Student success key to task force

Mathematics graduate student Jessalyn Bolkema (right) teaches a section of Math 101: College Algebra in a renovated classroom in Brace Laboratory in October 2014.

Under Judy Walker’s leadership as chair, the department is engaged in its most significant initiative to increase student success in pre-calculus courses in more than 40 years. Key strategies included changing to an instructional format that emphasizes active learning and providing our graduate students with the pedagogical preparation and support needed to be successful teachers of mathematics.

Alumni who were graduate teaching assistants at UNL recognize the challenge faced by the department as it works to improve student success in Math 100A, 101, 102, and 103. Most students in these courses have had modest success in previous math classes. Often they are not motivated to do the hard work necessary to be successful in a college math class that moves at a rapid pace. Many dislike math, believe that they cannot learn math, and do not believe that learning math is important to their future.

As a consequence, our student success (i.e. the percent earning a grade of C or better) in these courses is often in the 62 percent to 67 percent range and occasionally lower. The department’s goal is to improve student success to at least 75 percent and to improve student success in subsequent courses.

The department’s initiative, Transforming Instruction to Increase Student Success, is led by Vice Chair Allan Donsig and advised by a new faculty committee, the First-Year Mathematics Task Force. Wendy Smith, a faculty member in the Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education, is leading a research project to study the department’s changes in instruction and to provide formative evaluation that can inform and improve the initiative.

For Fall 2012, the department developed common lesson plans for two courses (100A and 101), and appointed experienced GTAs to serve as associate conveners for those two courses. Common exams were given in the evening and the First-Year Task Force provided input as to the quality of the exams and their grading.

For the following fall, a new textbook was chosen that was aligned with the department’s instructional approach and a major effort was made to revise the lesson plans in ways that provided GTAs with guidance for active learning and group work in class. A substantial Student Guide and Instructor Guide was created for Math 100A, 101 and 103. In addition, the department decided to use the software WeBWorK to enable a mastery approach to homework that provides students with immediate feedback and to incorporate Team Quizzes, assignments that students complete in groups outside of class. Similar changes were phased in for Math 102 in Spring 2014.

These changes, together with a revised professional development workshop for GTAs the week before class starts in the fall, appear to have led to marked improvement in student success. In Fall 2013, student success in Math 103 was 76 percent and exceeded 80 percent in Math 101.

The Department also has become involved in the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership. As part of that partnership, faculty from the department are part of a five-campus “networked improvement community” that is studying active learning approaches to improving mathematics teaching and learning at the calculus and pre-calculus levels. A grant from the Helmsley Trust has enabled the department to increase the initiative’s research effort and funded (together with funds from the Mathematical Associative of America) a “learning assistants” initiative.

Not content to declare victory and move on to other issues, Walker’s leadership and the support the department has received from UNL’s administration has resulted in five major changes that position the department for even greater success and that make it a leader among mathematics departments nationwide with respect to emphasizing active learning in freshmen mathematics classes.

•  The department received approval for a new position, the Director of First-Year Mathematics. After a successful search, Nathan Wakefield was hired to fill this position.

•  UNL remodeled four classrooms in Brace Lab for active learning and has permitted the department exclusive use of the four classrooms.

•  The department received approval to break with the paradigm that “lecture courses” should meet for 50 minutes per credit hour. This fall the 3-credit Math 101 class meets 225 minutes each week and the 5-credit Math 103 class meets 300 minutes per week.

•  GTA appointments were modified so that the first year that each GTA teaches their own class they teach only one 3-credit course per semester (a one course reduction) to give them the time to take a 3-credit pedagogy course to learn to teach mathematics without cutting into the time the GTA has for their own coursework.

•  Learning assistants – bright undergraduates who work under the direction of the GTA – were hired for almost all sections of Math 101 and 103. The learning assistants attend all class meetings and support active learning in the classroom.

While it is too early to understand the combined impact of these changes, both Walker and Wakefield believe that these changes will lead to a sustainable model for how UNL mathematics graduate students learn to teach and will lead to the level of student success the department seeks.

 “I’m very optimistic,” said Wakefield, the Director of First-Year Mathematics (see page 12). “It is interesting to see how much the perspective of the graduate teaching assistants has changed in just eight weeks, in the way that they are thinking about how students are learning. They are thinking about how to help students develop knowledge on their own. The conversations are student-centered.

“We also added a pedagogy course for the second-year GTAs called Teaching and Learning at the Post-Secondary Level,” Wakefield added. “In my mind, it’s a vocabulary course. They are reading some of the relevant education literature, learning what different terms mean and then taking those concepts and trying to apply them to what they are doing in their classrooms through various essays and projects. The first paper was to discuss radical constructivism and how a radical constructivist would describe their class.”

Wakefield said while he tries to observe as many courses as he can, he has at least three or four GTAs coming to his office daily to discuss issues in their classes or how to take things that are working well to the next level.

“My perspective is that to make the biggest change in these courses, I have to work with the teachers,” he said. “That’s my passion. If I can develop the GTAs as good teachers, then the rest is going to fall into place.”

Stay tuned. We hope that two years into the future we can report that students in pre-calculus courses are regularly achieving at a higher level and thus the department is making a major contribution to UNL’s efforts to improve freshmen-sophomore retention and eventually UNL’s six-year graduation rate.