Checklist for Scaling Up a Student Learning Initiative in Mathematics
In our ongoing attempts to improve student performance in introductory mathematics courses, we launched a redesigned Beginning Algebra course that incorporated more educational technology, namely a Science, Mathematics, Research, and Technology Lab (SMART Lab) two hours every week. Our intention was to promote active and self-regulated learning where students could work on mathematics problems and obtain assistance from tutors. What we found during that first year and subsequent years was that student failure and withdrawal rates were lower in the sections of the courses that incorporated the SMART Lab than in traditional courses. We also found that students generally had a more positive disposition toward the SMART Lab (Hopf, Sears, Torres-Ayala and Maher, 2015).
What started with 150 students during the 2011-2012 academic year grew to 5,000 students annually by June 2015. How do you scale up a program like this in four years? It takes a lot of collaboration between multiple parties across different departments. Some of the challenges we faced included providing empirical evidence that the lab was positively impacting students’ work, sustaining the quality of the services of the SMART Lab, locating space to accommodate the increased population that we wanted to cater to, and more.
Considering the positive impact we observed on student learning in our introductory mathematics courses, we were determined to overcome these challenges. In order to help other professors, we will reflect upon what we did to overcome some of the challenges we experienced as we scaled up our course redesign initiative.
Collect Data of Effectiveness via Research
As we know, collecting empirical data is critical for conveying the effectiveness of any initiative, and can be essential in generating support. Thus, we formed a research team to document how well the SMART Lab worked. For example, each semester we asked students to complete a questionnaire about their SMART Lab experiences, and we analyzed the data collected during the spring and summer months. In our SMART Lab planning meetings, we allocated time for collecting and analyzing data. Additionally, we frequently reviewed literature relevant to the nature and goals of our learning environment to ensure that we were mindful of possible patterns, challenges, and limitations. The research findings provided justification for the improvements to the services offered in the SMART Lab. Furthermore, having researched the impact of the SMART Lab, we were able to share evidence of the positive implications of the SMART Lab with our colleagues and with the wider community.
The success of our SMART Lab initiative was due to the collaboration of multiple parties across different departments. Our planning group combined representatives from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Mathematics Education program, Academic Success Center, Information Technology, and the Library. Our partnership allowed us to leverage the expertise within the group, bringing the expansion of the lab to fruition faster than it would have been possible had we had to build new but separate infrastructures. We collaborated to identify goals and procedures for successful implementation of the SMART Lab, and considered the best way the working area will be utilized. We established a common vision by frequently communicating with each other, and reflecting on best practices that could facilitate students learning. This partnership was truly beneficial because it provided opportunities to gain multiple perspectives as well as created new networking possibilities.
In order to sustain quality in the SMART Lab, and ensure that it continues to effectively assist students in the learning of mathematics, we engaged in a cyclic process of examining students’ success and refining the design of the Lab as needed. Additionally, after gaining feedback from students and instructors, we carefully evaluated and implemented recommendations that would improve the learning environment. We observed that students’ reviews about the SMART Lab relative to the services rendered improved after each refinement cycle.
Space and Location
Finding adequate space to accommodate more students using the Lab services at the same time was critical to the learning initiative. Hence, we needed a space large enough to accommodate hundreds of students at any given time, easily accessible to all students, and conducive towards learning. An additional constraint was the time factor, namely, university administrators wanted to open the new lab as soon as possible.
When university administrators looked at central locations suitable for the SMART Lab, they considered the Library as the best possible space, as it currently housed a Learning Commons area on the first floor and the Tutoring Center on the second floor. Both spaces, however, were already highly utilized by students. In the end, the second floor of the Library was selected to expand the Learning Commons with the inclusion of the SMART Lab and additional study space. Nonetheless, most of the targeted space housed 400,000 bound periodicals that had to be relocated in order to make space and working area for over 300 computers. The location of the SMART Lab, on the same floor as the Tutoring Center and in between the Math and Education buildings, further facilitated close cooperation between the departments involved in the initiative.
Training of Personnel
Having skilled staff was also important in the scaling up of the SMART Lab. On a weekly basis, tutors were required to review content covered in various courses. Additionally, each year we train tutors on effective tutoring and questioning strategies that can be used to promote self-regulated learning. The frequent training and review of mathematical content strengthened our tutors’ content knowledge, and influenced their overall ability to assist struggling students. Furthermore, personnel at the SMART Lab front desk were informed on a regular basis about how to log students’ attendance and address common problems that may arise, which reduced the amount of complaints made. Also, by having ongoing training for our tutors and other SMART Lab staff, we noticed a steady improvement in the SMART Lab operations.
In closing, by scaling up our learning initiative, we carefully addressed challenges, and encouraged others to reflect on multiple facets (research, partnerships, sustainability, and training) that can affect the vision being actualized. We learned that working collaboratively could increase the likelihood that the vision is achieved and sustained over time.
We also wrote a blog post about how we redesigned our Intermediate Algebra course to incorporate educational technology and build critical thinking skills. For statistical results of student performance in our Intermediate Algebra course, read the full case study.
Hopf, F. Sears, R., Torres, A., & Maher, M. (February, 2015). SMART lab: Opening doors to success in college algebra. MathAMATYC Educator, 6(2), 9-14.
About the Author
Dr. Ruthmae Sears is an assistant professor at the University of South Florida. She coordinates the Beginning and Intermediate Algebra Mathematics courses that incorporate the SMART lab in the teaching of mathematics. Additionally, she is the mathematics education doctoral program coordinator, the Tampa Bay representative for the Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership, and the secretary for the Florida Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators. She has published and presented on curriculum issues, reasoning and proof, and technology.