from a naïve perspective, a student doesn’t need anything except the ability to engage in critical mathematical thinking of any kind.

However, all these courses only really work if you have some familiarity with the general topics. For example, it simply takes some time (and repetition) until a student has wrapped their mind around derivatives and automatised the basic concepts to some extent (also see this answer of mine). If a student hasn’t already done this in school, it will be very difficult for them to follow the much more quick-paced and abstract introduction to calculus at university and the physics lectures that simply use it. Some exceptional student may be able to grasp university calculus to the required extent even though this is their first encounter with calculus, but they are, well, the exception.

The good news is that the details don’t matter that much. For example, I care that students have an understanding of what a derivative is, but if I don’t care very much whether they know certain differentiation methods. Those can be learnt quickly and are not the basics for more advanced layers of mathematics. (Of course working with different differentiation methods is a good way to fortify the understanding of derivatives.)

With all that being said, here are things that we just assume as given in first-semester physics education and for which it is already very helpful if you have already seen them for the mathematics courses:

  • fractions
  • solving equation systems (linear or easy non-linear)
  • solving quadratic equations
  • basic trigonometry
  • vectors (geometrical interpretation and arithmetics)
  • limits
  • derivatives
  • integrals
  • exponents and logarithms
  • probability (not required in the first semester, but later)

With all these topics, I mostly want students to have a robust understanding of the basics. There is no use if a student can quickly solve all sorts of integrals but has no idea how to apply integrals to real problems or is lost once the variable of integration is not $x$ anymore or if presented a straightforward double integral.

  • Checking answers
  • Showing and checking work. Algebraic work can benefit from the two-column proof approach: one column for the algebra work and another column explaining what happened in each step. This is a lot to ask of students though since they will grow impatient at how much longer an algebra problem takes.

Processing information attentively for meaning;
thinking systematically (structure, connections, etc.);
being empowered to unpack stuff and continually make revisions and sense;
skills of inquiry.

enter image description here

In short, active thinking. Quoting my recent comments (Why do some students struggle so much with fractions):

Or how about just cultivating confidence (by sufficiently exposing learners to reasoning that involves more than one step, being methodical, and the process of intellectual discovery)? Technical topics naturally seem formidable when it continues to feel alien to be applying attention span to them.

I was riffing generally that, especially when it comes to hierarchical and technical subjects, waving the white flag at the first opportunity is a vicious cycle. Like reflexively dismissing alien cultures and never getting to broaden horizons.

Edit to clarify that the above illustration is an inherently didactic concept map, not an inspirational poster.

  • $\begingroup$ Can you describe what you mean by "systematic/methodical thinking" or recommend a framework for modeling the behavior for students? There's Polya's How to Solve It, Given/Find/Solution/Answer format, etc... It would be easier for students to implement and then refine a clear system than to try to cobble their own system together from scratch. $\endgroup$
    – Steve
    Jul 12, 2022 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Steve My mind-map-style poster is a distillation to facilitate (easy to keep circling back to at a glance) inculcating those core attitudes and habits of mind (intellectual growth). They of course underpin a framework like How to Solve It, whose ideas are applied in tandem. [Apologies if this reply is being orthogonal!] $\endgroup$
    – ryang
    Jul 13, 2022 at 7:58
  • $\begingroup$ Your mind-map style poster was the reason I downvoted your answer. $\endgroup$
    – Rusty Core
    Jul 14, 2022 at 3:10
  • $\begingroup$ @RustyCore Downvoting a supplemental illustration? $\endgroup$
    – ryang
    Jul 14, 2022 at 3:24
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    $\begingroup$ @ryang, I felt it would be a crime not upvoting such an excellent answer. So I joined the community! What you have said, though obvious, sadly isn't. It's very needed to be mentioned and also need be nurtured since (very) early on. $\endgroup$ Jul 17, 2022 at 17:28

For most STEMs, they will have a standard calculus course, freshman year. Strong working ability, B level, of most of Frank Ayres First Year College Math is a good enough foundation. Of course it would be nice to have more. And some will have less. But that's a decent expectation.

Note that, in the US, college algebra is a misnomer since the 50s. Calculus freshman year is the normal track. If you aren't ready for it, you're on a remedial track. If you place out, you are on an accelerated track.

Also, I'm not saying they need to study the Ayres book. Duh. Just that it is a convenient synthesis of high school work, pre calculus. If you can work the Ayres problems, or the equivalent, you have enough to move into a normal calc class.

  • $\begingroup$ This answer could be improved by actually listing topics rather than referring to a book. The overall thesis is the same as that of the current top-voted answer. $\endgroup$
    – Steve
    Jul 12, 2022 at 13:19

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