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The Roadmap to Redesign (R2R)

University of Missouri-St. Louis

Course Title: College Algebra
Contact: Teresa Thiel

Project Abstract
Interim Progress Report (as of 5/15/05)
Interim Progress Report (as of 4/15/06)
Final Report (as of 7/1/06)

Project Abstract

The University of Missouri-St. Louis (UM-SL) plans to redesign College Algebra. During the 2003-2004 academic year, the course enrolled 824 students in 22 sections of 35 students each. The course is required of students majoring in business, elementary and secondary education, nursing, engineering, mathematics, computer science, biology, chemistry, physics, and economics. In total, these majors represent about half the student body. In the traditional format, students attend three 50-minute lectures per week and have access to a math help lab without computers. The lab is open about 20 hours per week, staffed by undergraduate students. All homework, quizzes and exams are paper-based and are graded by teaching assistants and faculty members.

The major reason for redesigning College Algebra is the low success rate of students, which is about 50%. This leads to a significant problem both in terms of student progress toward learning a critically important subject and in terms of student retention across disciplines. The high failure rate of students in College Algebra is considered to be a major problem at UM-SL and one of the leading causes of low student retention at the university.

The redesign will use the Emporium Model. Each week, students will attend one 50-minute class meeting and two 120-minute lab sessions held in a new math technology center being constructed on campus. This facility will eventually house 150 computers, tables for student collaboration, and a testing center. The redesigned College Algebra course will be the first course to take advantage of the new center. Students will complete software-based online homework assignments using MyMathLab in the lab or at home. Students will use lab time to work on homework problems and to obtain help from the math software tutorials, video lectures, from other students or from the tutors and faculty who will staff the math technology center. Class meetings will introduce new material, provide examples, review past and future assignments, troubleshoot student problems (technical or mathematical), and keep students on track.

The impact of the course redesign on student learning will be assessed by comparing scores on a common final examination taken by students in the traditional format before the redesign and by students in the redesigned sections during the pilot session in spring 2005 and after the whole course redesign is implemented.

UM-SL's cost reduction strategy is to increase section size from 35-40 to 70-75, thus reducing the number of personnel required by almost half. The savings per student will be about $51, moving from $170 to $119, for a total savings of around $42,000. Since the redesigned course will require fewer instructors, the university will no longer need to hire part-time adjunct faculty to teach College Algebra and the number of lecturers teaching the course will decrease from ten to six. The full-time instructors will coordinate the development of the lectures and share tasks so that there is consistency across all lecture sections. The time required for grading homework assignments and quizzes and for course management and record keeping will be decreased. The university also anticipates that increased student success will mean that many more students will choose to take the course on campus rather than at local community colleges, thus also increasing their revenues.

Interim Progress Report (as of 5/15/05)

Two math faculty from the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UM-SL) visited the University of Alabama and returned with a clearer understanding of what issues they need to address in the redesigned course. During fall 2004, most of the faculty teaching College Algebra started using computer-based homework, creating a core of faculty familiar with the software. Use will continue in winter and summer 2005. UM-SL has allocated a large unused area for the Mathematics Technology Learning Center to be converted over the next six months in time for the fall 2005 full implementation. The campus is making financial arrangements for refurbishing this area and acquiring networked computers. This is a major commitment on the part of the campus, and the team feels that having reached this stage is a strong achievement.

The course pilot offered in spring 2005 had a success rate of close to 75 percent compared to the 50 percent success rate in the traditional format. Unfortunately, there were only 15 students in the pilot, which made it very sensitive to even one or two dropouts. It appears that students were nervous about signing up for a "new course." One student preferred to move to a traditional section which uses the software for homework. Some students in the pilot have said that they are inclined towards at least two lectures per week. This may change when the Math Technology Center is built. At that time, the team will have a better resource for giving short impromptu "lectures" to help such students.

Interim Progress Report (as of 4/15/06)

UM-SL fully implemented its redesigned College Algebra course in fall 2005. A few days before the start of classes, the Mathematics Technology Learning Center (MTLC) was completed. The MTLC is a large room with about 110 computers, 70 of them in learning clusters and the rest in a testing area. In addition there is space for small group work using white boards. All the faculty and TAs who are teaching College Algebra have their office hours there, thus encouraging students to consider the MTLC as the best place to get help with math.

