Condense, Customize, Collaborate, and Complete: Thank you to Nicole Franics, Vikki Maurer and Claire Burke for sharing their experience!
Our mathematics department at Linn Benton Community College in Oregon was struggling with how to solve several problems within our developmental sequence. First, many students were daunted by the need to take four quarters of mathematics before reaching college level and, as with many schools, our students were dropping out without completing their mathematics requirements. Second, our courses had been designed years ago to support mathematics in several Career and Technical Education departments. Since then, the CTE departments have adopted the computation portion into their own courses and were not utilizing our math classes, so we were including topics that weren’t relevant to our students. Third, we recognized that developments had been made in mathematics instruction to improve student retention and performance. We weren’t using these developments and our mathematics homework wasn’t using the most recent technological advances. Finally, as always, we wanted to improve our pass rates.
Before fall quarter 2017, our developmental math consisted of two tracts. We had a traditional developmental algebra sequence that consisted of 4 classes. Math 20, Math 60, Math 65 , and Math 95 and an alternative pathway for non-Stem majors that consisted of only Math 98. With the exception of Math 98, our classes had a very traditional style of curriculum with instructor-led lecture classes , written homework, and paper and pencil exams. Our change was motivated by recent research in retention and performance in collaborative learning environments and our desire to improve student success by shortening the pathway to college level mathematics and incorporate adaptive software. We took our four traditional classes and replaced them with three collaborative learning courses that utilized Aleks adaptive homework.
In addition to changing the number of classes and the instructional style, we adapted our classrooms to facilitate collaborative learning. We use hexagonal tables that seat 4-6 students, each table with their own portable whiteboard for reporting. We added projectors so that material presented would be easily visible from any seat in the classroom, and we required our students to bring either laptops or tablets in lieu of graphing calculators.
Our classroom time is spent now doing activities, writing reflections, and holding discussions. The structured group activities require critical thinking and communication skills. The topics can range from practice problems for a particular topic to solving complicated real world problems. We teamed with other departments, such as Agriculture, Physics, and Business, to find interesting and challenging math application problems to use in our classes
Outside of class, the students use Aleks adaptive homework. Aleks uses a comprehensive initial knowledge check to identify a student’s skills and weaknesses. We use the results of these initial knowledge checks as a placement aid, in addition to directing our classroom instruction. Students have weekly objectives of approximately 20 goal topics plus any of their personal prerequisites. The progress on these weekly objectives is considered their homework grade.For testing students take proctored Aleks comprehensive knowledge checks and also written paper and pencil concept tests.
Like any change, there were some challenges. First and foremost there was, and still is, the challenge of convincing our faculty members that collaborative style learning is effective. Many instructors feel like if they don’t say it the students won’t learn it. We’ve found in our experience (and this is supported through the literature) that the opposite is often true. The more you lecture, the less they learn. We’ve addressed this issue through a department-wide professional development, presentation of timely literature supporting collaborative learning, and a mentoring program for new faculty.
There is some resistance among students as well but generally speaking this is more-easily overcome. Students may be hesitant at first but most come to enjoy the classes. Many students have told me the class is more engaging and fun than any other math class they have taken. One student wrote on their classroom evaluation, “I loved working in my group. We all seemed to know our strengths and helped each other when we were in need of explaining a step or how we got to the answers.” The students become invested in solving the application problems and enjoy the feeling of success after struggle. Very few students have anything but praise for Aleks homework. They appreciate not having to do problems they already know how to do, just because it is listed in the assignment. They also feel supported because Aleks identifies their weaker areas and provides them with the information and support they need on those topics. Again, a quote from a student, “One thing I would keep the same is doing homework on the Aleks program. It is really nice to the alternative of doing 30 problems on one topic and hoping you got it right when you turn the homework in.”
After one full year of our new style of teaching we are happy with the preliminary results. Since there are now fewer classes, it is difficult to do a perfect comparison but our pass rates have increased across our courses. The following tables present our comparison pass rates, which light blue being our previous courses and dark blue our current courses.We also compared the initial knowledge checks in the next class in the sequence, students coming from our previous classes are coming in about the same level as preparedness. Finally, students who continue on to the next course do about the same as their peers coming from other math programs.
Overall we are very pleased and encouraged by the change in developmental math curriculum. There is still work to be done, activities to improve, and skills to enhance but we feel that our curriculum has made a positive impact on our students success.