State University of New York: SUNY Course Redesign Initiative

SUNY at Oswego

Course Title: College Algebra
Redesign Coordinator: Patricia Pacitti

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

Project Abstract

SUNY Oswego plans to redesign College Algebra, the first course in the Algebra/Calculus sequence that is offered for graduation credit. The traditional course is a three-credit hour, lecture based course, enrolling ~200 students annually. It is typically taught by different instructors in nine sections, five in the fall and four in the spring semesters.

College Algebra faces a number of academic and resource problems. Over the past five years, the average course GPA was 1.96 with ~63% of the students completing the course with a C- or better. Since successful completion of the course is required for a variety of majors, there is collegewide concern about this low success rate. A second academic problem is course drift. There is no guarantee that all instructors cover all topics, no consistency in the rigor and depth of coverage, and no set standard for assessment and evaluation. Current student demand is unmet due to resource problems, creating academic issues for students who opt to skip the course and go directly to the next math course in their sequence with unsuccessful results. Demand is expected to grow due to recent changes in the biological sciences major and the creation of a computer software engineering major. Finally, the pool of available full-time and adjunct faculty to teach this course is severely limited.

SUNY Oswego will redesign College Algebra using the Emporium Model. Section size will be increased from ~22 to ~50 students. Instructors will meet with one third to one half of each section for one hour each week, using the class time to present an overview of the coming week’s scheduled topics, engaging students in small group activities, troubleshooting, and making connections that could include real-life applications. The reduced class time will be replaced with three required hours of interactive learning activities in a computer lab, staffed by trained personnel.

The student-centered learning environment created by the redesigned course will enhance the quality of the course. Students will be more actively engaged with the material both in the delivery of the content and in the completion of the homework. Hawkes Learning System software delivers instruction, provides practice problems with immediate feedback in the form of step-by-step intelligent explanations and demands mastery certification of homework assignments before students can progress. Face-to-face interaction will be increased and become more individualized as students are assisted in the lab by instructors and/or undergraduate learning assistants (ULAs). Topics covered, quizzes, assignments and portions of exams will be standardized across sections and semesters, eliminating course drift.

SUNY Oswego’s assessment plan will use the comparisons of pre- and post-tests, measuring increases in student learning. The department will create an exam based on their defined expected learning outcomes, which will be administered to all College Algebra students at the beginning and the end of the semester. Pre- and post-testing will begin in the fall 2008 semester with five traditional sections (110 students) to obtain baseline data in the traditional course. Pre/post-tests will be administered to two pilot redesigned sections with 50 students each in spring 2009 and to four redesigned sections in fall 2009 during full implementation.

The redesigned course will decrease the cost-per-student from $387 to $226, a 42% savings. The savings will be achieved by changing the mix of personnel, reducing the number of instructors from seven to three, and increasing annual student enrollment by 50%, from 200 to 300 students. The number of sections will be reduced from nine to six, and section size will be increased from ~22 to~50. The savings will be reinvested at the department level to provide professional development, to purchase advanced technology for classrooms and to supplement the tutoring budget.

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

To compare student learning outcomes, the team administered a locally written, 28-item, partially multiple-choice test at both the start and end of the semester.  Baseline data was collected during fall 2008 when College Algebra was last taught in the traditional lecture format.  Additional data was collected in spring 2009 during the pilot and in the fall 2009 full implementation.  A summary of results is shown in the table below. 


Fall 2008

Fall 2009

Average pre-test score



Average post-test score



Gain in points



Percentage increase



Although the comparison shows a slight decrease in the points gained from 38 in the fall 2008 traditional format to 36 in the fall 2009 full implementation, the 2009 cohort began the course with a weaker background. Moreover, this difference is not statistically significant.  The average pre-test score was 13 for the fall 2009 students compared with 16 for the fall 2008 students.  When learning gains are measured by percentage increases from the average pre-test score to the average post-test score, then the fall 2009 students learned more in the redesigned course than did the fall 2008 students in the traditional course. Fall 2009 students increased their performance on the test by 277%, compared to the 240% change for fall 2008 students.

Improved Completion

The percentage of students earning a grade of C or better increased from 42% in the traditional course to 52% in the redesign.

Other Impacts on Students

The set of instructors was the same both for the traditional and the redesigned course. The responses to some items on the standard departmental course evaluation indicated improvement in students’ perception of the instructor. Generally, students in the redesign believed that their instructors were more consistent and fair in grading, encouraged more class participation and stimulated more interest in the subject. Unexpectedly, students reported the redesigned course to be slightly less difficult and more worthwhile than the traditional course.

Impact on Cost Savings

Were costs reduced as planned?

The redesign achieved greater savings than anticipated. The cost of the traditional course was $77,400; the cost of the redesigned course was $37,400. This represents a 52% savings, compared to a planned 42% savings. These savings were achieved, as planned, by changing the mix of personnel and reducing the number of instructors from seven to two, instead of seven to three as planned. Traditionally, nine sections of ~25 students (N = ~200 students) were offered each year. The original redesign plan envisioned six sections of 50 to reduce the number of sections and accommodate an anticipated increase in student enrollment to 300, which has not yet occurred.  As a result of the pilot and full implementation semesters, the team restructured the course to include three sections of ~75 annually (N = ~225 students.) In addition, beginning in spring 2010, the number of required lab meetings was reduced from three to two per week, resulting in an additional cost savings from undergraduate learning assistant (ULA) salaries. 

