Supporting All Math Instructors

Like other professions, mathematics educators in community colleges are not likely to be in attendance at national conferences (such as AMATYC 2014 ).  More of us should join AMATYC; I would like to think that membership is expected for all full-time math faculty in community colleges as well as those in universities with a focus on the first two years.

However, even in the best possible situation, only a small minority of us will be present at AMATYC conferences on a routine basis.  The question is:

How can we support all math instructors?

My view is that the critical component of an answer is the affiliates of AMATYC.  Each affiliate offers closer-to-home opportunities, with the resulting reduction in expenses.  Most affiliates have a low membership cost combined with a reasonable conference fee.  My affiliate (MichMATYC) is among the most economical: $5 annual membership, and conference registration is $35 to $40.

Part of the reason for this post is to highlight a specific activity that affiliates can undertake, in a mode that is accessible for most faculty in the state or region (full-time or adjunct).  Although the attention will shift to college level courses, right now developmental mathematics is in the ‘hot seat’.  The Michigan affiliate (MichMATYC) is hosting a state “Summit on Developmental Mathematics”, connected to our fall conference.  Here are some of the session topics for our Summit:

  • Pathways for general education mathematics
  • Acceleration models
  • Financial Aid issues
  • Implementing a New Life course like Mathematical Literacy (or Algebraic Literacy)
  • Comparing models (Dana Center NMP and AMATYC New Life)

Think about this … most states only have 20 to 30 faculty at the AMATYC conference in a given year.  At the affiliate conference, we can have 150 to 200 faculty.  This is still a minority of the math faculty in the affiliate region.  However, the proportion participating is approaching the level needed for sustained long-term improvement in the profession.

Of course, AMATYC also provides the wonderful webinars — which provide benefits without any travel expenses.  The participation in these webinars is not generally large (30 to 80, I think).  My guess is that faculty see them as a small part of their professional development needs.  Of course, one factor here (again) is AMATYC membership; participation in the webinars is limited to AMATYC members.  Another reason for membership to be expected of all full-time faculty.

The key point is that we need to include far more of our colleagues in all of our work, professional development in particular.  AMATYC membership is critical for full-time math faculty, and affiliate activity is our best chance of making a long-term difference by including a larger proportion of both full-time and adjunct faculty.

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Colorado Gets it Right with New Life

The New Life Project seeks to make basic improvements in math courses for college students — to provide them with modern courses, focusing on sound mathematical content, designed to serve the real needs of college students.  Although the New Life courses (Mathematical Literacy, Algebraic Literacy) can exist side-by-side with the traditional courses, my hope is that the new courses will replace the old courses.

Colorado has done that.  Effective this fall, the community colleges of Colorado are replacing their old developmental courses with a combination of Mathematical Literacy (Mat050) and Algebraic Literacy (Mat055).  The course titles vary from community college to community college, and colleges offer a co-requisite course for Algebraic Literacy (Mat025) which enables more students to begin with the second course.

For examples of the Colorado design, take a look at:

Pike’s Peak Community College

Community College of Denver

Arapahoe Community College

Colorado got it right.  Congratulations to them.  Their plan can be an inspiration to the rest of us.

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Quality Instruction and Class Design

Last year, my college created a new structure for departments and programs.  Instead of a chairperson for each department within the 3 academic divisions, we got associate deans and ‘faculty program chairs’.  The associate deans are the administrative players ‘in charge’ of two or three of our old departments.  In my case, math and science share an associate dean.  We have 7 faculty program chairs for the two departments; I am in the role of faculty program chair for developmental mathematics.  [Not much time provided in the workload, but the work is rewarding.]

Currently, I am focusing on one key idea for our program:

How do we create quality experiences for our students?

We want higher pass rates and completion (of course).  However, our students need classes that serve a real purpose.  Designing a course so that grades and scores are consistently higher than a student’s learning does not help students.  Some people talk about this under the umbrella of ‘grade inflation’, though our interest is in the striving for quality in instruction and class design.

So, here are some issues I have been thinking about:

  • Should any ‘points’ be awarded for completing homework?
  • Should points be awarded based on the level of performance during homework?
  • Does “dropping a low test” support or hinder a high quality class?
  • If a student does not come close to passing the final exam, should they get a passing grade if their other work creates a high enough ‘average’?
  • Is it okay if students with a 2.0 or 2.5 grade are not ready for the next math course?
  • Do high grades (3.5 and 4.0) uniformly mean that the student is ready for the next math course?

When courses are sequential, the preparation for the next math course is a critical purpose of a math class.  Assigning a passing grade, therefore, is a definite message to the student that they are ready to take the next class.  In practice, we know that this progression is seldom perfect — we usually provide some review in the next class, even though students ‘should’ know that material.  At this point, our efforts are dealing with the existing course outcomes, which tend to be more procedural than we would like; eventually, we will raise the reasoning expectations in our courses (with a corresponding reduction in procedural content).

