The benefits of interdisciplinary conversations in transforming mathematics courses

Female college student standing in front of chalkboard holding chalk

Teamwork makes the dream work! In our case, teamwork was critical to a collaborative effort that sought to improve student performance in introductory mathematics courses at the University of South Florida. Our university implemented the use of a modified emporium model for all sections of Intermediate Algebra, College Algebra, Finite Mathematics and PreCalculus, after piloting it one year prior in College Algebra. Faculty members and administrators formed an interdisciplinary team and engaged in conversations that focused on increasing the percentage of students that passed introductory mathematics courses and the support needed to address the diverse needs of students. The interdisciplinary team reflected on the implications of the changes caused by the initiative on students’ learning and on means to support students in the computer lab learning environment (USF SMART Lab). Additionally, the interdisciplinary team also sought to address any problem that arose.

The lab was established in the Academic Success Center, rather than in the mathematics department. As a result, the collaboration among the interdisciplinary team naturally evolved due to the common goal of improving the quality of the learning environment for introductory mathematics courses. The mathematics department chairperson and the College Algebra course coordinator played pivotal roles in forming the collaborative partnership and assigning responsibilities for the mathematics educators in the College of Education, the mathematicians in the College of Arts and Sciences, the directors of the tutoring center and the math lab in the Academic Success Center.

The collaborators were diverse in their years of experience, gender, ethnicity, and field of specialty. This provided varied perspectives about means to transform these courses. Mathematicians brought to the table their understanding of the best mathematical content for these courses and how to teach it, mathematics educators contributed pedagogical content knowledge of how students learn math content and how to best assess it, and learning center professionals contributed their knowledge on general learning theories and how to ramp up tutor hiring. All of the collaborators had a stake in this venture because they taught or supported students in courses that used the lab and they wanted the university’s financial investment to reap rewards of an increase in the course pass rate.

In addition to meetings called by course coordinators within their disciplines, they met regularly with lab administrators. The interdisciplinary team met weekly in 2011-2012, every other week in 2012-2014, and monthly in 2014-2015. During these meetings, we monitored course progress and lab services, set common lab policies, analyzed performance data, and decided on curricular, instructional and service improvements. Among the decisions that we made collectively, many focused on the amount of lab time required, the need to develop tutors’ content knowledge, and which technology would be used and how it would be used in the computer lab setting.

The interdisciplinary discussions were always interesting considering the examples given to support claims were not necessarily restricted to the context of any given course but highlighted the importance of both pedagogical and content knowledge. Concerns and proposed solutions had to be clearly articulated with reasoning and research which enhanced the productivity of the conversations. When conflict arose, the merit of each argument was presented, and we collectively decided the best way to address it and move forward. On more than one occasion, it was the shared space and common course format that compelled faculty members and lab administrators to compromise in order to move the initiative forward.

Participating in the interdisciplinary conversations increased opportunities to engage in the decision making process, and develop a sense of ownership in the success of the transformative efforts to improve students’ performance in introductory mathematics courses. We noticed that students’ performance increase over time in the introductory mathematics courses. So yes, in our case, teamwork did make the dream work.

The authors will be speaking at ICTCM 2017. Register today and join your colleagues either in Chicago or virtually to discuss many mathematics topics.