Friday, June 29, 2012

What is MLCS? An Overview

Since the course is so new, I get a lot of questions about MLCS.  From large scope questions to issues about factoring, faculty want to understand this course in all aspects.  I give presentations regularly, but those slides that are posted on this blog are missing details that are presented verbally.  So I've created a short slideshow to overview the course with all the details necessary to understand the slides included within the document. 

Because you may want more information, I've also attached a sampler packet with the following items:
  • Contact information
  • Overview of MLCS project and history
  • Course objectives and outcomes
  • Topics in each unit of the course
  • Implementation options and tips
  • 3 sample lessons (1 instructor version with instructor notes in red and 2 student versions)
NOTE:  Two of the lessons included use chemistry as a context.  While chemistry is occasionally used in the text, it does not appear frequently.  Also, no chemistry knowledge is assumed on the part of the instructor or students.

A professionally designed sampler will be available later this fall through Pearson.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A New Blog Series: Implementing MLCS

Since so many schools are planning MLCS pilots for the upcoming school year, there are lots of questions about getting started and getting the course off the ground.  It doesn't operate exactly like other developmental math courses; there are unique features and challenges.  To help you get started, I'll be frequently posting on implementation issues, with each post focusing on one element.  Topics will include:
  • Course design and development
  • Integrating MLCS into your sequence
  • Groups
  • Grading
  • Student success
  • MyMathLab
  • Training
  • Building your collaboratory
  • Tracking success
  • Final thoughts
If you're considering MLCS and not ready to implement but are curious about the course, stay tuned for a blog post that will give a short video overview and sampler packet.

More to come!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Case for Rigor: MLCS vs. Intermediate Algebra

A frequent concern that arises when courses like MLCS are proposed is the issue of rigor.  Often, it is assumed that an alternative to intermediate algebra is being developed because students can't pass intermediate algebra.  And with that comes the debate of whether someone should get a college degree without being able to prove competency in high school algebra 2.  The insinuation is that our current system is just too hard and folks looking for change are really looking to reduce standards.

I do believe students are capable of passing intermediate algebra.  Students in our school do very well in that course through our redesign.  And through that success, they fare extremely well in college algebra, the true goal of intermediate algebra.  I also believe intermediate algebra is a good course and one that we should not eliminate.

The question is should they have to take that course?  And are our reasons for requiring it outdated?

Intermediate algebra is commonly used as a prerequisite for college level math because it weeds out students who are not college ready.  In other words, it's a hoop.  If our goal is evidence of college readiness and therefore rigor and high standards, we can get there in other ways than intermediate algebra.  And in doing so, we can accomplish what I believe to be the real goal of developmental math:  preparing students for the college level math courses they will take.

We teach intermediate algebra because of history and tradition, which is not sufficient.  For students headed to statistics or liberal arts math, there are no skills in intermediate algebra that will help them be successful.  Most students see the course as an exercise in moving letters on a page and are often quite irritated in those two follow-up courses when they discover they didn't need any of the skills they worked so hard on.

But intermediate algebra does have rigor and high standards.  So it does accomplish one goal:  putting stronger students in college level courses.  Using it as one size fits all prerequisite is my issue.  Read any article about the job market and what employers need and a theme is common:  graduates lack skills necessary for the workforce.  I believe the time we spend with students should be meaningful and of value to them.  Not everything has to be immediately useful, but much should be.  Or at least much more than we currently do should be useful.  And the processes used to develop content should have meaning beyond the course.  We should be preparing them for what's next in their program of study but also to be productive citizens and employees.

In MLCS, there are some skills we work on that I'm very confident students will not use in real life.  So why do we still include them?  Because of the way they're developed and the additional skills and techniques students get along the way.  For example, we do a problem about a school increasing tuition and the effects of loss of credit hour enrollment due to increases.  We build a cost model, which is quadratic, and analyze it numerically and graphically.  We then learn about the vertex, how to find it, what it signifies, and how to use it. 

