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Program in Course Redesign

The University of Alabama

The Traditional Course

Intermediate Algebra, a pre-general studies course, enrolls about 1500 students every year. One half of all entering undergraduate students place into Intermediate Algebra, which essentially repeats material that students should have learned in high school. Faculty teach the course in a traditional lecture format using common syllabi, department-wide tests, and final exams that they develop collectively. Graduate teaching assistants (GTAs), who undergo substantial training and supervision, support faculty and students in the course.

The most significant academic problem with Intermediate Algebra is poor student performance. Because students enroll in such high numbers, faculty cannot track homework assignments as carefully as needed due to staffing limitations. Inadequate student-progress tracking and delays in responses to student work also impact student performance. More than 50% of students receive D or F grades, and students often need to repeat the course several times. The scope of this problem can be seen when viewed in terms of student success toward graduation. Students in the 1993 freshman class, for example, had an overall six-year graduation rate of 55%, compared to a 30% rate for students who received a D or F in the Intermediate Algebra course.

To address the problem of student performance, faculty initiated a pilot redesign of Intermediate Algebra in 1997. The pilot project emphasized homework problems and quick, frequent feedback loops. The pilot was successful, but it had two main problems: 1) it did not use computer technology to provide feedback and thus was far too labor-intensive, and 2) it did not develop a truly learner-centered experience. It did, though, successfully prove the need to provide similar kinds of repetitive problem solving and quick feedback.

To address the problems of learner-centeredness and immediate response to student work, faculty have started another pilot program modeled on Virginia Tech's Math Emporium. The idea is to move the Intermediate Algebra course to a self-paced, computer-based learning environment. The Math Technology Learning Center, a 70-seat computer facility, will house the redesigned Intermediate Algebra course.

The Redesigned Course

The prime objective in course redesign is to use technology to create a self-paced, active learning environment that will engage students and thus increase student success rates in the course. The redesigned course will substitute capital for labor, offloading labor-intensive feedback, grading, and record-keeping from individual instructors to sophisticated software that can track and respond immediately to student work.

The goals for the redesigned course include the following:

  • Move from lecture to a self-paced, computer-assisted, tutorial format that will allow the student to focus precisely on his or her questions and difficulties
  • Encourage student attendance and homework completion by creating a more inviting learning environment
  • Capture attendance and homework information electronically, allowing instructors to engage in more direct tutorial assistance
  • Change the learning environment from passive to active and thus increase student performance.

In order to achieve these goals, Intermediate Algebra will be redesigned for delivery in the Math Technology Learning Center (MTLC), modeled on Virginia Tech's Math Emporium. The MTLC, open 65 hours over six days per week, will use commercial instructional software to provide basic instruction and testing. Through its diagnostic and record-keeping functions, the course software will provide quick feedback to students, instant assessment of skills competencies, and a steady flow of information to instructors and tutors. The interactive nature of the new teaching and learning process will require students to be active participants rather than passive observers. Faculty, graduate teaching assistants (GTAs), and undergraduate peer tutors will provide personalized instruction and tutorial assistance as needed.

The redesign of Intermediate Algebra will serve as a model for further redesign of all pre-calculus courses at the university as well as for some higher-level math courses.

Traditional Course Structure

  • 15-week term
  • 22 sections per term of 35 students each
  • 3 (1-hour) lectures per week
  • Five or six faculty members teach one or two sections each term. They plan and deliver three lectures per week, develop and evaluate tests and assignments, and attend staff meetings.
  • Five or six GTAs teach one or two sections each term. They plan and deliver three lectures per week, evaluate tests and assignments, and attend orientation and staff meetings.

Redesigned Course Structure

  • 15-week term
  • 1 section each term (fall –1000 students, spring – 600 students, summer – 180 students)
  • 3 contact hours per week: 2.5 hours in the MTLC and 30 minutes in group work sessions
  • Additional hours in the MTLC are optional depending upon individual student needs
  • One faculty member coordinates the course and all personnel. He or she reviews and updates learning materials as needed, provides tutorial assistance in the MTLC (both one-on-one and in small groups), monitors student progress, provides remedial support, and attends orientation and staff meetings.
  • Five instructors/GTAs each term provide tutorial assistance in the MTLC (both one-on-one and in small groups), monitor student progress, provide remedial support, and attend orientation and staff meetings.
  • Six undergraduate peer tutors each term provide student assistance in the MTLC as needed, and attend orientation and staff meetings.

Summary

In summary, the redesigned course will implement the following changes:

  • Combine multiple sections into one section
  • Eliminate all lectures, replacing them with Web-based interactive tutorials, computational exercises, practice exercises with solutions to frequently asked questions and online quizzes
  • Provide 24 x 7 student access to course materials and resources online and in the Math Teaching and Learning Center
  • Provide one-to-one help from a mix of faculty, instructors, GTAs, and undergraduate peer tutors
  • Shift instructor and GTA time from lecture and grading to direct student help
  • Implement a student-centered, self-paced, active learning environment based on commercial software

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