|The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning: Mississippi Course Redesign Initiative
Mississippi Valley State University
Course Title: Intermediate Algebra
Mississippi Valley State University (MVSU) plans to redesign Intermediate Algebra, which enrolls ~500 students annually. More than half of all entering undergraduates are placed in the course which repeats material that students should have learned in high school. The course is taught in a traditional lecture format using common syllabi and tests and a common final exam.
The traditional course suffers from the common problem of low success rates. Over 50% of the students receive D or F grades, generating a high number of students who must repeat the course. Faculty members have difficulty tracking homework assignments, and students do not receive immediate feedback on their work. This course often represents a roadblock to student success, standing in the way of degree attainment.
MVSU will use the Emporium Model in its redesign. Students will be required to spend three hours per week in a computer-based math laboratory working with Hawkes Learning System. They will also meet once a week for lectures to outline the upcoming week’s content. Students will practice exercises, complete homework assignments online and take automated low-stakes quizzes. One faculty member will coordinate the course and all personnel. Four instructors will provide tutorial assistance in the computer lab each term.
The student-centered learning environment created by the redesigned course will make students active and engaged learners. They will receive immediate feedback on all of their work. Instructors will track student progress and provide remedial support as appropriate. Instructors and undergraduate peer tutors will provide both one-on-one and small-group tutorial assistance in the computer lab. The transition from a passive to an active learning environment will increase students’ success rates. The department’s goal is to increase the pass rate to 75%, which will significantly reduce the number of students who must take the course multiple times.
Student learning will be assessed by comparing performance on a common final exam in the traditional format during the 2006-2007 academic year to the redesigned sections taught in spring and fall 2009. Pre- and post-test results will also be compared.
The redesigned course will reduce the cost-per-student from $183 to $139, a 24% savings. The savings will be achieved by decreasing the number of sections from 17 to eight and increasing section size from 27 or 32 to 60. The number of faculty will be reduced from 13 to six. Professional staff will be hired to assist students in the lab in addition to the faculty teaching the course and undergraduate peer tutors. Savings will allow faculty no longer teaching the course to increase other math course offerings. Savings will also be used to maintain the lab as well as to support math faculty development activities with special emphasis on pedagogy and new technologies.
In the redesign, did students learn more, less or the same compared to the traditional format?
Student performance was compared using a common final examination. Students (N = 220) in the fall 2008 traditional course scored a mean of 54% compared with students (N = 196) in the fall 2009 redesigned course who scored a mean of 59%.
The attrition rate in intermediate algebra has been very high for quite some time. The department decided that it was time to do something about a problem that seemed to be growing rather than declining. During fall 2008, only 36% of the students received passing grades (A-C). In fall 2009, following the full implementation of the redesign, 49% of students received passing grades. This represents a 36% increase in the number of students receiving a grade of C or better.
An obvious question of concern when the department looked at the increase in student achievement was, did this increase represent a real increase or was it due to chance or a design error? The department tried to structure the classes in such a way as to minimize design errors. Instructors of the redesigned course were the same as those of the traditional course. In addition, the department tried to mix the class offering times, so that time would not be a factor in the outcomes.
Were costs reduced as planned?
MVSU carried out its cost savings plan, reducing the cost-per-student from $183 to $139, a 24% savings. The savings were achieved by decreasing the number of sections from 17 to eight annually and increasing section size from 27 or 32 to 60.
Pedagogical Improvement Techniques
What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?
Mandatory lab participation. Three hours of laboratory work each week was mandatory, which forced students to work on the assignments, quizzes and tests. Other internet sites were blocked. The addition of a computer lab improved teaching methods tremendously. Prior to redesigning the Intermediate Algebra course, the predominant method of teaching was lecture and chalkboard. In the redesign, the amount of lecture has been reduced drastically and the chalk and white board have become almost useless. The redesigned course met only once per week for lecture, and the remaining hours allotted for the course were devoted to activities in the lab.
Online learning systems for grading and homework. The department utilized the Hawkes Learning System software, with online homework and testing providing instant feedback to students. The software allowed students to practice the skills that they were learning. The advantage was that students could now work as many problems as they needed rather than the limited supply available in the text. The interactive tutor allowed the software to lead students step-by-step through solutions of the exact problems that they were working on. Once they saw the guided solution for a problem, the software presented them with another algorithmically-generated example of the same type for them to work. Students had to show that they had mastered each skill to receive credit for a lesson. The team found that student learning improved when given the opportunity afforded them by the interactive software on the computer. The team felt like the immediate feed-back while doing homework exercises and the built-in tutoring capability provided with the software were among some of the most beneficial aspects of the redesign efforts for the student.
High expectations for students. Students learned to work independently and were more accountable for their progress.
Cost Reduction Techniques
What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?
Reducing the number of instructors. By doubling section size, the number of instructors assigned to teach developmental math was reduced by ~50%. Because grading was done by the computer, faculty members could handle more students. This enabled the released faculty members to teach more upper-level courses, seek grant funding for the university, assist students in research and conduct their own research. While the team managed to reduce the number of individual faculty directly teaching the course from 13 to four, this reduction in staff turned out to be a bit too much. Consequently, the team thinks that the course will be better served by involving six faculty members in the future rather than four.
What implementation issues were most important?
Student and departmental buy-in. The need for both the department and students to believe in the redesign was probably the most important implementation issue faced by the team. The approaches were new for many and required hard work from all. The rationale for the redesign needed to be made explicit to students and needed to be reinforced over the course of the semester. Instructors were impressed by improved student interaction during class and in the lab.
Will the redesign be sustained now that the grant period is over?
The redesign will be sustained given the big improvement in student learning outcomes and the tangible savings in instructional costs.