State University of New York: SUNY Course Redesign Initiative

SUNY College at Old Westbury

Course Title: College Algebra
Redesign Coordinator: Marianne Morea

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

Project Abstract

SUNY College at Old Westbury plans to redesign College Algebra, a four-credit course typically taught by adjuncts in a traditional lecture format. Enrolling ~600 students annually in 18 sections, the course attracts students from all majors since it meets the college math proficiency requirement for the majority of students who do not do so through transfer or taking appropriate high school courses. The course also serves as a gateway to higher math courses required in some majors.

College Algebra is targeted for redesign because of the difficulties that it presents to students and its importance to the curriculum. The traditional course faces several academic problems. The success rate over the past five years has been poor with an average passing rate of 62% in the fall and 54% in the spring semesters. A second problem is inconsistency across sections as instructors do not always cover the required material. This inconsistency is a likely contributor to the problem that the course does not always adequately prepare students for pre-calculus.

The course redesign, using the Replacement Model, will reduce lecture time by 50%. Students will be required to spend three hours each week in a computer lab working online. Using MyMathLab, they will solve problems, complete homework assignments and take quizzes and receive individualized assistance from lab instructors. Two hours of lectures each week will offer comprehensive and systematic presentation of the course content, emphasize the relative importance of the topics and explain techniques for solving problems.

The redesign will also incorporate a two-track feature, one for students who are interested in meeting the proficiency requirement and one for those who will move into pre-calculus, to better serve specific student needs. The latter track will include an extra unit of material. Students will be able to make up the gap between the two tracks in a short non-credit course over a semester break. Students will have the option of switching tracks when appropriate. The quality of the course will be enhanced by creating an active, student-centered learning environment that consistently will prepare students for future study.

Student learning outcomes will be assessed by comparing performance on common final exams in parallel sections during the pilot phase. Eight traditional sections, each with 33 students, and one redesigned section with 75 students will be offered in fall 2008 and spring 2009. Baseline information from these parallel sections will be used to assess student performance when the course is fully implemented in fall 2009, enrolling 300 students in four redesigned sections (75 students). Additional assessment strategies include comparing course completion rates as well as tracking student success in pre-calculus.

The operational cost of College Algebra will be reduced by decreasing the number of sections from 18 to 8 and increasing section size from 33 to 75 students. Full-time faculty will be reduced from two to none and adjuncts decreased from 16 to 8. The redesigned course will reduce the cost-per-student from $176 to $155, a 12% decrease. The savings will be used to support the advanced pre-requisite track for the pre-calculus course. Full-time faculty will also be available to teach other courses.

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 team compared common final exam grades from fall 2008 traditional sections with grades from  fall 2009 redesigned sections when the redesign was fully implemented. Students in the traditional sections performed significantly better on the final exam (mean = 77.4) than the redesigned sections (mean = 72).

When comparing results of the three semesters (fall 2008, spring 2009 and fall 2009) when both traditional (N = 525 students) and redesigned sections (N = 516 students) were offered, there was no significant difference between the traditional and redesigned sections in final exam performance. The redesigned sections, however, had a significantly higher number of A’s for the final exam.

Improved Completion

The success rate (grade of C or better) for the fall 2009 redesigned sections was 70.4% compared with the fall 2008 traditional sections passing rate, which was 69.3%.

The success rate for the fall 2009 redesigned sections was significantly higher (99% confidence) than the average fall semester passing rate for 2003 – 2007, which was 62%.

When comparing results of the three semesters (fall 2008, spring 2009 and fall 2009) when both traditional (N = 525 students) and redesigned sections (N = 516 students) were offered, there was no significant difference between the traditional and redesigned sections in final course grades. The traditional sections, however, had a significantly higher number of A’s for final course grades.

