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Program in Course Redesign

Northern Arizona University

The Traditional Course

Northern Arizona University (NAU) is redesigning all sections of College Algebra, which has an average annual enrollment of over 900 students, making it one of NAU's ten largest classes. In the traditional model, 25 sections of about 35 students each meet three hours per week for 15 weeks and are taught in a standard lecture format by full-time faculty (25%) and GTAs (75%). Business majors, students satisfying NAU's liberal studies requirements, and students needing to refresh their algebra skills mainly populate the course.

The academic problems in the traditional format are several. The lecture format does not promote active and collaborative learning and offers little student-faculty or student-student interaction. In addition, it does not address the diverse range of student learning styles, a particular problem at NAU with one of the highest populations of Native American and Hispanic students at any US institution.

Students who could progress at an accelerated pace because they have mastered some algebraic concepts in earlier coursework are locked into attending the entire 15-week course. Coordination among the numerous sections is difficult, leading to inconsistent student outcomes across sections. From 30% to 40% of students receive Ds and Fs or withdraw from the course. Furthermore, around 47% of these DFW students withdraw from NAU. Even those students who receive a grade of C or better often do not retain certain skills or recall relevant algebraic concepts in subsequent courses.

The Redesigned Course

College Algebra will be redesigned using technology by replacing classroom lectures with a student-centered, interactive environment. Rather than being offered in multiple sections, the course will enroll all students in a single section. It will be designed in units to be accomplished in 12 weeks rather than the 15 weeks in the traditional model.

The redesigned College Algebra will use the ALEKS software package (Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces), a comprehensive course management system that individualizes assessment and learning. ALEKS is Web-based, allowing students to access course materials at anytime from anyplace. It can be customized to meet student and course needs.

On the first day of class, students will meet in a newly created Algebra Computer Laboratory for an orientation and a tutorial in ALEKS; at this session, they will also complete a survey to identify their preferred learning style. NAU has developed a learning style survey model for its distance learning courses that will be adapted for the College Algebra course. The learning style survey consists of a series of questions that helps identify students who prefer working alone versus working in teams; who prefer to access course materials primarily via ALEKS versus receiving significant individual assistance form GTAs and tutors; or who prefer learning form others versus learning by teaching others. The results of the survey will help students structure their learning experiences so as to maximize their probability of successfully completing the course.

As a supplement to ALEKS, NAU will also use Thinkwell, a video-based mathematics software program that uses highlighted worked examples and video lectures for students who learn better in this mode. An orientation to this software will be provided in the second session of the course.

The use of ALEKS will allow students to work at their own pace, access the course anytime on or off campus, and receive frequent and immediate feedback. Students will also be able to go to the Algebra Computer Laboratory whenever they wish, either to access course materials or receive individual assistance and tutoring. They will also have the option of learning independently or in peer learning teams.

Comprehensive, continuous data collection using ALEKS will allow faculty, GTAs, and tutors to give individualized help as the course proceeds. ALEKS's course management software give the instructor the opportunity to check progress and achievement by individual students or the entire class. The instructor can access information about items that were mastered in the last assessment, progress in the Learning Mode, how much material is remaining and how much time the student is spending on the system. Students must master each unit based on the results of an online exam administered in the Lab. Students who are not making sufficient progress toward mastering the required algebraic skills or who are not spending adequate time on the course will be required to come to the Lab under supervision at least once a week until they begin to show improvement.

NAU will assess student learning, and student and faculty satisfaction using focus groups, interviews, and Web-based surveys. During a pilot semester the team will run parallel sections of College Algebra in both the traditional and redesigned formats to gather comparison data. Other measures to be collected and examined include course success rates and university retention and graduation rates.

Traditional Course Structure

  • 15-week term
  • 25 sections (~35 students)
  • 3 contact hours per week: 3 (1-hour) lectures
  • Five full-time faculty teach seven sections and 11 GTAs teach 18 sections of the course. They prepare and deliver three 50-minute (MWF) or two 75-minute (TTh) lectures per week, create and grade assignments and tests, and hold a minimum of 5 office hours per week.
  • One full-time faculty member oversees the GTAs. The faculty member prepares and conducts weekly one-hour training sessions, and supervises and evaluates the GTAs.

Redesigned Course Structure

  • 12-week term (with acceleration possible)
  • All students enrolled in one section each term
  • Other than the initial two meetings and exams, hours in lab are determined by student need
  • One full-time faculty member oversees the GTAs. The faculty member prepares and conducts weekly one-hour training sessions and supervises and evaluates the GTAs, computer laboratory aides, and student tutors.
  • Six GTAs support all students. They provide technical assistance and help students with course materials in the computer laboratory, provide individualized tutoring to students who need it, and participate in an initial orientation session and weekly one-hour training sessions.
  • Two student laboratory aides cover 180 hours of open laboratory each semester. They provide technical assistance to students in the computer laboratory, keep the computer laboratory desks and working areas clean and tidy, report all computer hardware and software problems to the system analyst, attend training sessions and monitor progress of students.
  • Three peer tutors provide a total of 342 hours of tutoring each semester. They provide personal assistance to students who need it, and attend training sessions conducted by the Learning Assistance Center.
  • One full-time system analyst devotes 10% of his or her time to the course. The system analyst installs and upgrades computer hardware and software as needed, keeps computer hardware and software in proper working condition and licenses up-to-date, provides computer hardware and software training as needed, and assists the GTA Coordinator with organizing the work schedule of computer laboratory aides.


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

  • Increase consistency of learning by combining all enrolled students into one section each term
  • Use ALEKS, a commercial software package, to provide individualized, customized lesson plans for students with tracking and monitoring of their success
  • Implement structured flexibility so that students can learn college algebra anytime and any place of their choosing
  • Provide individualized, targeted, human intervention as needed
  • Eliminate lectures and related faculty time to prepare and deliver these
  • Decrease involvement of full time faculty from five per term to one
  • Decrease involvement of TAs from 11 per term to six



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