M.A.T.H. Tips: Vol. 22

The Greatest Need: Teaching Innovations in College Algebra

Failure rates in College Algebra courses are high across the country and present significant barriers to earning STEM degrees because mathematical sciences courses in the first two years of college function as pathways for many different science and engineering majors. According to a report, “Common Vision” from the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), 50 percent of students earn a grade lower than C every year in the United States. This sort of poor performance in gateway or general introduction courses such as college algebra not only has a hugely detrimental effect on students’ performance in their first two years of college, but also has lasting negative repercussions beyond college, since failure to obtain a degree in science or engineering prevents graduates from getting higher paying jobs.

Finding the status quo unacceptable, universities and colleges are pushing forward with large-scale implementation of modern instructional and delivery methods. Modernized pedagogy in mathematics departments currently involves using innovative instructional technology that enhances learning in ways not supported by the traditional classroom. And for good reason. The same MAA report finds that “failure rates under traditional lecture are 55 percent higher than the rates observed under more active approaches to learning.”

Through the use of active learning strategies and adaptive courseware—a personalized learning tool that students can use to review, practice and develop the requisite mathematical skills for a particular course—mathematics instructors at Oregon State University have achieved promising initial success in helping OSU students pass College Algebra.

Learn More about how Oregon State University transformed their College Algebra Course.

Tips for Students with Math Avoidance

Whether is due to math anxiety, math hatred, math phobia, or just poor choices, many students put off their math until their last semester and then say, “I need to pass this class to graduate. Ironically, this makes the course even more high stakes and adds to the anxiety level they feel.

Math anxiety and phobia are real. They come with real symptoms. Elevated heart rate, trembling, sweating, and difficulty breathing are just some of the physical symptoms. Many articles and even books have been written about how students can reduce symptoms. What role can faculty play in keeping anxiety down? Is it even our job? In the AMATYC Beyond Crossroads document they say:

“In a standards-based learning environment, students are viewed as partners in the learning experience.  To nurture that partnership, faculty may need to help students identify their academic strengths and weaknesses, develop strategies to minimize mathematics anxiety, and learn how to take responsibility for their own learning.”

Some strategies for helping include:

  • Make expectations clear so there are no surprises.
  • Encourage students to ask questions and answer without a “you should know that” attitude.
  • Be open about when and where help is available from you, college provided tutoring, and any online tutoring that might be available.
  • Have information available in advisement about the advantages and disadvantages of various modes of delivery. (math avoiders often land in online classes that are a poor fit for their abilities and propensity to delay and not face their math lessons and homework)
  • Be aware of the signs of a student in physical distress and provide assistance as needed.
  • Provide students with information about what THEY can do to improve the situation (see below)

If we accept this idea of partnership and recognize that both we and the student have a role to play in keeping anxiety down, some of the problem may be mitigated.





Identifying At-risk Students

Student behavior tends to settle into a pattern after the first few weeks of classes. Around week three or four of the semester would be a good time to pull a report to identify students engaging in behavior that could impair their chance of success in the course.  When deciding to pull a report think about your class structure do you have assignments due once a week or multiple times per week, are there weekly quizzes? Do you use readings or touch points that students are expected to complete and how often?   Knowing how often a student should be accessing course material and for how long will help you identify what metric to use when creating your report.

You can choose to use one or multiple metrics to help identify at risk students.   At first you can pick one metric and then use a second to drill down into behavior.

Common metrics for reports and what they can tell you:

  • Last login – Useful to identify students who have not accessed course material in the past week, however it can hide students who access the course but logout without fully completing work. Look for students who have not logged in for more than three or four days.
  • Logins per week – Useful in a course with multiple weekly deadlines to identify students who are not keeping up with assignments.  Look for students who log-in only on days when assignments are due as well as students last login times of students who have missed assignments.
  • Total time in course – Useful for assessing if students are spending enough time outside of class on course material, can miss students who do work in binges rather than spreading out their time. Look for students who are below the class average.
  • Time spent on topic or assignment – Good for identifying students who do work at the last minute or who rush through assignments. Look for students who have poor grades or who are struggling with topics to identify how much time they actually spend working on course material or assignments.
  • Progress reports – Gives a good overview of where a student falls in total course progress. Useful when compared to the class to identify students who are falling behind.

These are just a few to get you started, based on your course type and structure you might find others that are more useful.

When looking to identify at risk students we want to try and identify poor practices as soon as possible.  After identifying an at-risk student, it can help to meet with the student to discuss their study and time management practices.   It is also important to follow-up with the student in the following weeks to help them stay on track.

Math Career Spotlight: Karyn Sutton, Senior Research Scientist

We are thrilled to introduce you to Karyn Sutton who shares her path and tips to make the most of her math skills in her career. Responses might be edited for length and clarity

  1. What is your current job/career?

I’m a senior research scientist at the IDM:Institute for Disease Modeling, located in Bellevue, Washington (which is a suburb of Seattle, and the home of Microsoft).

  1. How do you use math or mathematical problem solving in your work? How does your math background help you in your job?

We develop, modify, or simply use mathematical models and (related statistical tools) to work with organizations funding research or implementation of strategies, policy makers, etc. to help anticipate impact of disease control or prevention measures.

  1. What motivated you to study math?

I studied math because I didn’t want to restrict my studies to any one particular area of the sciences. A mathematics degree at any level affords us the opportunity to work on, and learn about, any number of topics, while providing an expertise that is often lacking and very appreciated.

  1. What would you say to a student who is thinking about studying math but doesn’t what a typical teaching career.

Most math majors do not end up in a `typical teaching career’, although that is an extremely valuable and worthy service! The skills that students learn as a math major open several doors that really can’t be fully anticipated. It is a set of skills that are very valued and sought after, and especially if one wants to work in any interdisciplinary setting, they’ve already learned “the hard part”, and can more easily get up to speed with the subject matter at hand.

  1. Other advice or comments?

Learn as much as you can about as many areas of mathematics, and their uses, as you can – even broad familiarity is useful and allows you to have productive conversations.

Check out more Math Career Spotlights on our Index!