The team made the following observations about these results:

  • Course grades for redesigned sections were based on homework, quizzes and lab hours (30% of the grade) as well as tests and the final exam (70% of the grade). Course grades in the traditional sections were more test-based, which means that a traditional student may have managed to pass tests without having done any work. In the redesigned course, it was possible to pass tests yet receive a lower course grade or even fail due to lack of work.
  • Grading methods for the traditional sections were not uniform across the department and therefore varied from section to section.
  • Traditional sections may have spent more time reviewing for the final exam in class. While the redesigned sections did have review, students worked on this individually and with the help of lab tutors. Less cramming for an exam and more work throughout the semester may improve retention of knowledge gained by students.
  • The improvement over the college population prior to 2008 may indicate that the redesigned Powertrack math course which was first given in fall 2007 has improved the preparation of students coming into all sections of the college algebra course, both traditional and redesign. Data from the spring of 2008 had shown that the Powertrack math completers had performed significantly better in College Algebra than those who had not taken that course. The traditional sections of College Algebra during some semesters have had significantly more Powertrack completers than the redesign pilot sections of that semester.

There was a significant reduction in the DFW rate,  29.5% for the fall 2009 redesign as opposed to the fall average rate from 2003-2007 of 37.5%. The difference was significant and was due to a decrease in the number of students who did not withdraw and received a D or an F.

Other Impacts on Students

A survey of the redesign students covering opinions on the course and the lab as well as some demographic information was conducted at the end of the semester. The information gathered from that survey as well as faculty and staff input provide information on other impacts on students.

  • A majority of students agreed that they learned more from working independently with the support of the computer materials and tutors than from listening to a lecture.
  • More students believed that they did better in the redesigned format than they would have in a traditional class.
  • Over 70% of those responding to the survey felt they were prepared to move on to the next level course. Students from the redesign sections have now moved on to higher level mathematics courses and while there is not a large enough population from which to draw any inference, it appears that the redesign students are retaining the skills they have attained and the passing rate in higher courses may be improving slightly. 
  • Although students complained about the quantity of work and lab hours that were required of them, 55% agreed that they needed to do that amount or work to learn the material. 
  • Since the course was structured so that attendance was required, absences from lectures were drastically reduced.

Impact on Cost Savings

Were costs reduced as planned?

The cost savings plan, which projected a reduction in the cost-per-student from $176 to $155, was carried out as planned.

In addition, the plan estimated $18,250 for lab costs for the full implementation of 300 students in fall 2009, approximately $61 per student. The redesign course utilized the same lab as the Powertrack math course, and the cost to operate that lab for the fall 2009 semester totaled $27,800. Since both courses used the same lab, there were 500 students utilizing these services as opposed to the 300 College Algebra students in the plan. Therefore, the cost-per-student for the lab was actually $56 instead of $61, producing an additional savings of $5 per student.

Lessons Learned

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques:

What techniques have contributed the most to improving the student experience?

Less lecture, more student work. Lecture time was cut to one 100-minute per week meeting where an overview of the material was presented. Students were then required to spend three hours per week in the Powertrack math lab where they worked independently on homework assignments and quizzes on MyMathLab. Professional tutors were available to assist students when necessary. The lab offered a place for students to work together. MyMathLab offered additional tools to help them learn. Over 80% of students responding to the end of semester survey thought that MyMathLab was very helpful and that the tutors were helpful and encouraging. They also liked only attending one lecture per week. Having their instructors in the lab made it easier for them to keep in contact with the instructor.

Structured course requirements. Because this course was different from what most students were used to, the structure of the course needed to be well defined and communicated to the students. An orientation was held during the first class of the semester laying out everything that the student needed to know. They were given a syllabus and a detailed schedule for the entire semester showing class dates, test dates and deadlines for assignments. There was no excuse for students not to be aware of what they needed to do. Attendance was required, and four absences failed the student. Deadlines were set to keep students on task, and these were not adjusted for any trivial reason. The goal was to foster student responsibility for their learning. Instructors all agreed that there was a very definite improvement from what was happening in the traditional course. They received a large number of emails from students where in the past the student may have just disappeared from view. The majority of students agreed that they understood the requirements and were able to keep up with the work and that they have learned more as a result.

Communication between instructor and students. The need for students to communicate with their instructor and staff about any problems was promoted by all involved in the program. All instructors routinely emailed students or the class as a whole with reminders, encouragement and announcements. This led to much improved communication from the students to the instructors.

Cost Reduction Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Larger class size. Using a class size of 75 allowed for separating the college algebra classes into two tracks, one for students only requiring proficiency and the other for those moving on to a pre-calculus course. The team had hoped that this size class would provide a viable number of students in each track. Surprisingly, in most sections the split created similar size lecture groups of relatively normal class size for the college. So in effect, the cost of one instructor funded two sections.

