Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Student Success and MLCS

Here is a blog post I recently wrote for Jack Rotman's Developmental Math Revival blog.  It outlines how student success is integrated into the MLCS course at our school.

The six major areas of focus of the MLCS course at Rock Valley College are numeracy, proportional reasoning, algebraic reasoning, functions, mathematical success, and student success. Each unit addresses all of these facets. Specifically, the course and accompanying lessons are designed to improve a student’s chance of success in a math class. Here are some examples:

The approach of the course begins with real, relevant content and covers topics differently than they are in a traditional text. That automatically increases motivation, an important component of student success. Students have commented repeatedly that the course is interesting; they like what is taught as well as how it is taught. For example, direct instruction and group work are balanced with each lesson beginning and ending with group work. This improves attention, understanding, and engagement. Students are shown respect for their prior knowledge by allowing them to tackle real mathematical problems instead of working from a premise that all the content is new. Many of the specific skills of the course are not new to these students because in reality, most of them have had several years of algebra prior to the course. What they lack is understanding, retention, and application. To improve that, considerable time is spent on solving thought-provoking problems and seeing traditional topics from a unique perspective. All problems are taught through a context and do not start with abstract ideas. Instead, the development moves from concrete to abstract, which builds student confidence and understanding. Further, students are treated like adults, most of whom work and have many varied experiences. They learn how math is used in the workplace and see those ideas in practice in class. For example, they learn how Excel is used. They also learn how the concepts taught can be used to solve problems they will likely face in and out of college.

Next, specific student success activities are included in every unit. Each student success lesson is different but all have mathematical ideas in them. So beyond the traditional ideas of time management and test anxiety, issues that these students will face are covered. For example, students learn how college math is different than high school math. This is done in the context of determining what components are necessary to be successful in a college math class. To visualize the various components, students hone their skills with graphs and percentages. They study job statistics to compare STEM and non-STEM fields in terms of their earning potential and unemployment rates. This approach brings in some statistics concepts. The topic of grades is addressed often and deeply. Components include how grades can be figured (points vs. weights), how GPA is figured and how it can be increased, and why it is difficult to pick up points at the end of the semester as opposed to the beginning of the semester. Students learn about means, weighted means, what can and cannot be averaged, and how algebra can help solve problems that arise in this context. Additionally, the first week has many activities to help students begin the semester on the right foot in terms of prerequisite skills, working in groups, and understanding course expectations.

Another component of the course is helping students learn how to study. Students think they should just “study more” but do not understand what that means in practice. To remedy this problem, students are given very specific and explicit strategies that they can act upon. Students receive a detailed list with actions they can do before class, during class, between classes, before tests, during tests and after tests. Also, students tend to really like online homework but they can get dependent on help aids and sometimes can’t write out their work. So every online assignment has an accompanying brief paper set of problems similar to the online ones, but they must write them out and have no online help aids. With skill homework, they have conceptual homework on paper that is about quality over quantity. That is, they have fewer problems that take more time so as to work deeply with the concepts at hand. The test review has a detailed plan to teach students how to study for math tests, beyond just working problems. Additionally, students are held accountable for all the work assigned so that they learn good study habits and personal responsibility.

Lastly, metacognition is emphasized regularly. The developmental student often doesn’t fully understand how they think or learn. Most problems are taught using 3-4 approaches to work at verbal, conceptual, graphical, and algebraic understanding. For example, when students solve equations, they do so first with tables, then with algebra, and last with graphs. Once they have learned all those techniques, they are asked to think about which makes most sense for them and keep that in mind going forward. This approach of solving problems in multiple ways is used often in the course to broaden their mathematical skills, but also give them a deeper understanding of the topics. This method has an additional benefit for students on test day. They have several tools in their tool belt to use if one technique is not making sense or their anxiety is affecting their memory.

Together, these techniques support the developmental student in being successful in this course and future math courses.

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