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Math Pilot Program Explores New Equation for Learning

October 3, 2013 -- A small pilot program initiated this fall at CNM might one day change the way math is taught and learned.

CNM math instructor Erin Joseph became interested in a new method of teaching after she noticed that many students retake math courses multiple times in traditional face-to-face classrooms. Because they are being taught as a group, students, she noted, are sometimes pushed to the next topic or level when they haven’t yet mastered the one they were studying.

caption:Erin JosephShe began to question typical classroom settings where the math teacher lectures and writes problems on the whiteboard. What if students could work at their own pace using a specifically-designed computer program that will help them fully comprehend a math problem? And what if the program was broken into short segments so that students could wrap their minds around a single math concept and understand it before moving on?

Joseph developed such a curriculum for the Math 1310 Intermediate Algebra class. Her idea was that the class would be held in a computer lab and all the work for the class would be done using an established computer program called MyMathLab. This class would involve no traditional lectures. Instead, the student would work at the computer, and she would be there to answer questions one-on-one and give additional demonstrations.

The MyMathLab course contains a study guide, video lectures, guided examples, homework assignments, quizzes and tests. All the work, except for the final exam, would be done online in the classroom or at home. The final exam, which counts for 30 percent of the grade, would be taken in a monitored classroom at the end of the term. If a student finishes the modules early, he or she can take the final early.

“The class is designed to be self-paced,” Joseph said. “Students don’t have to be working on the same assignments at the same time, allowing them to move forward at their own rate. However, the end point is the same for all students. They are required to finish all the material for the course by the end of the semester.”

Another aspect of the MyMathLab teaching method Joseph likes is that it is “mastery-based” instead of “deadline-based.”

“This means a student has to master a concept before moving on to the next concept. For traditional classes, students move on to the next topic based on a deadline even if they haven’t yet understood an earlier concept” she said.

The School of Math, Science & Engineering gave the pilot project a green light, and four classes following her proposed curriculum were adopted for this fall. She teaches two of her Math 1310 classes entirely online. One meets two times a week in a CNM computer lab. A fourth class, taught by another instructor, meets one day a week in a computer lab. About 50 Math 1310 classes are being taught this term in the classic face-to-face, lecture-driven fashion.

Joseph said that one of the most important aspects of the MyMathLab math class is that it encourages students to get good grades on their quizzes and homework assignments. Students must earn a minimum of 75 percent for any assignment before moving on to the next one. If they don’t receive at least a 75 percent on the first attempt, they can try it again.

This approach sometimes makes students become eager to achieve a 100 percent. “(Many students) won’t stop until they get a 100 percent,” she said. She gave one example of a student who took an end-of-a-module quiz two times and got 60 percent on each. The third try she got a 100 percent.

Joseph said the other aspect of using MyMathlab that she particularly likes is that it gives her an electronic grade book that allows her to monitor a student’s progress through the modules.

“I can tell if they watched the video, if they did their homework and how well they did on their quizzes,” Joseph said. “If I see someone is having a problem with a concept, I can reach out to them and give my personal help.”

If a student doesn’t finish the course by the end of the term, but has completed most of the modules, they can take the class the next term and start at the last module they completed. They don’t have to retake the entire class.

Because this is a pilot program, Joseph and other math department members will evaluate how teaching the course in an all-computer environment worked.

“We will compare how students did meeting once a week to two times and not meeting at all,” Joseph said. “We’ll look at the students’ success rates and student feedback. Then we will determine if we should move forward with this style of teaching.”

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