Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Implementing MLCS: Groups

One of the main features of MLCS is active student participation in mathematics.  That means more than working on skills, but instead it is about problem solving.  For any student, but especially the developmental student, that is a challenge.  Working in groups makes the challenge more accessible.  But groups create their own set of issues.  Here are some ideas for making group work successful.

1.  Create the first set of groups

Prior to the first class, create groups of 3 to 4 students and number the groups.  We suggest using these groups throughout the entire first unit and changing groups at the beginning of each unit.  When forming groups, incorporate an even mix of genders if possible.  At this point, you may not know your students and their abilities well enough to create a mix of abilities in the groups.  That can be accomplished better for the second unit.  Before the first activity of the unit, post a list of the groups' members on the overhead or document camera or call out names. 
We also suggest numbering the groups and having each group number sit in the same location throughout the semester.  For example, you could have group 1 always sit in the front right area of the room.  When unit 2 begins and you assign students to their groups, they will automatically know where to sit in the room based on the number of the group they are given.
2.  Play with group composition
When we first piloted the course, we thought mixing abilities would be key to a group's success.  But that didn't pan out to be the case.  Some lower students could be shy about asking for help, and some stronger students could be overbearing and unsympathetic to students who didn't work as quickly.  Grouping students who work well together in terms of personality and who are similar in ability level has shown to work fairly well.  Group interaction is a complex thing, so there's not one right way to compose groups.  Play with it throughout the semester to find what works for your class and you.
3.  Help groups get off on the right foot
To work together well, students need to know how their group mates operate in terms of math and school in general.  We have designed a series of brief activities in our materials to help students learn about their work styles and share that information with their group members.  Part of those activities includes ground rules.  We establish rules for our class that include pulling your own weight, being respectful, participating in activities, and understanding that if you do not pull your weight, you will not benefit from the group's points on the unit project.  We also ask students to choose a group manager.  This is not a leader, but instead someone who is willing to mediate if necessary and also can keep the group on track if students are getting off task.  Non-traditional students can fill this role well, providing them an opportunity to shine.  It can boost their confidence since some non-traditional students are tentative when they begin college.
4.  Expect issues to arise
It is highly likely that some students will not get along and will make that problem known to you.  We try to stay out of group issues and encourage students to work through those problems themselves.  That doesn't always work, so it may be necessary to mediate.  We try to use that as a last resort so that students can learn important lessons about collaboration and conflict resolution.
5.  Plan for accountability
This is something we're still playing with to improve, so if you have ideas, please share them.  The main concern is that each group member must feel some responsibility to the group to pull their weight.  To encourage that, we call on a variety of students throughout the class.  Since students all receive the same group grade on the unit projects, it's very easy for some students to coast on someone else's work.  To reduce that, we always add a test question for significant points that directly ties to the unit project.  It becomes very apparent who really worked on the project and who did not.
6.  Enjoy the benefits of groups
For all the talk of problems and slacking that can come with group work, there are also some wonderful benefits to conducting a class with a strong group component.  We've found that students naturally build cohorts and communities.  Students will look after group mates and check up on them if they miss class.  When someone misses, he or she will have a resource to get notes and help instead of feeling alone in a class.  The class dynamic is also more lively and interesting since students will engage and interact differently with peers than as a whole class.
Next up:  Grading

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Implementing MLCS: Integrating MLCS into Your Sequence

There are some items to attend to when incorporating a new course like MLCS into your developmental math sequence.  The approach we use when designing or redesigning any developmental course is a comprehensive one.  Looking at the course from every angle, not just the topics and book, is necessary for the course to succeed.

1. Determine entry requirements.

We use the placement cut score for beginning algebra as our entry to the course or that the student has passed prealgebra. Whatever you choose, determine if placement will be a part of it and if so, what the placement procedure will be.

2. Implement placement procedures.

Communicate and work with whoever at your college facilitates placement to implement the procedures you've chosen.

3. Create and implement an advising plan.

This is critical to the success of the course. The advisers at your school need to know about and understand the goal and audience for this course so that they can best advise students about taking it. It will be helpful to draw up a new flowchart with the course and a short summary sheet of important information about it. Copy and distribute this sheet to anyone who will be advising developmental math students. 
Additionally, students in the class will need advising when choosing their next math course.  We create a sheet to summarize key facts and questions and use it for in-class advising a week or so prior to open registration.

4.  Consider recruitment.

You may also want to recruit students specifically for the course through an advertising program. You can create flyers and/or send an email to specific groups of students (non-STEM majors, for example) to get the appropriate student in your sections.

5.  Address intermediate algebra.

Feeding into general education math or statistics is not an issue for MLCS since it was designed with those courses in mind.  Feeding into your intermediate algebra smoothly is another issue.  Some schools want to add in traditional topics like trinomial factoring or absolute value equations into MLCS so that students can move into intermediate algebra.  This would not be my first choice.  Those topics will feel odd in MLCS; students will notice when you're covering something just for the sake of doing so.  All the other topics in the course have a reason for their inclusion and students will come to expect that as the course continues.

Instead, it's easier to add topics to intermediate algebra, like trinomial factoring.  Our school's intermediate algebra course already includes factoring because students don't recall it, even if they just completed that chapter in beginning algebra a month before.  So including factoring there helps everyone, but especially students coming from MLCS.