In an intermediate algebra class, students are given quadratic functions and asked for the vertex.  Then there are a handful of applications for students to practice using it.  But the focus is on the symbolic manipulation.  In MLCS, the focus is on problem solving, new functions that arise when problem solving, and ways to work with them.  Students exercise skills they've already learned and extend their ability to analyze a situation.  It's rigorous and difficult, but worth the class time spent on it. While I can't guarantee they'll use the skill developed in their daily life, I strongly believe they'll use the processes involved.

When I'm teaching algebra to students who are not headed on the calculus track, I don't understand our goal anymore.  That's why I've stopped teaching developmental algebra for students heading to statistics.  I can't sell a course based on exercising one's brain.  We could do Sudoku and chess for a semester and exercise our brains.  That sounds absurd, but so does moving letters around for 4 months when students will never use that skill again. 

And do their brains really get exercised?  We like to believe that happens because it justifies what we do.  But I really question how much learning is taking place in developmental math classrooms.  Students are mimicking and enduring but they're not retaining and applying.  Learning is defined as:

The acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, practice, or study, or by being taught.

Notice it's not the exposure to knowledge or skills; it's the acquisition of them.  I don't believe our students are acquiring much from our developmental algebra classes.  And with the amount of time and cost they spend there, that's not acceptable.

So back to rigor:  why does MLCS have it?  And how is it possible to have a comparable level of rigor of intermediate algebra without the symbolic manipulation that intermediate algebra includes?

Here's how:  depth and expectations.

Whatever we do in MLCS, we do it deeply and frequently.  There is very little "one and done" of a topic.  Every skill is developed because we need to use it.  If we develop a Venn diagram, it's so that we can use it as a tool to make comparisons and gain further insight on a situation.  For example, we use Venn diagrams to compare and contrast high school and college.  We also use them to compare and contrast variables and constants, which is an important distinction.

It's not, "graph y = 3x - 8."  It's determining if a situation is linear, if a model will help solve further problems, and using that model's equation and graph to answer questions.

Using a skill after you determined it should be used is much more difficult than performing a skill after being told when and how.  But that's how life is.  I don't get new projects with a detailed roadmap attached to them and "view an example."  I get new projects and the instruction "make it happen."  What, when, how and why is up to me to figure out.  That's the way of the world and certainly the job environment.  It's very beneficial for students to experience those types of challenges in the safe environment of the classroom.

But every time you decide to go deeper with a skill, you lose time that would allow you to go further in breadth.  That approach is one I've used for years in my statistics courses.  I never get to ANOVA, but my students can collect real data and test hypotheses using it.  They can obtain and analyze statistics.  I sacrifice more topics for fewer topics done deeper, where real life activities are the norm.  The end result is a hard course with great value.  And I never once get asked "when am I going to use this?"  A slight perk, but one that I cherish. 

The other component that ensures rigor are the expectations of the course.  In our version of MLCS, we make students write, explain, and research problems including open ended problems.  This approach makes them love MyMathLab problems because they're a very simple, boiled-down part of the course.  But learning is about understanding (and showing that) as well as application.  So half of their tests are applications.  And not routine, previously seen, canned applications.  Problems are truly problems and challenging.  I've never given a developmental algebra test with more than 10% of the problems being word problems.  50% almost seems cruel.  Yet that is far from the case in MLCS.  And students can do them.

The old adage of depth over breadth is truly exhibited in this challenging course.  But students can rise to the challenges and in so doing, they reach the level of college ready.  No, it's not intermediate algebra.  It's just as hard, but it prepares the students for what's ahead of them.  I absolutely believe intermediate algebra has value, just not for every student.  The same could be said for my math for elementary teachers courses.  They're wonderful, but I can't imagine a pre-med major getting much out of them.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Developmental Redesigns: Making Change a Reality

Whether you're redesigning your traditional developmental math curriculum, developing an emporium, or trying a pathways model (MLCS, Quantway, Statway, Statpath, etc.), the goal is change.  Real change that is successful and lasting.  And that's not easy to come by.  I'm in my fifth year of redesign that is lasting.  It's not easy.  Change never is.  But along the way, I've noticed some things that set apart successful redesigns from those that fizzle.