Of special  interest to me are the issues related to homework.  Some faculty assign up to 25% of the course grade based on homework.  Like many places, we are heavy users of online homework systems (My Labs Plus as well as Connect Math).  When those systems work well for students, they support the learning process; most students are able to achieve a high ‘score’ on a homework assignment.  Should this level of achievement balance out a lower level on a test and/or final exam?  Take the scenario like this:

Derick completes all homework with a friend; with a lot of effort, his homework is consistently 90% and above.  All of Derick’s tests are between 61% and 68%, and he gets a 66% on the final exam.  The high homework average raises his course grade to 71%, and he receives a 2.0 (C) grade in the algebra class.

This scenario is a little extreme (it’s only possible with a high weight on homework … >15%).  What is fairly common is a situation where homework is 10% of the course grade and the student passes 2 of the 5 tests; one of of the 3 not-passed tests is ‘dropped’, and the student easily qualifies for a 2.0 (C) grade.  One of the cases I saw this past semester involved this type of student achieving a 52% on the final exam.

In our case,we already have a common department final exam for the primary courses (pre-algebra up to pre-calculus).  In the case of developmental courses, we have a policy that requires 25% of the course grade to be based on that final exam.  This design for the final exam is a good step towards the quality we are striving for.  We are realizing that we can not stop there.

Like most community colleges, our courses are taught by both full-time and adjunct faculty; the last figures I saw showed about 40% by full-time and 60% by adjunct.  Because adjuncts are not consistently engaged with our conversations, adjuncts tend to have more variations than full-time faculty.  We will be looking for ways to help our large group of adjuncts become better integrated within the program, even in the face of definite budgetary constraints.  Fortunately, many of my full-time colleagues are committed to helping these efforts to improve the quality of our program.

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Students Don’t Do Optional … or Options

In the Achieving the Dream (AtD) ‘world’, the phrase “Students do not do optional” is used as a message to colleges that policy and program decisions need to reflect what we believe students ought to do — if it’s a helpful thing, making it optional often means that the students who need it the most will not do it.  I tried something in my class that suggests a slightly different idea.

For the past two years, I have ‘required’ (assigned points) students to connect with a help location at the college.  The idea was that students need to know — before they think they need it — where they can get help for their math class.  I allow days for this — usually, until the 4th class day.

Until this semester, I provided students with options for how to complete this required activity.

  • my office hours
  • the college’s “Learning Commons” (tutoring center)
  • the college’s library tutoring (also staffed by the tutoring center)
  • special programs tutoring (like TRIO)

Typically, I would have about 70% of students complete this ‘connect with help’ activity; most of the struggling students were in the 30% who did not.  Some of these students eventually found the help.

This semester, I tried a revision to this connect with help activity.  I provided students the following choice(s):

  1. the college’s “Learning Commons” (tutoring center)

The result?  I have 100% completion for this activity.  All active students have completed the activity, and most of these did it right away.

This is summer semester, and “summer is different” (though it’s difficult to quantify how different).  However, the results suggest that the existence of options creates barriers for some of our students.  We have evidence that this problem exists within the content of a mathematics class — when we tell students that we are covering multiple methods (or concepts) for the same type of problems, some students struggle due to the existence of a choice.  [For those who are curious, you may wonder if students are not coming to my office hour -- so far, I actually have more students coming to my office hours.  No apparent loss there.]

I think the basic question is this:

Given that choices (options or optional) creates some risk for some students, WHEN are there sufficient advantages to justify this risk?

If dealing with a choice has the potential for improving mathematical understanding, I will continue to place choices in front of my students.  We should resist the temptation to provide simple answers when students struggle with mathematics; the process working (learning) depends upon the learner navigating through choices and dealing with some ambiguity. On the other hand, when the choices deal with something non-mathematical, we should be very careful before imposing the choice on students.

Some people might be thinking “So, it’s okay for us to be rigid and not-flexible” in dealing with students.  That is NOT what I am saying.  If one of my students gave me a valid rationale for why they could not do the ‘one option’, I would offer them an equivalent process.  Our rigidity needs to be invested in what is important to us; I would hope that the important stuff is something related to “understanding mathematics” (though we don’t all agree on what that means).

I would suggest that the AtD phrase be modified slightly:

Options will cause difficulties for some students.  Allow options when this provides enough advantages to students.

We usually try to be helpful to students, and part of this is a tendency to provide students with options. Putting choices in front of students is not always a good thing, so we need to be selective about when we put options in to our courses and procedures.

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