Changing the Equation: Redesigning Developmental Math

Volunteer State Community College

Redesign Coordinator: Nancy Morris

Project Abstract
Final Report (as of 3/1/12)

Project Abstract

Prior to fall 2011, the Developmental Studies Program in Math (DSPM) at Volunteer State Community College (VSCC) comprised three, three-credit courses: Basic Mathematics, Elementary Algebra, and Intermediate Algebra. Total enrollment in AY 2009-10 was 612 for Basic Math, 1,605 for Elementary Algebra and 1,625 for Intermediate Algebra. Once placed into the DSPM sequence, all students had to succeed in Intermediate Algebra before exiting to university-parallel mathematics.

VSCC fully recognized that the DSPM program was not working for many students and that a major change was long overdue. Student success rates were less than 50%. Many students repeated DSPM courses multiple times. The structure of three developmental math courses was overwhelming to many students, especially those who placed at the lowest level. Many simply gave up since they faced, at a minimum, three semesters in developmental math. The program needed to be streamlined, the time spent in developmental math shortened, overall student performance enhanced and completion rates improved.  

VSCC’s decision to implement the Emporium Model was based on research from redesigned programs across the U.S. indicating the model improves student success and retention and generates institutional savings. VSCC’s Learning Commons emporium has become a central venue for engaging students, providing personal attention and support, and intervention when necessary. The redesign promoted active mastery learning by utilizing proven computer-based learning resources supported by on-demand, one-on-one assistance. Students learned math by doing math as they worked in the Learning Commons emporium guided by instructors, staff and tutors. All faculty, staff, and tutors went through extensive professional development on Emporium Model pedagogy. VSCC has moved from a culture of traditional face-to-face lecture to a culture of student-centered, faculty-supported, technologically-based learning. The departmental professional development calendar included specific on-going training for emporium faculty and staff.

Each student placing into the new developmental math program called Learning Support Math (LSM) began with competency 1. However, pre-testing permitted prepared students to move immediately beyond any competency in which initial mastery was demonstrated. Additionally, there were multiple exit points, allowing some students access to general education math courses sooner. The curriculum was naturally streamlined as students were required to demonstrate mastery in those math competencies germane to their chosen program of study rather than forcing a curriculum for levels of mastery which their intended program may not have required. Students in LSM had the opportunity to move quickly through the competencies, and once completed, move on to their next required math course.

Students demonstrated time-on-task during the required three fixed hours per week in the Learning Commons emporium. They were required to progress through course material via the online learning system (MyMathLab) and complete the guided notebook. Progress was documented through assignments, study plans and post-tests. During the pilot phase, live on-line synchronous chat sessions known as Guided Instructional Groups (GIG) were piloted. Math GIGs were offered several times weekly and the best of each topic archived as online resources for all math students. 

Comparative performance of learning outcomes in parallel sections of traditional and redesigned courses were employed during the pilot assessment in spring 2011. Of the four methods NCAT recommended for assessing learning, comparison of common content items selected from exams was chosen. Standardized questions taken from the traditional departmental final exam were apportioned to appropriate modules in the redesigned sections, thereby allowing direct one-to-one comparisons. In the first cycle following full-implementation in fall 2011, student success and retention data were compared to pre-redesign data along with review of student success in subsequent university-parallel math courses in spring 2012.

Significant cost savings were accomplished by 1) increasing class size to a weighted average of 40, 2) changing faculty/ staff ratios, and 3) streamlining the curriculum to include multiple exits to university-parallel mathematics. Once the new mathematics lab is completed in fall 2012, it will seat 50 students and classes on the main campus will be larger, as originally planned. The overall cost-per-student after full implementation of the redesign will decline about 28%, from $199 in the traditional format to $144 in the redesign. Savings realized will provide administration-endorsed opportunities for 1) expansion of the Emporium Model to university-parallel math courses, 2) support of upper-division, low-enrollment STEM courses, 3) scheduled professional development for faculty in NCAT/other conferences, 4) released-time supporting faculty research, and 5) supplemental instruction.  

Final Report (as of 3/1/12)

Impact on Students

In the redesign, did students learn more, less or the same compared to the traditional format?

Improved Learning

Common items on final exams were compared for all students enrolled in fall 2010 traditional Developmental Studies Math and redesigned fall 2011 Learning Support Math. The common items were based on learning outcomes for three courses (Basic Math, Elementary Algebra, and Intermediate Algebra) for fall 2010 and two courses (Learning Support Math and Pre-College Algebra) for fall 2011. 

It should be noted that in the redesigned Learning Support Math, the final exam was not part of the grade for the redesigned group and scores may not, therefore, accurately reflect student achievement/ mastery since the exam had no impact on the student’s grade for the course. This practice resulted from new Tennessee Board of Regents guidelines which prevents reevaluation of content for which the student has previously demonstrated mastery. The redesign group may have lacked motivation to perform well on the final exam since it was not included in the final grade. Scores for the redesign group might have been higher had this been a part of the final grade calculation.

Basic Math

Five common items from the final exam were used to compare Basic Math skills for the Elementary Algebra sections (since Basic Math ceased to exist for fall 2011). In fall 2010, 327 students took the Elementary Algebra exam and 407 students took the Learning Support Math exam in fall 2011. 

Statistical results indicated significantly higher scores in Basic Math skills in the redesigned course (mean 79.12) over the traditional course (mean 69.17).

These results are inconclusive, however, since students in traditional Basic Math were those with ACT math sub-scores of 13 and below whereas the student population taking the redesigned Learning Support Math had ACT sub-scores of 13 – 18.

Elementary Algebra

Twenty-nine common items from the final exam were used to compare student performance in all sections of traditional Elementary Algebra in fall 2010 and redesigned Learning Support math in fall 2011. A total of 327 students took the exam in fall 2010, and 407 students took the exam in fall 2011. Statistical results indicated significantly higher mean scores in Elementary Algebra skills in the redesigned course (mean 73.93%) over the traditional course (mean 63.07%). 

The percentage of students failing the exam in the traditional course was 66.4%, whereas this percentage dropped to 46.9% in the redesigned course.

These results are inconclusive, however, since students in traditional Elementary Algebra were those with ACT math sub-scores of 14 - 16 and below whereas the student population taking the redesigned Learning Support Math had ACT sub-scores of 13 – 18.

Intermediate Algebra

Twenty-three common items were used to compare Intermediate Algebra skills for all sections of Intermediate Algebra in fall 2010 and Pre-College Algebra in fall 2011. A total of 328 students took the final exam in fall 2010 and 196 students took the exam in fall 2011. Analysis of student performance indicated no statistical significance in Intermediate Algebra mean final exam scores in the redesigned course over the traditional course. 

Despite no difference in student performance based on mean exam scores, however, the percentage of students failing the exam in the traditional course was 70.4%, while the percentage failing the exam for the redesigned course dropped to 44.9%--i.e., 25.5% more students passed the exam in the redesigned course than in the traditional course

It should be noted that the student populations in each group were significantly different. Prior to redesign, students were placed into Intermediate Algebra with an ACT Math sub-score of 17-18.  After redesign, students with an ACT below 19 were placed into Learning Support Math.

Course-by-Course Completion Rates

In order to compare individual course completion rates, one needs to look at the percentage of students who complete the same amount of material in the same period of time. In the redesign of their developmental math sequence, VSCC eliminated Basic Math, collapsed what had been elements of Basic Math, Elementary Algebra and Intermediate Algebra into one, modularized course called Learning Support Math and changed the ACT placement scores for Elementary Algebra (traditional sub-score 14 – 16; redesign sub-score 13 – 18). Students enrolled in Learning Support Math could be beginning students or students continuing from a prior semester. Consequently, it was not possible to calculate comparative course completion rates for this project.

Other Impacts on Students

Almost one-third of Elementary Algebra students in the redesign cohort demonstrated mastery by midterm and, thus, proceeded to their next required math course. About a dozen of these students successfully finished the next math course in the same semester.

Impact on Cost Savings

Were costs reduced as planned?

In the traditional format, VSCC offered 159 sections annually averaging 24 students each; 73 were taught by full-time faculty and 86 by part-time faculty. The enrollment was 3,842. The redesign plan was to increase section size from 25 to 50 on the main campus. Because space needed to be rehabbed, the full achievement of the increase will not be seen until spring 2013. Once the plan is fully implemented, VSCC will offer 70 sections with 31 taught by full-time faculty and 39 taught by part-time faculty. 

The plan also involved phasing in of the redesign for VSCC’s satellite locations and the online developmental course at some time in the future. Because VSCC’s enrollment system would not permit some courses to be in the traditional format and some in the redesigned format, all sections were redesigned. The satellite locations averaged 24 students per section due to space limitations and the online courses averaged 27 students per section.  Consequently, now all versions of the developmental course are offered with the new curriculum.

Because the Tennessee Board of Regents has newly designated Intermediate Algebra as college-level, some adjuncts previously hired to teach this course were not credentialed to teach university-parallel math. Thus, staffing has shifted to move more credentialed faculty to Intermediate Algebra and more part-time faculty to the developmental math course.

Once the larger, main campus lab is available, the weighted, section-size average will increase to about 40 students. The cost-per-student after full implementation will decline about 28%, from $199 in the traditional format to $144 in the redesign. Savings realized will provide administration-endorsed opportunities for 1) expansion of the Emporium Model to university-parallel MATH courses, 2) support of upper-division, low-enrollment STEM courses, 3) scheduled professional development for faculty in NCAT/other conferences, 4) released-time supporting faculty research, and 5) supplemental instruction.


Will the redesign be sustained now that the grant period is over?

VCSS will not return to the traditional lecture approach for developmental mathematics. Evidence of faculty, staff and student transformation exists as a result of the redesign process. While there are occasional requests for a lecture section, the emporium culture has become the norm; students and faculty alike are relaxing into this new normal.
VSCC has addressed the big challenges and has made significant progress toward solution in each case.  Faculty and IT together have determined how to extract grades from MLP/MML, format, and input into students’ BANNER records. The VSCC strategic plan includes opportunity for general education math courses within the Learning Commons emporium. Major renovation to the VSCC Library will soon be underway and will include a new, larger emporium, with space for increased emporium offerings and class sizes of 50.

VSCC has redesigned its commitment to high school mathematics education and preparation of high school students by piloting a bridge opportunity with service-area high schools in fall 2012. Algebra II students will be assessed utilizing a VSCC final exam to demonstrate college-preparedness as an alternative to ACT. Those students who demonstrate mastery may then enroll in a dual-enrollment math course in the subsequent semester. This increases the probability that a student will complete a college-level math course before high school graduation, thus increasing the probability of college success and graduation while reducing the number of students entering the college placing into Learning Support Math.   


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