Is pure math a better choice for students than applied math?

One trend in American mathematics education over the past two decades has been the addition of increasing amounts of "applied" or "real-world" content in higher mathematics instruction and assessment, in response to concerns that students are insufficiently motivated to learn material by a straight presentation of the underlying mathematics concepts. In this context, a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has two startling results to report: first, students who are taught using a pure-math model perform noticeably better on assessments that have strong applied-math components than students who are taught using a model with a focus on applied math; and, second, there is a correlation between the economic class of students and the approach taken for their math education, with classes made up primarily of low-income students getting a stronger applied-math approach and those made up of higher-income students taking a stronger pure-math approach. The study suggests that the applied-math teaching model as it is implemented tends to give a quick, mechanical overview of the underlying mathematics, emphasizing processes, before moving on to applications, while the pure-math model uses the time not spent on applications to give students a deeper conceptual understanding of the subject.  

By: Michael Walpole 
Mathematics Project Manager