Cost effective lab use. Utilizing the lab for two redesigned courses has made the lab far more cost effective than it was when only one course used the lab. For a smaller number of students, minimal coverage and a wide variety of times for the lab to be open were still necessary to accommodate varying student schedules. By adding more students using the lab, the cost-per-student decreased dramatically. As instructors of courses other than the redesigns have begun to use MyMathLab for their classes, their students have also been able to utilize the services originally designated for redesign. Since these courses are at a higher level, many of those students have previously taken redesign courses and are glad to be able to use the services with which they have grown comfortable.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Orientation. The original design plan called for mandatory orientation before the semester started. This became very difficult to implement when students either could not or just did not attend. After the pilot semester, the orientation was moved to the first day of class. Students were sent letters two to three weeks prior to the semester informing them about the nontraditional nature of the course and that they must attend the first day of class or be administratively withdrawn from the course. This has worked out much better.

Class split and lecture schedule. The original plan called for the section to remain together for three weeks and then split into two tracks with each meeting for half the time twice a week. The shortened class seemed to put too much pressure on both the instructor and students to get through all the material for the week. Two short classes incurred start up time for each. Within the first pilot, this was revised to have all students meet together on the second day of the first week and then split into two tracks, each meeting for the full period one day. The instructor gives two lectures a week but to two different groups. This change made a great difference to both the student and the instructor.

Technology issues. The lab manager has had issues with how to keep students from accessing other sites besides Course Compass in the lab. Some of the problems can be attributed to the failure of a department server and problems coordinating department needs with campus computing services procedures. Improvement continues to be made on this semester by semester. At times along the way, the team needed to expand the lab facilities. During one semester, construction was still going on when the semester began. There has been surprisingly little interruption of internet service due to things beyond our control, and thankfully the Course Compass site that delivers MyMathLab has been very reliable.

Tracking lab hours. One of the most difficult aspects of redesign that the team had to handle was the recording of hours spent by students in the lab. An internet time clock service was used to have students swipe their ID cards when they entered and departed the lab. Paper sign-in sheets were used for backup. Methods of summarizing these have been refined, but it is still a formidable task. Problems with IDs’ swiping properly and students coming in without them were common. A policy that no hours will be recorded without ID is now being strictly enforced.

Changes in lab-hour requirements. Students complained that it was difficult to complete hours on campus due to work, class and family responsibilities. Of all redesign students, 95% take a full-time course load. Almost 70% work, and over 60% of those work more than 20 hours per week. Almost 10% of those work more than 40 hours per week. Some college algebra students were capable of completing the work without being in the lab. To help alleviate these issues and reward those doing well, students who maintained an average of over 80% starting after the first test were exempt from doing their lab hours in the lab but still needed to complete all assignments. They lost that exemption if their overall average dropped below the 80% mark. This new policy alleviated some heavy traffic in the lab. Records showed, however, that many of these exempted students still chose to do their work in the lab. Some said it was because they had time on campus that they could use to do the work; others said they came in when they felt they needed the assistance of one of the lab tutors.

Placement issues. More contact between students and instructors as well as lab staff highlighted the fact that many students were taking the course without the appropriate background. Most of these students were transfers who were not required to take a placement test. Due to the difficulty encountered by these students, the department has revised the placement policy to require a placement test for transfer students who come to the college without proficiency or who are planning to take higher-level math courses with a long break since the last math course taken.


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

The sustainability of the project is not in question at this time. Support from administration has been extraordinary with funding being maintained even when budgets have been severely cut throughout the state.

The college algebra redesign was undertaken at least partially in response to the positive reaction of students to a previously redesigned Powertrack math course. Students from that course immediately expressed their desire for the structure to be continued into the next course. The mathematics department is primarily concerned that students moving into higher-level mathematics courses be better prepared than they were previously. Hopefully, a better lower-level experience will result in an increased number of math and computer science majors.

Five sections of the redesigned college algebra course and five sections of the Powertrack math course are planned for the fall 2010 semester. Expansion beyond that level will require larger lab facilities and tutor budgets. A larger lab has been included in plans for renovating the college library in part to draw additional students into the library itself. The team is encouraged that the college community considers this program that influential.




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