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Improving the Quality of Student Learning

University of Idaho

Based on available data about learning outcomes from the course pilot, what were the impacts of re-design on learning and student development?

Although the University originally intended to redesign three courses, in the midst of the project two of them (College Algebra and Pre-Calculus) were combined into one course, now called Pre-Calculus. An analysis of student grade performance in Pre-Calculus and Intermediate Algebra, with a total of approximately 1400 students in fall, 2001, follows.

Intermediate Algebra

The Polya approach cut the number of students earning an “F” in Intermediate Algebra by about half, from 20% for the historical group (the five years prior to the introduction of the Polya approach) to 11% for the students using Polya.

Because the course does not count for graduation and students cannot go on to Pre-Calculus unless they earn at least a “C,” only students earning a grade of “A,” “B” or “C” can be considered to be successful in Intermediate Algebra.

Every year a substantial number of students are assigned a “W” (Withdrew) or “WU” (Withdrew Unsuccessfully) grade. We are not sure what the causes for this are. At least some are the result of failing work in the class. Many other factors may be involved as well. We intend to gain a better understanding of these students and determine what can be done to support their success.

In the traditional approach, 41% of the students were unsuccessful (“D”, “F”, “W” or “WU”) compared to 34% of the students using the Polya Center. While this represents a decrease of about 20%, it is still too high. Our goal is to move the percentage to 20% of the students, half of what it was in the traditional approach.

We are very pleased with the success of the top students. Those who earned an “A” in Intermediate Algebra in the Polya version constituted 20% of the students taking the course compared to an historical rate of 14% which is an increase of nearly 50%. We speculate that one of the important factors in their improved success is that the students can learn at their own pace and in their own styles.

Pre-Calculus

Comparing performance of the students in Pre-Calculus is more difficult because of some differences in how the student populations for these courses were selected. In the past, students who failed the Algebra Skills Test were forced to drop Pre-Calculus and enroll in Intermediate Algebra. Hoping that the more individualized instruction provided by Polya and the creation of some specific learning tools to remediate the deficiencies would enable us to support the success of these students, we encouraged them to drop back to Intermediate Algebra but allowed them to stay in Pre-Calculus if they chose to do so. Almost all of them decided to stay in Pre-Calculus. In order to make an appropriate comparison with past results, a subset of the total group of students registered for Pre-Calculus in Polya was used. This subset, labeled the “standard” group, consists of the students who would have been allowed to continue in Pre-Calculus in the past. Prior to Polya, students must either have passed the Algebra Skills Test or Intermediate Algebra in order to continue in Pre-Calculus.

We found that there has been a slight improvement in the percentage of students earning a grade of “F” in Pre-Calculus; the historical percentage was 12% and the Polya percentage was 10%.

Students who earn a grade of “D” can be considered to have achieved a degree of success in Pre-Calculus since the course would count toward graduation. Using this measure, the percentage of students who were historically unsuccessful (“F”, “W” or “WU”) is 20% as compared to 16% using Polya. This represents a 20% reduction in the percentage of unsuccessful students, similar to the results in Intermediate Algebra. On the other extreme, the percentage of students earning an “A” in the course increased from an historical value of 20% to 30%, a 50% increase, again very similar to the experience in Intermediate Algebra.

When the students who failed the Algebra Skills Test are included in the population, the results are very poor with the percentage of students earning an “F” rising to 14% and the percentage of unsuccessful students rising to 22%. We are working on ways that we can support the success of this extremely at-risk group of students or encourage more of them to switch to Intermediate Algebra.

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