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Lessons Learned

Riverside Community College

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?

Using instructional software. Students are required to participate in an online assessment/tutorial/homework program based on a commercial software package (first, ALEKS; later, MyMathLab) that can be accessed anytime at home or in the lab. The students initially used the self-assessment component of ALEKS to determine what concepts they knew and what concepts they needed to learn. Although ALEKS was used at the start of the project, for reasons outlined below in the implementation section, the software was changed after the first term to MyMathLab. The software is versatile and supports verbal, visual, and discovery-based learning options. It allows instructors to see what work students are actually doing and to easily monitor their progress.

Requiring student participation in the Math Collaboratory. A Math Collaboratory was established on all three RCC campuses with the goal of moving from a seat-time model to one based on subject mastery. Each collaboratory is a math lab facility that uses commercially available tutorial software to generate problems and offer immediate feedback. Faculty and tutors are also present to work with students individually and in groups. Accommodating 3600 students over the year, the Math Collaboratory is staffed about 40 hours per week, and students are able to access these labs on a drop-in basis. Initially faculty expected students to come to the labs voluntarily and benefit from faculty assistance without the need for a requirement. This was not successful, and students are now required to participate in math lab activities for two hours per week.

Requiring student participation in Spotlight Sessions. Students are required to attend two one-hour spotlight sessions each week. Faculty select topics for these sessions that target known trouble spots for students and present related topic-centered lectures at various times during the week.

Supplementary tutorial activities. Students are able to attend weekly study skills workshops geared specifically for mathematics students. Workshop topics include time management, how to study for math tests, word problem strategies, etc. Students are also able to participate in extra subject matter question/answer sessions conducted by student tutors.

Cost Reduction Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Using commercial software. Using instructional software (first ALEKS, then MyMathLab) allowed much of the time previously spent on instruction about math concepts to be transferred to the technology and eliminated lecture time previously used to review homework. Lecture time was reduced from four to two hours per week. Class meetings were reorganized and targeted to those topics that students found particularly difficult. Faculty spent more time interacting with students about questions and problems rather than repeating math concept information.

Online automated assessment. Reduction of time in preparing tests through adoption of common tests and finals eliminated the time each individual faculty member spent each term preparing these assessments. In addition, by offering these tests online in the Math Collaboratory, faculty eliminated grading and students received immediate feedback using the computerized system.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Changes in the redesign plan. Based on information obtained from focus groups and from test data, the faculty made a number of changes in the course structure for the 2001-2002 academic year. One of the biggest modifications was to require that students spend a minimum of two hours per week in the Math Collaboratory to increase the amount of interaction among students and instructors. Previously students had been able to choose the amount of time they spent, depending on how much time was needed to complete the assignments. This lack of required structure meant that some students did not spend enough time and were not able to benefit from the feedback and assistance available. Another change was to augment the Web-based homework, which was not necessarily related to the Spotlight Session topics, with homework each week that related to those topics. These changes appear to have been successful.

Collective decision-making. The large number of faculty engaged in the redesign (24 spread among three campuses) led to a very complex redesign organization. Various committees created a common syllabus, common tests and finals that ensure that course outlines of record are being followed, a common grading metric that ensures that academic standards are upheld, and lab worksheets. Accomplishing these tasks required significant time and reaching a consensus on topics required patience and a lot of give-and-take. The discussion that resulted among faculty at all three campuses regarding student performance after the assessment of the redesign was also an unexpected, positive outcome.

Spotlight sessions. The mastery level that ALEKS enabled caused students to be working on different topics. A majority of students in a particular class were never working on one topic, thus making the Spotlight Session concept impossible. When instructors planned a structure for the Spotlight Sessions, students were often working on ALEKS topics that were unrelated.

Software problems. The ALEKS software originally chosen had a number of problems including 1) a lack of correlation between ALEKS and textbooks; 2) tutorials that were very text-based and difficult to follow; and, 3) students no longer had access to material once a topic had been completed, making study for the tests and finals more difficult. Most faculty preferred to have a program that related specifically to a textbook and to classroom topics and that would allow homework to be assigned and graded strictly online. These problems resulted in a change to MyMathLab, available through Addison-Wesley publishers. Initial findings are that students see a greater correlation between classroom topics and their online assignments and have been spending, on average, a greater amount of time using the online program than before. MyMathLab also has a built-in gradebook that automatically records scores from online assignments and allows instructors to insert grade information manually from assignments that are not online.

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