The course was taught in sections of up to 70 students each. One evening section was under-enrolled, with only 20 students. The three sections of day students averaged 65 students. Students spent four hours a week on lab work in the MTLC, meeting their instructor in the classroom for one hour a week. With these changes, UM-SL has doubled the size of most of the sections without increasing the cost per section.

The students started each week by noting the reading assignments and a worksheet that was posted on the preceding Thursday night. They also received their homework assignments for the following week on CourseCompass. To better understand the lectures on Monday, the students were encouraged to read and start their homework during the weekend. The 50-minute Monday lectures covered some of the problems in the sections that were assigned for the week. A large number of students suggested a longer lecture time, and the team plans to change it to 75 minutes in spring 2006. Students were encouraged to do homework in the MTLC where they could obtain help from the teaching assistants if needed. 

Besides the Monday lectures, all students attended two 120-minute labs, Lab A and Lab B. In Lab A, offered on Wednesdays, students continued doing homework and asking questions. In Lab B, offered on Thursdays or Fridays, students completed their weekly homework and took a twenty-minute quiz. About 70% of quizzes and tests are online. The team plans to start taking attendance during the labs. A lot of students claimed that they had completed all of their work and wanted to take the quiz and leave early. The team plans to keep the weaker students for the duration of the lab and try to work more with them.

The pass rate has steadily increased during all phases of the redesign, and the course structure is still evolving. At the end of the semester, student performance was extremely good with a pass rate (grade of C or better) of more than 80%. This compares with a pass rate of 50-55% before the redesign.

UM-SL also introduced the redesign to the evening courses, thereby bringing more uniformity to the course. Originally, there were one 50-minute lecture and two two-hour labs. The team plans to continue one lecture and two labs, but they all will be 75 minutes. UM-SL also started online testing.

Training for instructors, TAs, and tutors is required to implement the redesign successfully. The initial desire to stick with the old way of doing things has to be overcome. New faculty members and TAs have been trained and brought into the course and helped to go through the steps of accepting a different teaching/learning model. Key to the success of the redesign has been the willingness of dedicated lecturers to try something new and the support of the university in building the MTLC.

The full implementation has been a success. Student complaints were minimal. Many students expressed their appreciation of the method while a few grumbled about using computers for homework. The MTLC turned out to be a major simplification to the logistical problems of handling large numbers of students in various computer labs across campus. Now all students go to the MTLC for lab sessions and tutoring help.

With the availability of the MTLC, UM-SL plans to introduce pilot sections of several other lower level math courses in the spring 2006 semester modeled on the successful format of the College Algebra course.

Final Report (as of 7/1/06)

Impact on Students

In the redesign, did students learn more, less or the same compared with the traditional format?

Improved Learning

Students learned more in the redesigned course than in the traditional course as indicated by their improved performance on common comprehensive final exams. There were more As and Bs and fewer Ds and Fs. Combined results for two academic years indicate that 56.6% of students in the redesigned sections achieved in the top two of six score ranges, while only 31.5% of students in the traditional sections did so. This difference was statistically significant.

Improved Retention

Retention rates improved in the redesigned course relative to the traditional course. The successful completion rate (grade of C or better) for students increased with each of the two phases of the course redesign. The DFW rate decreased from 36.7% in academic year 2002-2003 before the redesign to 23.7% in academic year 2004-2005 and 21.6% in academic year 2005-2006. These differences are statistically significant.

Impact on Cost Savings

Were costs reduced as planned?

UM-SL made some changes in the full implementation of its redesign. The team originally planned to have students attend two 120-minute lab sessions and one 50-minute class meeting each week. After trying various structures, UM-SL eventually settled on two 75-minute labs and one 75-minute class meeting each week. This change alleviated the problems students were having in scheduling other classes because of the two two-hour labs. The change had minimal impact on UM-SL’s planned cost savings, which relied primarily on increasing section size from 35 to 70 students and reducing the number of sections offered. The cost-per-student declined as planned from $170 to $119, a 30% reduction.

Lessons Learned

Pedagogical Improvement Techniques

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

Online automated assessment. Students were very pleased to be able to see immediately when an answer to a homework question was wrong. This helped them enormously because they were able to get help quickly when they did not have the correct answer. Most students felt that the benefits of computer-based homework outweighed the annoyance of learning to key in answers in the correct format and of being tied to a computer. They found that the lab sessions and the math software increased their understanding of mathematics, which helped them to pass the course.

