Changing the Equation: Redesigning Developmental Math
Lurleen B. Wallace Community College
Contact: Mary Ann Hudson
During the spring and fall 2011, Lurleen B. Wallace Community College (LBWCC) enrolled 1,146 students in three developmental mathematics courses: Basic Math, Elementary Algebra and Intermediate Algebra. In the traditional format, these developmental courses consistently suffered from low success rates. The number of D, F, U, W, and IP (in-progress) grades averaged 48.7 percent. Students receiving an IP were forced to repeat the entire course the next semester, which meant that the IP grade was equal to failing the course. Many students were delayed in enrolling in college-level math courses by two or three semesters.
LBWCC's redesign was based on the Emporium Model. A math computer center was established on each campus. Students were scheduled for three mandatory hours in the lab each week. One hour was scheduled with the instructor, and two hours were flexible. Instructors did not lecture during the scheduled lab time but rather offered individualized help and reviewed student progress. MyMathLab software provided interactive tutorials and monitoring of student performance. Students received immediate one-on-one assistance from instructors and tutors. The three developmental math courses were redesigned into 17 clearly defined modules that reflected the course competencies: Basic Mathematics (4 modules), Elementary Algebra (5 modules) and Intermediate Algebra (5 modules). The three additional modules comprised the final exams for each course. Students were expected to complete one or more modules each week.
The redesign improved the quality of developmental instruction by increasing consistency in course content for sections taught by multiple instructors and adjuncts on different campuses. The students became more active in the learning process by engaging in frequent practice of quizzes and tutorials and receiving immediate feedback. Students were encouraged since they received help when it was needed and progressed with more confidence through the modules. The amount of one-on-one time that instructors spent with students answering questions also increased.
Student learning was assessed by comparing performance on common final exams. In addition, the director of institutional effectiveness and quality conducted student satisfaction surveys and tracked completion rates and grade distributions.
The LBWCC team reduced the operational cost of offering developmental math by increasing section size from 24 students in the traditional format to 29 in the redesign and having faculty teach two sections for one workload credit. Additional savings resulted from the elimination of overload pay. Because the redesigned course was more consistent across sections and eliminated duplicate faculty effort, opportunities for using alternative staffing (professional and undergraduate tutors) were created. Enrollment increased by 270 students in the redesign. The cost-per-student decreased from $114 in the traditional format to $53 in the redesign, a 54% savings. Faculty time will be reallocated for other tasks within the mathematics department. In addition, cost savings were used to purchase additional computers for the Math Center so that other introductory math courses could be redesigned.
In the redesign, did students learn more, less or the same compared to the traditional format?
Students in all three redesigned courses learned significantly more than students in the traditional classroom format as measured by common final examination scores.
Course completion appeared to decline under the redesign.
In conducting an extended analysis of the discrepancy between increased learning outcomes and decreased course completion rates in Changing the Equation, NCAT has discovered a variety of reasons why course-by-course completion comparisons are not a true measure of the success or lack of success of the program. The majority of Changing the Equation teams discovered that pass rates in the traditional format were inflated by prior inconsistencies in grading practices. Unlike redesign students who were assessed on common outcomes using common assessment methods, those in the traditional courses were assessed in a variety of ways which led to overall grading differences. Contributors to prior grade inflation in the traditional course included 1) having no clear guidelines regarding the award of partial credit, 2) allowing students to fail the final exam yet still pass the course, 3) failing to establish common standards for topic coverage (in some sections, entire topics were not covered, yet students passed), and, 4) failing to provide training and oversight of part-time instructors. Thus, the C or better rates for the traditional courses were almost universally inflated.
Further, the redesigned courses were more difficult than the traditional course. The redesigned courses 1) had more assignments, more quizzes and more tests than the traditional courses and consequently took longer to finish, and 2) included more content than the traditional courses and consequently took longer to finish.
In the redesign, students were required to master all of the content of all of the courses. LBWCC redesign students had to pass each module independently at a 75% level before being able to progress to the next module, showing mastery in homework assignments, practice tests and module exams. In the traditional format, students exited the course by simply attaining a total cumulative score of at least 70% or 75%. Based on averaging grades, students were able to earn a C or better by passing enough tests and learning enough competencies but not necessarily all. In traditional sections, students would often continue on to the next topic without having demonstrated mastery of the previous topic.
Mastery learning thus meant that students were doing more work and learning more, which often took longer to do so. That meant that many students did not complete a particular course by the end of the term. They were able to start where they left off in the subsequent term. But because course completion statistics were calculated as the number of students finishing the course at the end of the term, they missed counting students who were still enrolled and progressing. Mastery learning, while sometimes taking longer to accomplish, ensured that students were well prepared to take on college-level work.
Improved Course Completion: Making Progress Grades
There are other indications that redesigned students, in the majority of instances, are completing at a higher rate. Students at LBWCC can earn an IP (Making Progress) grade in Basic Math and Elementary Algebra. Students receiving an IP grade must have completed 50% of modules at 75% mastery, be making steady progress and meeting attendance requirements. In the traditional setting, an IP was counted as a failure; in the redesign, the IP is not considered as a failure. The IP students can continue the course work the next semester at the point they left off during the previous semester. When taking into account the IP grades—coupled with prior grade inflation--completion rates improved in the redesign.