Lessons Learned

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

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

  • Active engagement with course content. Students were compelled to be actively engaged in the learning process. The use of instructional software was an essential part of the redesign. Hawkes Learning Systems software delivered the course content, provided students intelligent feedback on an unlimited number of practice problems of varying degrees of difficulty, required mastery of content for homework certification, and supplied immediate feedback on homework and quizzes. Students could access an interactive tutor, view step-by-step solutions to problems and easily examine their progress report.
  • Weekly large-group, face-to-face meeting with instructor. During the weekly face-to-face meeting, the instructor presented a preview of upcoming material and responded to student questions, both content-based and logistical. This time was also used to explore certain topics in greater depth and to communicate expectations such as completing problems from beginning to end without cues often present in the software.
  • Use of undergraduate learning assistants. Undergraduate learning assistants (ULAs) worked, alongside course instructors, to provide one-on-one support during scheduled, required computer lab time.
  • Mandatory attendance and submission of assignments. Students were required to attend all face-to-face meetings and three computer lab sessions each week during the pilot and full implementation semesters. Unlike in the traditional college algebra course, submission of homework assignments was required on a weekly basis. Homework was completed electronically, graded immediately and counted as 26% of the final course grade. In order to earn credit for an assignment, typically an 80% level of mastery was required.

Cost Reduction Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

  • Consolidation of sections. Traditionally, nine sections of ~25 students (N = ~200 students) were offered each year. The original redesign plan envisioned six sections of 50 to reduce the number of sections and accommodate an anticipated increase in student enrollment to 300, which has not yet occurred. As a result of the pilot and full implementation semesters, the team restructured the course to include three sections of ~75 annually (N = ~225 students.)  These 75 students attend two scheduled computer lab sessions in groups of 25 and one large-group meeting with the instructor each week. The number of the required lab sessions was decreased from three to two per week beginning spring 2010.
  • Altered mix of personnel. Faculty became part of a team responsible for student learning. They no longer spent time creating and grading quizzes and spent less time preparing traditional lecture presentations. ULAs assumed a critical role, interacting with students in lab together with faculty, keeping attendance and proctoring quizzes. A course coordinator and course assistant completed the team.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

  • Course structure. In an attempt to allow students flexibility in their schedules, the initial redesign included several cohorts who had different homework deadlines and quiz dates, often working in the same lab period. Consequently, it was difficult for faculty and ULAs to differentiate among students who were quizzing, certifying homework or practicing while in lab. Despite its complexity, this plan allowed for maximum use of the math department’s one 25-seat computer lab. The pilot format was abandoned in favor of a uniform, fixed schedule in which two 25-seat computer labs were used simultaneously. The revised format allowed students greater interaction with the same set of faculty and ULAs during each lab. 
  • Student prerequisite knowledge and attitude. Though courses at Oswego have stated prerequisites and a placement test is offered, placement recommendations are only advisory and prerequisites are not enforced. Consequently students who have placed into developmental math courses enroll in College Algebra. For these students, the content and pace of College Algebra were overwhelming. Many students, whether prepared or not, resisted the level of engagement required to succeed in this course. The redesign format provided faculty the opportunity to interact more fully with students to address anxieties and to advise under-prepared students to drop down to a preparatory course. This problem continues to be a challenge.
  • Student time spent in lab.During the pilot, 13 hours per week of open lab time, staffed by ULAs, were offered. This lab time was optional and almost entirely unutilized. As a result, this feature was eliminated from the plan. A reduction in required lab times was made after the first semester of full implementation. The number of required labs was reduced from three per week to two in response to several factors such as competition with other courses for lab usage time and student feedback.
  • Availability of ULAs. The size of the pool of qualified, potential ULAs was limited by the fact that SUNY Oswego is a small, primarily undergraduate institution in a non-urban area. Once potential candidates were identified, a further restriction on availability was the possible conflict between their class schedules and the already scheduled, required lab times. One positive consequence of the reduction in lab time has been that fewer ULAs were required, which has allowed for greater selectivity and ease in assigning ULAs to labs. Securing funding for hiring ULAs is a continuing challenge in view of the SUNY budget situation.


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

College Algebra will continue to be offered in the redesigned format for the foreseeable future. The cost savings achieved from increasing section size from 25 to 75, the increase in quality achieved by standardizing course content and the positive student evaluations are compelling reasons to continue the initiative. The mathematics department has been supportive, and other faculty members have expressed interest in the project.

Active engagement of students in the mastery of mathematical concepts and skills was a major goal of the redesign. This goal has been achieved to some extent, but such a significant change in student culture will require more time. 

In recent years, with the declining number of full-time tenure track faculty, it has become more of a challenge to offer the requisite number of courses.  As the redesign continues to be refined, the team anticipates the possible extension of this model to other appropriate courses.



Quick Links:

State University of New York Main Page...