The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning: Mississippi Course Redesign Initiative

Alcorn State University

Course Title: College Algebra
Redesign Coordinator: Marchetta Atkins

Project Abstract
Final Report (as of 3/15/10)

Project Abstract

Alcorn State University plans to redesign College Algebra, which currently enrolls ~600 students annually, a large-enrollment course at Alcorn State. The course is typically taught by different instructors in 16 sections of ~38 students each, eight in the fall and eight in the spring semesters. Students also have access to a small math center.

The traditional course faces a number of academic problems. The quality of instruction is a concern. Students do not gain the critical skills and applications necessary for success in subsequent math and science courses despite passing the course with good grades. There is inconsistent content coverage across multiple sections as well as inconsistent assessment.

Alcorn State will redesign College Algebra using the Emporium Model. Students will be required to spend four hours per week in a math lab, completing their assignments, solving problems and working through online quizzes. Instructors and trained undergraduate teaching assistants (UGAs) will be available in the lab to provide individual assistance. An existing math lab will be relocated and expanded to house 50 computers with space to accommodate more as needed. Attendance will be monitored using a biometric finger print reader. Instructors will also meet with students in a classroom for one hour each week. During the pilot phase in spring 2009, two redesigned sections and four traditional sections will be offered with 150 students in each category. At full implementation, the course will be offered in four sections of 75 students each per semester.

The student-centered learning environment created by the redesign and increased consistency across sections will enhance the quality of the course. Students will be more actively engaged with the material. Hawkes Learning System software, to be used in the redesigned course, provides practice problems with immediate feedback in the form of step-by-step intelligent explanations and demands master certification of homework assignments before students can progress. Face-to-face interaction and individual help will be increased as students are assisted in the lab by instructors and/or trained UGAs.

Alcorn University’s assessment plan will compare performance data from parallel sections. Pre- and post-tests, measuring increases in student learning, will be administered. Performance on a common final exam will also be compared.

The redesigned course will decrease the cost-per-student from $278 to $184, a 34% savings. The savings will be achieved by reducing the number of sections from 16 to eight and increasing section size from ~38 to 75. The number of faculty teaching the course will be reduced from eight to four. The savings will be used to strengthen the math major program. Each of the current instructors will be able to teach a section of another course, and senior faculty will be able to teach more upper-level courses, increasing the variety of courses available to math majors.

Final Report (as of 3/15/10)

Impact on Students

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

Improved Learning

The average of midterm exam scores and final exam scores from fall 2008 traditional sections were compared to those of fall 2009 redesigned sections since the subject areas covered by the midterm exam were different from the final exam.

Students in the redesigned course performed significantly better. The average score of the fall 2008 traditional sections was 55.89, while that of the fall 2009 redesigned sections was 66.16. The Z-test score was 3.181, which indicates that the difference is significant at 95% level of confidence interval.

The mean score on the final exam alone was 31 for the traditional students and 38 for the redesign students.

Improved Completion

Even though redesign students received better scores on the common exams, the completion rate (grades of C or better) of the fall 2009 redesigned sections was 28% compared with 42% for the fall 2008 traditional sections.

The reason for the conflict between improved test scores and lower completion rates was most likely due to two factors. First, the redesigned course used uniform grading methods across sections, whereas instructors in the past had more grading flexibility, possibly leading to grade inflation. Second, a comparative study conducted by the faculty during the spring 2009 pilot showed that student performance on online tests and quizzes used in the redesign was not as good as on the paper-and-pencil versions used in the traditional format.

Impact on Cost Savings

Were costs reduced as planned?

The redesign produced cost savings as planned. While the number of students taking college algebra in fall 2008 (255 students) was the same as in fall 2009 (250 students), the number of day sections was reduced from eight sections to four, saving one full faculty FTE.

Lessons Learned

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?

Homework completion. Homework was an important tool used to improve student learning. The online homework offered by the Hawkes Learning System software was very important. The computer software gave more detailed feedback for each wrong answer than instructors could practically do. The software forced the students to keep practicing until they mastered the skill, which was also practically impossible with traditional homework. Data collected in fall 2009 showed that student homework and their test scores were positively correlated. (Correlation at 0.45 with t value at 4.51).  Some students needed the faculty to remind them and encourage them to do the homework. At the beginning of the fall 2009 semester, there was a significant difference in students’ homework performance in sections taught by different faculty members. After faculty members exchanged information and the issue was addressed, the classes with low homework completion rates showed considerable improvement. Redesign students completed more homework than traditional students. The average homework score increased from 61 in fall 2008 to 82 in fall 2009, a significant difference at 95% confidence interval.

In-person help. At the beginning of the semester, some students were unfamiliar with the computer system. Other students could not understand some parts of the online instruction. Students needed the assurance that someone was ready to provide live help when needed. The department received feedback from the students that in-person assistance was preferred. The students were satisfied that faculty and student tutors in the math center provided much more time for personal help than traditional class time and faculty office hours. The faculty contributed more hours in the math lab than originally planned in the course redesign proposal (six hours vs. four hours per week for each section taught) to ensure tutoring quality.

Attendance. There was a small but not significant improvement in class attendance (average attendance score increased from 81 in fall 2008 to 83 in fall 2009) and in lab attendance (average lab attendance score increased from 44 with standard deviation at 43 in fall 2008 to 56 in fall 2009 (with standard deviation of 36).

Cost Reduction Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Consolidating sections. The redesign reduced the number of day sections from eight to four, saving one full-time FTE faculty. This was especially important at the time of budget cuts occurring in Mississippi. The FTE saved was used to reduce the university’s overload costs.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Math center upgrade. The university has had a math center since 2005 supported by a Title III grant. The $50,000 course redesign grant helped enlarge the math center from 10 computers to 60. The university also allocated a large area in the library to host the math center and provided financial and logistical support to set it up. This upgrade was critical to the success of the course redesign.

Computer viruses and other technical issues. Computers in the lab technically allowed students to surf the internet. Even though math center rules forbade students to use the computers for anything other than their math course, occasionally computers were used for purposes other than intended. Only 60% of the computers in the lab have all the features needed to prevent surfing.

Finger-print reader. A finger-print reader was established to record lab attendance. It worked very well to provide attendance statistics to faculty members. The faculty developed a program to convert the finger-print reader log data into easy-to-use summary data.

Coordinating rules and procedures among faculty members. Many practices that were part of the course redesign were new. Should tutors provide help while students are certifying their homework? What training does a student tutor need to have before working in the lab? How was online testing handled in the lab? How to coordinate the faculty schedule for their lab duties? From big issues to small ones, a lot of rules and agreements needed to be made. The balance of group decision from the faculty and the leadership in the group was also an important factor to the success of the course redesign.

Online testing and quizzing. Because of the contradictory results of rising student scores and rising DFW rate, the faculty needs to examine the practice of online testing and quizzing to let students better present their math competency in the tests and quizzes. The solution will be decided by the faculty, which may include make-up test procedures and other methods.


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

Because both goals of improving student learning and reducing instructional costs were met, Alcorn will continue the redesign and continue to improve the redesign of this course. The course redesign grant primarily helped Alcorn upgrade its math center, which was a critical part of the redesign process. The operation of the math center, however, does not rely on the course redesign grant.



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