Other Impacts on Students
Increasing mobility within developmental math was an important goal of the redesign. In the traditional setting, students that began in Basic Math could not complete the developmental sequence in less than three semesters. In the redesign, students could begin a new course in the midst of a current semester, complete as much of it as possible and continue on with the same course in the following semester. Since the spring 2011 pilot, 20 students have completed two or more developmental math courses in one semester, five students completed Intermediate Algebra and a college-level math class in the same semester, and five students completed two courses and college-level math class in one semester. The goal of giving students the ability to move quickly through the developmental math program has been achieved.
Attitudes of students have certainly been altered. When students persisted, they saw math as something that could be mastered with lots of time and hard work. They perceived success as their responsibility and sought the best ways to succeed such as using videos, individual help from the instructor or a tutor and initiating a small-group discussion with the instructor. Test anxiety declined, and students asked more questions. Some students complained about the hard work, but those complaints have dwinded in number.
It is, of course, too early in the process to determine the redesign students’ success in college-level courses. The nursing department has already seen an improvement in the Medical Dosage Exam. For the first time, 100% of RN students passed the exam with a 90 or higher on the first attempt.
Were costs reduced as planned?
The LBWCC team realized significant cost savings as a result of the redesign. The primary cost-saving technique was that each faculty member (full-time and adjunct) taught two developmental math redesigned sections of 29 students for one workload credit rather than one section of 24 students as they did in the traditional format. The availability of tutors and instructors in each class made it possible to increase section size and still provide individualized attention and assistance to all students. In addition, the number of faculty hours spent on the courses was reduced by eliminating duplication of faculty responsibilities.
In the traditional format, LBWCC offered 37 24-student sections in AY 2010-2011, 20 of which were taught by full-time faculty and 17 by adjuncts. After the redesign, with an increase in enrollment of 270 students, LBWCC offered 40 29-student sections in AY 2011-2012, 18 of which were taught by full-time faculty and 22 by adjuncts. The cost-per-student decreased from $114 in the traditional format to $53 in the redesign, a reduction of 54%. Faculty time will be reallocated for other tasks within the mathematics department. A substantial portion of these cost savings were used to purchase additional computers for the math center to enable redesign of other college-level math courses in spring 2012 including Mathematical Applications, College Mathematics with Applications and Introductory Mathematics I. Other savings included less copying costs due to online homework and testing.
LBWCC used the “one-room schoolhouse” approach to deal with low-enrollment sections, producing both institutional cost savings as well as clear benefits to students. Previously, when small sections did not “fill” (particularly at smaller campuses and sites or during certain class times), they had to either be cancelled, (interrupting student progression through the sequence and incurring lost revenue to the college) or offered at a relatively high cost. Using the one-room schoolhouse meant that the college offered multiple developmental math courses in the same computer classroom or lab at the same time. Students worked with instructional software, and instructors provided help when needed. Even though students were at different points in the developmental sequence, they could be in the same classroom. This strategy enabled the institution to increase course offerings and avoid cancelling classes, which, in turn, reduced scheduling roadblocks for students and enabled them to complete their degree requirements sooner. Since fewer sections were needed to accommodate the same number of students, the overall cost-per-student was lowered. These savings are not included in the cost-per-student comparisons cited above.
In addition to scheduling the three developmental courses in the same classroom at the same time, LBWCC also redesigned Finite Math and all technical math courses and scheduled them during an Emporium class time. This approached solved many scheduling problems and also helped students who were ready to graduate but found they were missing a math course.
The modularization of the developmental math course sequence allowed students to move from one course to the next within the same semester. Students saved tuition dollars because they were allowed to complete as many courses as possible in one semester while only paying tuition for the one for which they registered. A student who worked through all modules could finish the entire program in one semester and pay for one course instead of three courses as in the traditional format, realizing tuition savings of $654. This also allowed students to complete higher level courses before transferring to a higher tuition university. Students could also adjust their schedules to suit life changes instead of having to withdraw from the course and lose the tuition they had paid for the course.
Will the redesign be sustained now that the grant period is over?
The 2009-2014 LBWCC Strategic Plan, developed by faculty and staff in 2009, is the best safeguard to “backsliding” because redesign activities help the college achieve Goal 6: provide quality instruction through effective curriculum development, accessible delivery, and criterion-based assessment according to a common set of academic standards for each discipline. The math redesign project supports Sub-goals 6.1 Instructional Standards and 6.5 Program and Course Review and Development. For example, the 6.5 objectives are to (a) maintain and strengthen transitional education; (b) assess needs for full-time faculty in university transfer at all locations; (c) offer critical life-skills training in addition to subject expertise; and (d) assess course offerings to optimize flexibility of delivery mode. The outcomes of the redesign were reported during the college’s annual evaluation process. Should the president, dean or faculty members leave the college, the annual reporting process for the Strategic Plan will keep the redesign front and center as a college success strategy.
The team of redesign planners included the mathematics and science department chair, the dean of instruction, the director of instructional and information technology, the director of institutional effectiveness and six full-time math faculty. These team members secured commitment from other divisions that provided funds for classroom renovations. Following regular college policies for course development and revision, the math faculty were empowered to recommend changes to the instructional council regarding course curricula. The council was willing to incorporate course redesign on a college-wide basis.
The instructional council and dean of instruction are committed to redesign efforts and have made the necessary scheduling and budget changes necessary to support the program. Faculty and staff will continue to expect that students will move at a faster pace through the developmental courses and be encouraged to succeed in college-level math and science courses.