Non-STEM Pathways course using MyMathLab demonstrates success at Des Moines Area Community College
- Pathways students who received C- or better in College Prep Math experienced positive success in subsequent Liberal Arts Math (87.2 percent pass rate) and Elementary Statistics courses (71.1 percent pass rate).
- The lead course instructor believes the combination of social constructivist curriculum and MyMathLab technology makes the Pathways approach superior to past developmental math redesign formats, reinforcing research about how the brain works and what cognitive scientists have long communicated about learning and the connection of that learning to real and relevant contexts.
Des Moines Area Community College, Ankeny, IA
College Prep Math
MyMathLab access code; Math Lit: A Pathway to College Mathematics by Almy and Foes
Fall 2012–Fall 2015
Dan Petrak, Professor of Mathematics
Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) is a public institution and Iowa’s largest two-year college. DMACC offers 168 programs, certificates, and transfer degrees, serving more than 75,000 credit and non-credit students annually at six campuses and six learning centers throughout central Iowa. DMACC serves a 6,560 square mile area in 22 counties and has a student-to-faculty ratio of 18:1. Of the total population enrolled, 60 percent of those are enrolled full-time and 36 percent receive some form of financial assistance.
About the Course
The College Prep Math course at DMACC is a developmental course for students who have placed below the school’s required level for Math for Liberal Arts of Statistics. It is designed to prepare students for those courses in one semester. Beyond the traditional developmental math curriculum, this course emphasizes topics such as math study skills, problem-solving, and modeling in a student-centered environment. This course is not recommended for STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, math) and cannot be used to fulfill degree requirements since it is below the 100 level. The prerequisite for enrolling in the course is a minimum ALEKS PPL score of 14 percent or a grade of C- or higher in Elementary Algebra or a grade of C- or higher in Pre-Algebra. In general, these students would be placed slightly above Arithmetic or at the Pre-Algebra level.
Challenges and Goals
Currently, most developmental math courses are designed to give students the knowledge needed for STEM tracks, that is, to be successful in College Algebra; however, many students are not STEM majors and therefore need a different set of skills. Thus, DMACC implemented a Pathways course called College Math Prep with the goal of preparing non-STEM students for either Liberal Arts Math or Elementary Statistics. The focus of this curriculum is designed to equip students with the prerequisite knowledge and skills to help them be successful in Liberal Arts Math or Elementary Statistics. These non-STEM, credit-bearing courses require students to be better at reading, problem solving, modeling, and ways of thinking. For students to be successful, the course needs to address both the cognitive and affective domains of the student. The curriculum emphasizes and integrates proportional reasoning, the concept of function, multiple representations, productive persistence, and other student success subject matter.
In fall 2012, DMACC began its College Prep Math course in response to the American Mathematics Association of Two Year Colleges’ (AMATYC) advocation of a non-STEM track for students. Dan Petrak, Professor of Mathematics, had seen Kathy Almy, co-author of Math Lit: A Pathway to College Mathematics, a non-STEM developmental math book, present on the STATway/QUANTway methods and recognized this could be a solution for students who weren’t STEM majors. Due to the difficulty in adopting and articulating the STATway and QUANTway courses, he and the department decided to create their own one-semester pathways course from scratch.
A team of faculty, led by Petrak, began with a “backwards design” to determine what prerequisite knowledge was necessary for students to be successful in Liberal Arts Math and Elementary Statistics. They also decided to teach the course utilizing social constructivist learning theory practices. This approach is student-centered and asks learners to be active in constructing knowledge by engaging in relevant mathematical activities with other students. With this goal in mind, the department decided to adopt Pearson’s Almy/Foes book and use the associated MyMathLab’s Ready-to-Go course. DMACC customized the curriculum in the MyMathLab course to fit their needs. MyMathLab is used to help students individually learn skills and concepts outside of class, and then class time is used to do group work, activities, modeling, and discussions for conceptual understanding.
Recognition of the whole student’s background, motivation, and potential math anxiety informs this curricular design and approach with the student’s end goal in mind.
Understanding that people learn by constructing their own understanding with others, the course emphasizes small group work daily. Some faculty keep students together in the same group for weeks at a time, while others change the grouping of students more frequently. The key is that the students are doing the mathematics and not relying as heavily on the instructor. Petrak maintains that this is sometimes a difficult transition for a traditional teacher, but the active participation during class quickly convinces professors to give students more ownership of their learning and for the instructor to be a “guide on the side instead of the sage on the stage.” This is a different way of learning for students as well, Petrak believes, but since students have historically been unsuccessful using more traditional methods, this alternative approach is proving to be a preferred method of instruction for students. Petrak states, “Facilitating the group dynamics is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching a pathways course, but it is also the most rewarding for both the students and the faculty.”