Next in the series:  Groups

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Implementing MLCS: Course Design and Development

When designing a version of MLCS for your school, there are many facets to consider so that the course will be a success.  Once you gather a few faculty together to work on the course's development, here are some additional ideas:

1.  Determine your goal.

Why do you want to create this course?  Is it to diversify content and provide more realistic problems to developmental students?  Is it to provide a pathway for non-STEM students?  Is it to accelerate the time in the developmental sequence?  Whatever it is, state it and acknowledge it amongst the faculty who will work on the development of the course.  It's important that everyone is on the same page for bringing the course to life.  Your goal will affect how much and what kind of content is covered.  Knowing your goal will also help you measure its success.  More on that in another blog post.

If you decide to create this course to replace one or more courses across your sequence and/or creation of this course will be met with a lot of skepticism, skip to #8 next before proceeding.

2.  Determine your audience.

Who will take the course?  At my school, it is a student who placed into beginning algebra or passed prealgebra and only needs statistics or liberal arts math for their program of study.  In other words, it is for our non-STEM students at the beginning algebra level.  Some schools want students who have passed only basic math, not prealgebra, to be allowed to take the course.  Whatever you decide will affect the content necessary to make that student successful.  If you allow students who have not taken prealgebra, you may want to give more time to the lessons on fractions and integers.

3.  Decide on the outcome courses.

This is very important as it will have a direct effect on the content covered.  Investigate the outcome courses you will feed into to ensure prerequisite skills are addressed.  Make a list of skills and/or topics students need to learn to be successful in those courses.  We wanted intermediate algebra to be on the list of outcome courses so that students wouldn't have to backtrack if they changed paths.  Setting that as a goal has a large impact on what must be taught.

4.  List the content and objectives.

What do your students need to learn to be successful for the places they'll go and what would you like them to learn beyond that?  We added a few more algebra topics to our course to ensure students could flow into our intermediate algebra. We also made sure our intermediate algebra covers factoring to the point that a student could take MLCS and then intermediate algebra and be successful.  More on that in the next blog post.  But we also considered that our students would feed into a few key science courses.  And these students need to be well rounded citizens.  That governed some choices and broadened our initial list of objectives.

At this point, you may also need to consider 4 year schools you feed into and/or state requirements to ensure you have the necessary content for the course to be piloted.

If you'd like to see our course outline and objectives, check it out here.

5.  Choose materials.

You need materials that support your goals and vision for the course.   A traditional algebra text will likely not suffice.  MLCS is not just different in terms of the order of topics, but also the treatment and emphasis.  We could not accomplish our goals with the materials available.  One option is to piece things together that you can find and write materials to supplement them.  That will have a choppy feeling to students and instructors, creating even more challenges than will already be present with a new course. 

We have worked to write materials that would encompass the vast majority of content needs for this course.  In this document, I have listed the four units and lessons in each as well as included some sample materials.  We also worked to make the materials work for any student or instructor.  Many instructor supports are created to ease the instructor into a new course and philosophy successfully.  But the student also gets many important help aids so that they can navigate a new kind of course and content.

If you would like to see a larger sample of our materials and/or class test them, please contact me.

6.  Choose the credit hours for the course.

Once you see how big or small your course is, you can decide on the credit hours necessary to teach the content.  But also include enough credit hours for the students to learn the content.  These students need time.  Err on the side of more credit hours than fewer.  One 5-credit course passed the first time is still less financial aid than a 4-credit course repeated.  The number of credit hours will have a direct impact on pace, which should not feel rushed.  This is one place where my college's version of the course needs improvement; we feel rushed all the time.  Nobody likes that feeling.  A little more time for discussion and problem solving is very helpful at the developmental level.

7.  Get approval to offer the course.

You will likely have to apply to your college's curriculum committee, but there may also be state-level permissions to acquire.  Investigate the protocol for adding developmental courses and follow any necessary procedures.

8.  Introduce the course to the full department.

If you have all the interested players part of your course task force, it's not always necessary to explain the course to the entire department until there's something to show.  We waited until our course was approved before presenting it to everyone so as to not get people excited or worried about a non-event. 

To make the course a success, it's a good idea to make sure everyone understands what the course is and why it's being created.  If you are concerned about buy-in, offer the course as a pilot and only as an option in the sequence, not a requirement.  Some schools are using MLCS to replace beginning algebra.  We are not because many faculty and students will balk at that approach.  You'll need to consider your school's culture when choosing how to bring the course into the developmental sequence.  The method that will garner the least resistance is to create an alternative, optional pathway with MLCS in it.  That allows only faculty and students who are interested in the pathway to take part in it.  Faculty that are opposed to it will not have to teach it, nor will their classes be affected.

9.  Work with the course logistics.

At this point, you need to determine day patterns, length of class periods, times the class will be offered, number of sections, who will teach them, what semester will the pilot begin, etc.  It's helpful if you can teach this course in a room large enough to move desks into groups and one that has a document camera.  A lecture hall is not the ideal environment for this class.  If you can schedule sections to not be held at the same time, that will help in case a sub is needed at a later date or if the instructors want to observe each other.  Also, consider who will teach it and their schedules so that hopefully a common time can be found for the pilot instructors to meet and talk.  The instructors will want that, so it's important that time is planned for it from the beginning.

Next up:  Integrating MLCS into your sequence