|Colleagues Committed to Redesign (C2R)
Oklahoma State University
Course Title: College 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.
Oklahoma State University (OSU) plans to redesign College Algebra, a course taken by many students to fulfill their major or general math requirements. It is taught in a traditional lecture format and enrolls ~2000 students annually. Previously taught by faculty in large sections of 100 students, the course is currently taught by graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) in 40 sections of 50 students each. Students also have access to tutoring at the Mathematics Learning Resource Center (MLRC), staffed entirely by undergraduate tutors.
The traditional course faces several academic problems. The success rate has been relatively low, with large variation among sections and semesters. The only regular feedback that students receive has been weekly homework consisting of a small number of problems graded by an undergraduate tutor. The current 50-student sections are not financially sustainable, and the math department also has difficulty finding qualified adjuncts to teach large 100-student sections. The quality of tutoring at the MLRC is poor in part because tutors are only able to spend a few minutes with each student before moving on to help others.
OSU will redesign College Algebra using the Emporium Model. Students will be required to spend three hours per week working with MyMathLab in a lab staffed by instructors and undergraduate tutors, who will provide on-demand, individualized assistance. All homework will be completed online, and quizzes may be taken multiple times. Small focus groups of 35 students each will meet once a week for 50 minutes. The focus group instructor will monitor student progress and intervene when students need assistance.
The redesigned course will enhance the students’ educational experience, making them active and engaged learners and providing a consistent learning experience for all students. A redesign goal is to improve the success rate to 65%-70% by providing more feedback to and interaction with students. Online testing will give students immediate feedback throughout the semester. Their progress will be closely monitored and individual assistance will be provided by both instructors and undergraduate tutors. The personal attention in the labs and the focus groups will keep the students more connected to the course.
The impact of the course redesign on student learning outcomes will be assessed by comparing performance data from parallel sections. In the pilot phase, 20 traditional sections of 50 students each and 16 redesigned sections of 25 students each will be offered. Performance on a common final exam and common content items on three hourly exams will be compared.
The cost of instruction will be reduced primarily by increasing the total number of students from 100 per instructor in the traditional course (2 sections of 50) to 140 per instructor in the redesign (4 sections of 35). The total number of instructors will decrease from 20 to 15. Part-time faculty will be reduced from 13 teaching two sections each to five teaching four sections each. The number of GTAs will be slightly increased from seven to nine, and undergraduate graders will be eliminated. These actions will decrease the cost-per-student from $102 to $74, a 27% reduction. Savings will be used by the math department to support other courses, possibly reducing some class sizes, and to expand the graduate program.
The redesign is improving learning outcomes in College Algebra. The mean final exam score among the traditional sections was 73%, and the mean final exam score among the redesigned sections was 80.2%.
The redesigned sections also had an increased retention rate defined as the percentage of students enrolled in the course throughout the semester who took the final exam. During the pilot semester, this retention rate was 76.3% in the redesigned sections and only 70.5% in the traditional sections.
The redesigned sections did not show an improvement in DFW rates (traditional sections = 35% vs. redesigned sections = 41%.) Grade comparisons are, however, unreliable because traditional sections lacked consistency in grading standards.
The long-term sustainability of the redesign is contingent on a successful full implementation and its associated cost savings. Oklahoma State continues to progress toward full implementation by planning the renovation of a large space for the Mathematics Learning Resource Center, which will be available at the earliest in spring 2010. The new lab will be large enough to accommodate all sections of College Algebra and allow for redesigning additional introductory courses.
Pedagogical Improvement Techniques
What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?
Mathematics Learning Resource Center (MLRC). The key to the redesign was shifting students’ time from passively attending lecture to actively working on mathematics. Students were required to spend three hours per week in the MLRC computer lab, which was open for 60 hours per week and staffed by instructors and undergraduate tutors. Students used MyMathLab’s help features, videos and online textbook to learn the week’s content and to complete their homework and quizzes. The lab’s staff answered content questions and helped students learn to use online resources effectively.
Course consistency. Students in the redesigned sections all had comparable experiences. These sections covered the same material and had similar assignments and uniform grading. Traditional sections are not consistent in either content coverage or grading standards.
Weekly focus groups. Students attended a regular classroom meeting once per week. During these sessions, instructors reminded students about deadlines and course expectations, answered questions about the previous week’s work and previewed the upcoming week’s content. Connecting with students once per week was important for keeping them organized and for maintaining a sense of class.
Weekly task lists. Modeled after a practice at the University of Idaho , task lists gave students a roadmap of tasks that they should complete during a week. College Algebra students often do not realize what good study habits include, and these lists made course expectations explicit for them.
Communication among instructors. Instructors met approximately once per week to talk about the upcoming week and to discuss challenges. Instructors brainstormed improvements to the course based on student performance and feedback. Instructors shared how they were using focus groups and which activities seemed effective. This instructor collaboration was more extensive than is typical in traditional sections.
Tutor training. The course coordinator met with the undergraduate tutors every other week to keep them updated on the course. This communication was an improvement over traditional MLRC tutoring since traditional classes were not on a common schedule, and tutors did not know much about what went on in each section.
Cost Reduction Techniques
What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?
Less frequent class meetings. Meeting focus groups only once per week allowed instructors to teach more students, while keeping class sizes small.
Undergraduate tutors. Students spent three of their four class hours in the lab. Since undergraduate tutors provided instructional support, instructors could teach more students, which reduced cost.
What implementation issues were most important?
Helping students learn the big ideas. Many students relied heavily on similar examples provided by MyMathLab as they worked on their homework assignments. Some tried to memorize how to do each type of problem rather than learning the big ideas of the section. During the pilot semester, instructors and tutors stressed the use of videos and the textbook to combat this problem. Instructors are also implementing new section summary worksheets during the spring 2009 semester.
Connecting with students. Instructors developed good relationships with many of their students during focus groups and lab time. This connection seemed to help student achievement by improving attitudes and persistence. Connecting with many struggling students, however, was often difficult. Many were disengaged and possibly not attending focus group and/or the lab. Instructors are using email more frequently during the spring 2009 semester and hope to increase communication with some of these students.
Active focus groups. While some instructors felt that students were active during focus groups, other instructors found themselves falling back to old lecturing habits. As the semester progressed, most instructors began to focus more class time answering students’ questions on the previous week’s material and less time lecturing on upcoming content. Because of this shift, focus group meetings during the spring 2009 semester are scheduled for the last day of a student’s week rather than on the first day of the new week. Keeping students active in focus group continues to be a major point of emphasis.
Tracking student lab hours. The department modified an existing database system to track attendance at the MLRC . This system was originally designed for a somewhat different purpose, and the modified system has drawbacks. It would be helpful to have a flexible tracking system that is readily accessible to students and instructors.