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New approaches to developmental math stress relevance


Janice Watley (right), director of Anne Arundel Community College’s Student Achievement and Success Program, talks to students about developmental math, goal setting and other strategies to help them succeed in college.  ​​

​While developmental mathematics is supposed to help community college students prepare for college-level math, it often becomes “a roadblock to success,” said Anthony Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  

About 60 percent of community college students—as many as 90 percent in some colleges—have to take remedial math courses. And  when confronted with the need to take three or more remedial courses just to be ready for college-level math, many struggling students abandon their dreams of a college degree.

“Rather than a gateway to a college education and a better life, mathematics has become an unyielding gatekeeper,” Bryk said.

New approaches to developmental math are aimed at making it more relevant to real-world work and more engaging to students.

Robert Farinelli, president of the American Mathematics Association of Two-Year Colleges, believes the movement among states to require everyone seeking an associate degree to take college-level algebra—which stresses equations, functions, graphing and “heavy-duty symbol manipulation”—is misguided. Students who are not planning careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) probably don’t need to know how to factor a polynomial, he said.

Quantitative reasoning

For non-STEM students, Farinelli suggested that courses focusing on “quantitative literacy” or “quantitative reasoning” would be more helpful. Rather than algebra, a statistics course would be more useful for a journalism student, and a nursing student would be better off with a course on math for the health sciences, he said.

According to Farinelli, a math instructor at the Community College of Allegheny County (Pennsylvania), quantitative math helps students adopt “algebraic ways of thinking” by learning to recognize patterns and proportions and apply general principals to specific problems. This kind of math teaches students to think critically and apply logical thinking to everyday issues, such as interpreting poll results and statistics in a newspaper.

Math software helps students master algebra.The Carnegie Foundation is developing two community college math courses that take this approach. Statway combines developmental math and statistics into a year-long course. It will be offered this fall at 19 community colleges in California, Connecticut, Florida, Texas and Washington. Quantway is a semester-long course on quantitative reasoning for non-STEM students that is intended as a replacement for developmental algebra. A second semester course is in the works.

Quantway focuses on 21st century skills, financial literacy and cultivating students’ “habits of mind,” which Jane Muhich of the Carnegie Foundation described as teaching students “to make sense of quantitative information in real life, not just solving an equation.”

The course will be offered next winter at eight community colleges: South Georgia, East Georgia and Gainesville State colleges in Georgia; Onondoga, Westchester and Borough of Manhattan community colleges in New York; and Cuyahoga and Sinclair community colleges in Ohio.

Productive persistence

Statway and Quantway also aim to address the issue of persistence by offering an accelerated pathway, Muhich said. Under traditional developmental math, a student might have to keep enrolling through five math courses, she said, and those who are not successful tend to drop out. With an accelerated, yet rigorous, pathway, “there are fewer places to stop.”

According to Muhich, the Quantway and Statway pathways will incorporate interventions to promote “productive persistence,” such as how to prioritize information, take notes effectively, prepare for tests and “develop a more positive mindset.”

A recent Achieving the Dream report details a promising student services program at South Texas College that helps students in developmental math. Some community colleges have tackled the persistence issue through interventions to help students pass math courses. The Opening Doors to Excellence Program at Chaffey College in California, for example, requires students on academic probation for the second consecutive semester to take a “college success course,” covering life skills and study skills.

These students also are required to take part in the resources offered in one of the college’s five success centers, said the program’s director, Ricardo Diaz. The Math Success Center offers diagnostic testing, tutoring, directed learning activities, learning groups and workshops on such topics as how learning styles affect the ability to learn math and how to take tests better.

Dennis Ebersole, a math professor at Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania, uses a project-based approach to make developmental math more relevant. Students work in small groups using manipulatives, such as “algebra tiles” in different shapes and colors, to visualize math concepts as they solve problems.

Students also work in groups on projects that apply math to real-world issues, such as the income gap between Hispanic and white families. Ebersole said students are more engaged in learning math when they are asked to collect data and interpret the results.

Modular curricula

Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland used a $40,000 Changing the Equation grant from the National Center for Academic Transformation to redesign its developmental math courses. This spring, the college pilot-tested a mastery-based, modular approach. Students work on online math modules at their own pace. The ability to spend a longer time on the units where they have the most difficulty and retake the exam until they pass “reduces their anxiety,” said Alicia Morse, chair of the math department. 

Students who rush through the units can complete two courses in one term.

In this classroom, “the teacher is no longer front and center,” Alicia Morse said. Instead of lecturing, the teacher moves around the room, coaching students, setting goals for them and monitoring their work.

Virginia’s community college system is adopting a modular approach to developmental math as part of a “systemic re-engineering” of the entire system to raise completion rates.

“Assessments today offer a green light, red light scenario” in which students take a test to determine whether they have to take developmental math or not, said Jeffrey Kraus, assistant vice chancellor for public relations in the Virginia system.

Instead of having to take a full developmental math course, Virginia’s modular initiative will allow a student who needs help in a particular area—such as fractions or proportions—to take an individualized, self-paced module on that topic. Kraus hopes the program could be pilot-tested this fall at Northern Virginia Community College and adopted statewide in spring 2012. 

“We think we’re breaking new ground here,” he said.