Better student preparation for class time. Students were better prepared to understand the in-class presentations largely because the redesign implementation forced them to complete homework promptly and prevented them from falling behind. They were also better prepared because lecture notes were posted online prior to class. Many students looked over the lecture notes and came to class prepared with questions. Having the notes available to students also helped because previously students were often too busy racing to copy the lecture notes instead of listening and understanding the material.

Structural supports to support student progress. The team instituted strict homework deadlines. Homework was “opened” weekly prior to the lecture and closed by the end of the week. Students needed this structure; otherwise, they fell behind in the homework. A weekly quiz on the material covered during the week allowed early intervention; emails were sent to those students who were falling behind. Monitoring and intervening quickly was a major factor in the redesign’s success. (Assessment also included monthly hour-long tests and a final exam.)

Giving course points for homework. Homework must count for a significant part of the course grade so that students will be motivated to do it. This was proven by comparing the results of assigning optional homework (no grade) or mandatory homework (graded) in a different course.

Accommodating diverse learning styles. Computerized homework was very useful for most students because they could obtain online help whenever or wherever they needed it. The need for some students to learn the old-fashioned way with pencil and paper was met by the staff in the centralized learning center, the MTLC.

Cost Savings Techniques

What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?

Consolidating sections. The redesign has increased efficiency and decreased the cost of instruction. Section size doubled from 35 to 70 students, decreasing the need for adjunct faculty to teach the many sections of College Algebra. In addition, most of the grading is done now by the computer so that fewer TAs are required; TA time is now spent helping students in the MTLC instead of grading.

As an example of how the cost savings have been used, an adjunct lecturer who recently resigned was replaced by a tenure-track faculty member in math who will teach more advanced courses for math majors.

Implementation Issues

What implementation issues were most important?

Being flexible and willing to modify the redesign model if necessary. Various combinations of lecture and lab time were tried over the course of the redesign implementation, including two lectures and one lab, one short lecture and two long labs, and one longer lecture and two shorter labs. The last one worked best. Although the labs are shorter, students may stay longer or may return to the MTLC any time for additional help if they need it.

Overcoming faculty members’ initial desire to stick with the old way of doing things. It is okay to be skeptical, but one must be willing to try a new method of teaching. The faculty members who were initially brought into the project were skeptical but willing to try a new style of teaching. At first, the instructors tended to feel that they were not really teaching anymore. This feeling faded gradually as the faculty worked closely with students in the lab, and the success of the new approach became evident.

Training new faculty members and teaching assistants. As new faculty members and TAs were brought into the course, it was important to help them go through the steps of accepting a different teaching/learning model. Instructors, TAs and tutors needed to be trained to use the software and in the new student-centered approaches.

Overcoming initial student resistance to computerized learning. This issue was more acute when the redesign first started. The first few weeks of the semester were a battle, especially when some instructors were not yet convinced that the redesign was a better way to teach the course. The problem is decreasing, and each semester the students are more accepting of the change.

Identifying the best software. After what seemed like an impossible task of examining the many available software packages, with the help of other R2R participants the choices were narrowed to iLrn and MyMathLab. The team evaluated both by trying each for at least one semester. Each change of software required changing to a new textbook that accompanied the software, adjusting the syllabus to parallel the new book, creating course materials using the software, and training the faculty members and TA’s involved in the course. Ultimately UM-SL chose MyMathLab.

Software problems. Students were sometimes frustrated by the effort that it took to key in an answer in an acceptable format and when occasionally correct answers were rejected.


Will the redesign be sustained now that the R2R program has concluded?

The campus and the faculty are dedicated to continuing the successful redesign of College Algebra and expanding this model to other courses. The willingness of the dedicated instructors to try something new, the great help from the department and the support of the university in building the MTLC have been the key ingredients in the successful implementation of the redesign.

Will you apply the redesign methodology to other courses and programs on campus?

Based on the initial success of the redesign of College Algebra, online homework using the supplemental model was introduced in the trigonometry course, which has brought much needed help for students and increased the uniformity of teaching in the different sections of the course. This course is taught predominately by graduate students during the day and adjunct faculty in the evening under supervision of a full-time faculty member.

Various faculty members are offering pilot sections with computer-based homework for Basic Calculus, the Calculus series, and Statistics. If the results are positive, the changes will be made to all the sections of these courses.

With the successful redesign of College Algebra and the availability of the MTLC, there is no reason that the innovations introduced in College Algebra and now being tested in other math courses will not continue in the future. The results have all been positive with increased student success and decreased cost, so there is no reason not to continue this winning formula.



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