Faculty new to the curriculum are connected with instructors who have taught the course before. Every instructor who teaches the course is also part of a shared online community where they can collaborate and help each other. In addition, every now and then, Petrak hosts a Google Hangout where the faculty can meet and hash out any questions, issues, or ideas. Finally, the course materials provided by Pearson specifically for the instructor lend themselves to helping instructors through the task of facilitating groups as it tells them what specifically to do with the groups.
To encourage students to come to class and participate actively, students receive a “Daily 5” grade each class meeting, resulting in 20 percent of their final grade. This Daily 5 grade is typically comprised of one point for each of the following: coming to class, being on time, adequate effort on paper-pencil homework in class, the quiz given at the beginning of class, and active group participation.
Outside of class, students complete both paper-and-pencil assignments from the text and online homework within MyMathLab. Most sections in the textbook have an online homework component, and it is expected that MyMathLab homework will be completed one day after the material is learned in class. For example, a lesson covered one day is due the next day of class at 11:59 PM. Students earn 10 percent less per day on the assignments they do not complete on time.
Approximately every three weeks, students are given a paper-and-pencil test to evaluate learning. These tests are very similar in design to the daily homework they do in MyMathLab for each section. There is also an online quiz to complete in MyMathLab that is due the day before the paper-and-pencil exam. Students can retake these online quizzes many times to improve their score. The quizzes are timed at 30 minutes and students do not have access to the learning aides. A typical test will have about 15 points from the online quiz and 85 points for the paper-and-pencil exam for a total of 100 points per test/quiz. The day before the exam, Petrak actually goes through the quiz with his students in class because it is a good review for the more skills-based questions students will see on the paper-and-pencil test.
In addition, two units (Cycle 1 and Cycle 3) begin with a focus problem to help students develop problem solving skills, working with others, and help them realize real problems are not solved in a few minutes. The Cycle 1 focus problem is medication miscalculation and Cycle 3’s focus problem compares e-readers. The solution to each focus problem is turned in at the end of the cycle. No late focus problem solutions are accepted, and they are graded with a rubric given to students at the beginning of each cycle. Students are, however, allowed to correct their answers based on feedback in order to improve their scores.
- 45% Tests/quiz (4 MyMathLab and paper-and-pencil)
- 20% Daily 5
- 20% Homework (MyMathLab)
- 10% Comprehensive final
- 5% Focus problems
Results and Data
DMACC’s goal in developing the Math Prep Course was to produce students who would succeed in either Liberal Arts Math or Elementary Statistics, which are the two most common credit-bearing courses taken by non-STEM students. Students who took College Prep Math in fall 2014 and fall 2015 were followed into Liberal Arts Math and Elementary Statistics in 2015–2016.
Liberal Arts Math
Figure 1 examines the success rate of students who completed College Prep Math before taking Liberal Arts Math as well as students who did not take College Prep Math prior to completing Liberal Arts Math.
- Students who completed Liberal Arts Math after first completing College Prep Math had a pass rate 10 percentage points higher than students who completed Liberal Arts Math but did not take College Prep Math.
- 76 percent of students who completed College Prep Math earned a C- or higher in Liberal Arts Math.
- 74 percent of students who did not take College Prep Math earned a C- or higher in Liberal Arts Math.
- The retention rate for students who did not take College Prep Math was nine percentage points higher than for students who did complete College Prep Math.
Liberal Arts Math success metrics of College Prep Math students vs. no College Prep Math students
Figure 1. Subsequent Success Metrics for All Students Taking College Prep Math Before Liberal Arts Math compared to students taking Liberal Arts Math without the prep course prior, (Took College Prep Math: Fall 2014, 2015, n=352; No College Prep Math: 2015-2016, n=604)
84 percent of students completed College Prep Math with a final course grade of C- or higher. Figure 2 breaks down the Liberal Arts Math pass rate based on this subset of students:
- Students who earned a C- or better in College Prep Math had a pass rate in Liberal Arts Math 13 percentage points higher than students who did not take College Prep Math.
- 79 percent of students who earned a C- or higher in College Prep Math earned a C- or higher in Liberal Arts Math while just 74 percent of students who did not take College Prep Math earned a C- or higher for the final course grade in Liberal Arts Math.
- The retention rate for students who earned a C- or better in Liberal Arts Math but did not take College Prep Math was five percentage points higher than students who earned a C- or higher in Liberal Arts Math but did complete College Prep Math.
Liberal Arts Math success metrics for students earning C- or better in CPM vs. no CPM
Figure 2. Subsequent Success Metrics For Students Who Took College Prep Math and Earned a C- or Better in the Course Before Taking Liberal Arts Math, Compared to Students Taking Liberal Arts Math Without the Prep Course Prior, (≥ C- in College Prep Math: Fall 2014, 2015, (n=296); No College Prep Math: 2015–2016, (n=604)
Figure 3 examines success metrics for students completing College Prep Math prior to taking Elementary Statistics.
- Students who completed Elementary Statistics after first completing College Prep Math earned a passing grade five percentage points higher than students who completed Elementary Statistics but did not take College Prep Math.
- 73 percent of students who earned a C- or higher in College Prep Math earned a C- or higher in Elementary Statistics while 81 percent of students who did not take College Prep Math earned a C- or higher for the final course grade in Elementary Statistics.
- The retention rate for students who did not take College Prep Math was 18 percentage points higher than for students who did complete College Prep Math.
Elementary Statistics success metrics for CPM students vs. no CPM students
Figure 3. Subsequent Success Metrics for All Students Taking College Prep Math Before Elementary Statistics compared to students taking Elementary Statistics without the prep course prior: Took College Prep Math: Fall 2014, 2015, (n=140); No College Prep Math: 2015–2016, (n=1,134)
Petrak explains the lower retention rate for students who took College Prep Math, stating, “[The lower retention rates] may be explained by the general tendencies of this most vulnerable population of community college students. Those placing into the College Prep Math typically represent our lowest student achievers.”
Overall, the math department at DMACC is very pleased with the results of the College Prep Math course and the students moving through to other courses. “The success of these students is beyond expectation and should be noted,” states Petrak. “Since the students taking College Prep Math scored significantly lower on the placement exam, it is remarkable to see them being more successful than those students who demonstrated appropriate mathematical understanding in their placement test.”
The Student Experience
Petrak reports that successful students leave the course much more confident in their ability to do college-level math. It equips them with the skills they will need when faced with mathematics they’ve not yet seen. The culture and curriculum encourages positive persistence and active instead of passive learning modes. Since there is only one more course for students to take after the Math Prep Course, student retention levels are greater and, thus, their potential for graduation increases significantly.
According to Petrak, student evaluations of the course have been very positive, and it has given hope to many students that dreaded or disliked mathematics before taking the course. Some students have even realized they are better at math than they thought and end up switching to STEM majors.
Teaching a Pathways course has honestly been the most rewarding professional experience I’ve had in the classroom.
In Petrak’s view, the traditional developmental mathematics approach, while well-intentioned in the past, has been poorly serving students for generations. The Pathways approach recognizes that not all students need to follow a traditional STEM track and equips them to be successful in courses focused on quantitative literacy like Math for Liberal Arts or Statistics. Students identified to be in these Pathways courses are described by Petrak as the students that are typically at the highest risk of dropping out of college and obtaining a degree. “The combination of modifying the curriculum, the teaching methods, and the more direct path towards credit-bearing classes has greatly increased the success rates of this student population,” Petrak states. “Recognition of the whole student’s background, motivation, and potential math anxiety informs this curricular design and approach with the student’s end goal in mind.”
Petrak believes that the combination of quality teaching, curriculum, and technology makes the Pathways approach superior to other redesign formats. The success of this approach, described in this case study, should reinforce the research about social constructivist learning practices regarding how the brain works and what cognitive scientists have long communicated about learning and the connection of that learning to real and relevant contexts.
“Teaching a Pathways course has honestly been the most rewarding professional experience I’ve had in the classroom,” Petrak. “A social constructivist learning theory has been encouraged throughout my career, but it has been difficult to implement due to the traditionally inch-deep, mile-wide curriculum in America and the lack of quality curricular materials. It’s almost sad it’s taken such a severe problem to finally encourage myself and many others to move in this direction. My hope is that other math courses and curriculum would move more in this direction for the benefit of students and faculty. Humans teach humans, and the days of mathematics being labeled as ‘The Gatekeeper’ instead of the way we think, model, and problem solve in this world will hopefully be shifting.”