1.  Successful redesigns hinge on good follow-through.

I cannot stress this tip enough.  Many schools and especially administrators get very fixated on a new idea and grants to support them.  New ideas are great and energizing, but the newness will wear off.  What's left is work, and that's not the fun part.  Grant funding will not keep the momentum going, but people can.  It's just like a person who loses a large amount of weight or runs a marathon:  what sets them apart with their success is that they started and kept going.  When things got boring or hard, they kept going.  And both boredom and struggles are unavoidable with redesign.  This leads to the second aspect:

2.  Disagreement is unavoidable.  How it is dealt with makes the difference in success or failure.

This is a difficult one to stomach.  I really struggled with this on a personal level.  It's very hard to work well with colleagues for years and suddenly be on the opposite side from them.  We've weathered the storm at my school, but it was no small feat to do so.  When you upset the apple cart, people will notice and they will voice discontent.  Change can be very uncomfortable.  Because even though a system is unsuccessful, there is something innately comforting in the familiar.  As humans, we crave consistency and fear the unknown.  I've often said that I like being a guinea pig and am happy to try anything, even if it fails.  Many faculty do not echo this mantra.  And that's ok.  You can fall into groupthink quite quickly if no one gives a dissenting opinion.  You need a variety of perspectives to have the pragmatism that's necessary to make logistics work.  However, some instructors are very opposed to trying new things for fear they will fail.  The outcome of failure always comes with risk.  But so can success.

So those very nice and well meaning colleagues can become barriers.  What is hard is what remains unspoken.  Often it's not only the fear of failure that causes instructors to object to a redesign.  It can also be the unwillingness to write new materials or tests or the anxiety of having to learn how to use a new computer system.  These concerns are rarely voiced, but they often sit at the root of inertia.  To overcome these issues, it's important to make change as easy as possible with as many support structures as possible for faculty.  Make master courses in MyMathLab that instructors can copy.  Offer multiple training sessions.  Show tools like testbanks and other instructor resources available with your text.  Create materials that reduce faculty workload during the change process.  These ideas won't always solve every problem, but they will reduce many.  And above all, create some process to assess and improve all implemented changes.  If instructors know that things will change if a policy or course is not working, they will often be less anxious.  I said often, "nothing is set in stone."  And I kept my word.  We still meet as a task force and tweak policies and courses.  The process of improvement never really ends.

The other alternative is to pursue departmental peace at all costs.  That's attainable but change will not come with it. 

3.  Real change comes from doing some really different.

We had hoped, like many schools, that if we just did X or Y that success would come our way.  Like trying out an attendance policy or using online homework.  And the reality is it's not enough.  It's akin to saying, "I want to lose weight so I'm going to try eating one salad a month."  It's certainly not going to hurt you, but it's not going to make a dent in the problem.  When our redesign really took off in terms of pass rates and outcomes was when we instituted our 8 week modules and required MML across the board in addition to the changes in place like standardized policies, adjunct training, and new placement procedures.  The modules were very hard to create and implement but they made a real difference because they were really different.

Likewise, MLCS takes work to throw in the mix because it's a true change.  It has to be approved at a school and possibly a state.  But more than that, it takes a mindset shift from "developmental math is algebraic manipulation" to "developmental math is about preparing students for the courses they will take."  Not everyone buys into this philosophy.  That's why I believe in adding pathways courses into the traditional slate of courses, instead of replacing them.  If you've got a school that is totally on board with replacing your traditional courses, have at it.  But most aren't.  Again, a lot of very nice and well meaning instructors cannot part with the idea of factoring, adding rational expressions, and rationalizing denominators before taking a college level course.  It's a large change that not everyone supports.  Instead of forcing pathways on students or instructors, allow them to be an option.  If they become the favored option, they'll grow and the number of traditional course offerings will naturally shrink.  But that would be a natural consequence to what people in your school want.  So it can work.  Forced change is sometimes necessary, but all changes cannot be forced. 

Basically, it comes down to how much do you want things to get better?  Are you willing to experience some discomfort and disagreement?  Are you willing to try new things even if they aren't guaranteed to work straight out of the gate?  Are you willing to learn new content or a new system?  If you are, you can see true improvement and growth.  It won't come day 1 and it won't be easy, but it can happen.  The alternative is assured:  continue working in a system that does not work.  As Robert Kennedy said, "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly."