|Colleagues Committed to Redesign (C2R)
Course Title: Pre-Calculus Algebra
Status: This project was part of Round II of NCAT's FIPSE-funded Colleagues Committed to Redesign (C2R) program, 2008 – 2009. Participants conducted a pilot of their redesign plans in fall 2008. In the C2R program, NCAT’s role was to introduce the course redesign methodology to participating institutions, assist them in developing project plans and work with them through the pilot period. NCAT was not involved in full implementation; consequently, the project’s status beyond the pilot period is unknown. For more information, contact the project contact listed above.
Auburn University plans to redesign Pre-Calculus Algebra, which has traditionally been offered in two formats. Large auditorium classes of 150 students are typically taught by full-time faculty assisted by two graduate teaching assistant (GTA) graders. GTAs also hold office hours to help students with specific content questions. Small sections of 25-40 (size is dependent upon room capacity) are taught by GTAs or adjunct faculty. Enrollment for the past four years has averaged 600-700 students in the fall and 300-400 in the spring semesters.
The traditional course suffers from a less than desirable success rate. Grade distributions are typically bi-modal. Although a substantial number of students are well-prepared, 30% to 35% do not succeed in the course.
Auburn will use the Emporium Model to redesign the course. Students will be required to spend a minimum of three hours per week working with MyMathLab software in a lab staffed by GTAs and undergraduate teaching assistants (UTAs), who will provide on-demand, individualized assistance. Students may go to the lab whenever they wish, but they must meet scheduled deadlines for homework, quizzes and tests. Staffed computer labs will be available for a total of 42 hours per week at times determined to be popular by the students. The GTAs and UTAs will be trained to help students learn to work through the mathematics by directed discovery (problem solving) pedagogical methods.
The redesigned course will enhance the students’ educational experience, making them active and engaged learners. They will be able to assimilate the course material at their own rates and receive immediate feedback on their online work. Their progress will be monitored, and those experiencing difficulties will be identified and receive individual assistance to overcome the obstacles. GTAs and UTAs will also encourage students to work in groups and to help each other with the material during lab hours. All of these techniques are expected to improve success rates.
Auburn plans to assess student learning outcomes in two phases. In the first phase (fall 2008), half of the students will be in two traditional sections of 160 students each and half will be in one large redesigned section (320 students). In the second phase (spring 2009), students will be divided between six small class sections of ~34 students each taught by GTAs and one redesigned section of 200 students. In both phases, a common final exam will be used to assess student performance.
The redesigned course will reduce instructional costs by reducing the number of sections from 23 to 2, reducing full-time faculty from three to two, eliminating five part-time faculty and reducing GTAs from 21 to 14. These actions will reduce the cost-per-student from $128 to $75, a 41% reduction. The cost savings will allow Auburn to teach fewer auditorium classes, free up a faculty member to teach upper-level courses and increase the number of GTAs who can teach small sections of other math courses.
Students in the redesigned course performed significantly better on the final exam than students in the traditional course. Not only was the average on the final exam higher for the redesigned sections, but the students covered more material. The redesigned sections covered the entire syllabus whereas the traditional sections did not cover the units from the last chapter of the text and one did not cover one section from another chapter. The failure rate for the traditional sections was 7.8% in comparison to 4.9% for the redesigned sections.
The department intends to expand the redesign to two additional courses, College Algebra and Pre-Calculus Trigonometry. As part of the pilot, Auburn converted a classroom to a computer lab dedicated to the redesign and reserved a second lab for a total of about 48 computers, which can accommodate 480 to 768 students. The department has been working with the provost’s office to identify additional space that can be used for computer labs. Two empty computer labs recently vacated by the College of Engineering will be available to the department for at least the next two academic years, each of which can accommodate about 50 computers. Given the increased success of the students in the redesigned section, it is not difficult to justify using this redesign format in these new labs. The redesigned format also makes more efficient use of graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants.
Pedagogical Improvement Techniques
What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?
Understanding the amount of work required. During the first half of the semester, students felt that they only needed to attend lab for the three hours a week required by the syllabus and tended not to do any work outside of the lab. A typical comment was, “But I came to lab each week. Why am I not passing the test?” In the second half of the semester, instructors encouraged the students to study outside of scheduled lab times, which caused grades to improve. This is now being stressed from the beginning of the semester. Students are told that this class is like any other class and that the lab time is class time. They must also work outside of class time just as they would in a traditional class. Also, they needed to be reminded that it is not necessary to always work on the computer. They can, if they like, work at home with paper and pencil to enhance their mathematical skills.
Seeing class time as an active work environment as opposed to a passive listening environment. Requiring homework and having the computer system assess the work is a good improvement over the traditional format. Still, a number of students were not trying the homework conscientiously; they seem to be rushing through it and copying steps from the “see an example” tool. As a result, the team now stresses that if students cannot do the homework, they need to ask for help or view the online teaching lessons. Requiring them to take the quizzes in class assures that they are taking the quizzes and not getting someone to help them or take the quiz for them. Attendance is required unless they made an 85 on the previous week’s test or quiz. The students like this policy. The team is considering increasing this to a 92 to make sure that only the very best students are not obliged to attend lab. That will prevent the C student who just got lucky and made an 85 one week from getting behind.
Constant real-time assessment with immediate feedback. Frequent quizzes were given. Generally this has been very positive although some refinements have been necessary. For example, giving quizzes on weeks when tests were scheduled was hard for the students, and this policy has been changed. The redesign works much better on the three-day (50-minute classes, Monday-Wednesday-Friday) format than the two-day (75 minute classes, Tuesday-Thursday) format. Now all sections meet MWF, and the lab is kept open on other days for students who need additional time to work on the material.
Students can work at their own speed. The “instructor” does not cover the material too fast for the student since the instructor is the computer. If they need extra time on some particular concept, it is easy for them to do so. There is no feeling of pressure to speed up lectures, and the students are not embarrassed if they do not understand the material at a particular expected rate.
Graduate and undergraduate assistants learn from the program too! The redesign sections gave much needed experience in teaching and interacting with students for the undergraduate teaching assistants (UTAs) and graduate teaching assistants (GTAs). The UTAs did an excellent job, and the students really responded well to them. The pilot experience may result in the creation of an excellent peer mentoring program in the department. The UTAs and GTAs were trained not to be passive observers or babysitters but to interact with the students and build relationships so that the students would be comfortable in asking questions.
Cost Reduction Techniques
What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?
Replacing graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) with undergraduate teaching assistants. This had the added advantage that the undergraduate assistants spoke ordinary “American” English. Many of the graduate students were international students and spoke with, sometimes heavy, accents.
Replacing multiple instructors with one faculty member. In the pilot, one faculty member taught the equivalent of two auditorium sections taught by instructors. With full implementation, one faculty member will essentially teach the equivalent of four or five auditorium sections (or two auditorium classes plus 9 -10 small sections taught by GTAs) and hence replace four or five instructors (or instructors plus a number of GTAs.)
What implementation issues were most important?
Upfront cost of creating new labs. The estimate for completely converting space into a computer lab space is in the $100,000 range. It will take some time to recover that cost from the cost savings generated by the redesign. Plans to similarly redesign other courses will help with the eventual cost recovery. The program is presently in the process of obtaining bids for the equipment needed for the computer labs, and reliable estimates will not be available before the end of spring 2009 at which time the second pilot will have been completed. Once the labs are in place, the cost savings will eventually cover the lab costs and allow the department to reallocate funds for other educational programs.
Technology issues. The initial version of MyMathLab was not platform free, which created some problems getting student access to the textbook site quickly. These issues appear to have been resolved after Pearson committed to revise the software. It was important to make sure that the instructor and graduate students had adequate training in the software in order to efficiently make the students comfortable in the new computer environment.
Course web site. Preparation of a course web site which contained all the information about the course was essential: information about instructor and GTA offices and telephone numbers, email addresses, office hours, textbook, sections to be covered, grading policy, attendance requirements, home work, quizzes, tests, absence from exams, early examinations policy, extra help, honesty, accommodation for disabilities, important dates (withdrawal deadlines, quizzes and tests.)
Accessing MyMathLab. Students need to efficiently obtain access codes so that they are enrolled in the online program on the first day. At the beginning of the pilot semester, there was confusion about how to obtain access codes. This was an expected learning lesson. Now that the problem has been addressed, student access to the software will flow more easily in subsequent semesters.