Thursday, December 13, 2012

Overcoming Obstacles: Making an MLCS Pilot Happen

In a perfect world, we as faculty could create and modify courses as needed to support student learning and success.  But we don't live in that world.  Instead, we are challenged to find solutions for students and then challenged again when we try to implement those solutions.

Here are some common obstacles that come up when trying to pilot a Math Literacy course and some ideas for overcoming them.  All of the ideas shared are above board and do not ignore the rules in place.  I'm a big believer in following the rules and learning ways to work within them.  Some schools are saying they are teaching intermediate algebra but really are piloting MLCS instead.  I don't advise doing that.  It could backfire in a big way in terms of your state regulations and articulation.

1.  Intermediate algebra

Many states, including mine, have a requirement of intermediate algebra before college level courses.  Some states are beginning to allow alternative courses in an attempt to see if they can be successful.  If you are not lucky enough to be in one of those states, here are some things you can try:

a.  Create a large enough course in terms of credit hours and content, making sure all the big ideas from intermediate algebra are addressed.  This means including factoring, quadratics, exponentials, rational functions, and radical functions.  That's not to say that you need to teach all those topics the way we do in intermediate algebra.  Otherwise, what's the point of the course?  But you can show students the typical intermediate algebra topics in a different light, one that focuses on modeling and concepts and applications.

b.  If that's still not enough to get approval for a pilot, go around that intermediate algebra requirement with placement.  Placement is something that nearly every school is in control of.  Use that to your advantage.  We started our pilot with making every student in the course take the placement test at the beginning of the course and at the end.  The data was quite interesting.  Many students placed into college algebra and those who didn't were close.  Our school is contemplating a different placement cutoff for liberal arts math and statistics anyway since being at the college algebra level on the placement test is not necessary for success in those two courses.  It's only necessary for college algebra and precalculus.  That new cutoff would be just slightly less than the college algebra cutoff, similar to how we use ACT scores.  If you have a specific placement cutoff for stats and liberal arts math, you can verify that students passing the course meet that placement number using the exit placement test.  And even if you don't have a special cutoff score, you can still use the placement test at the end.

This approach allows students to use the Math Literacy course as basically a bridge to non-STEM college level math.  They take the course and then retake the placement test.  If your state won't allow the course as entry to statistics or liberal arts math, the placement test result can.  This approach allows you to pilot but still follow state rules.

2.  Faculty opposition

Sometimes faculty in your department will be skeptical that standards will be reduced or students will not be prepared for the outcome courses.  But the reality is they don't know that for a fact.  The data will bear out the truth.  In this situation, ask for a pilot with the stipulation of gathering data and re-evaluating the course after 2 years.  It takes that long to teach the course and track the students after it.  Some faculty, especially ones in math, need hard data to convince them.  Still, some folks just don't like something different than algebra, even if students perform well in the next course.  That kind of emotional reaction is very hard to address because it's not based on facts or logic.

Another suggestion is to make the course an option and not a requirement in your department.  That allows students and faculty who believe in the course to be a part of it and those that don't, aren't.

3.  Factoring

Of all the traditional topics, this one creates the most conversation and conflict.  Fundamentally, many instructors believe students should learn to factor.  Here are the most common cases and what can be done:

a.  Faculty are concerned that students won't be ready for a traditional intermediate algebra class after MLCS if they don't learn all the factoring techniques.  The reality is that students who pass beginning algebra aren't even ready for using factoring in intermediate algebra.  We as educators like to think if we've taught a topic, that it equates to students learning the topic.  But that's just not the case all the time.  Many beginning algebra students still need massive amounts of review of factoring when they go into intermediate algebra, even if it's just a few weeks later.  We saw this firsthand in our redesign.  We tried to address factoring "just-in-time" in intermediate algebra and it never worked.  We saw our intermediate algebra pass rates soar once we added in intermediate algebra as a unit and just taught it directly.  All the students benefited.

So my suggestion in this case is to add factoring to your intermediate algebra class if it's not.  And if it is, it will be enough to help an MLCS student succeed.  Most students moving from MLCS to a STEM path are stronger academically.  That lurking variable matters and benefits the issue greatly.  And nearly all of these students have seen factoring before intermediate algebra.  Remember, because we teach algebra so early in U.S., most students have seen 3-5 years of algebra prior to starting developmental math.

b.  The other concern faculty have is the idea of removing an old standby.  Even if factoring is not useful, many instructors believe we should teach it for historical reasons and for critical thinking.  First, students are not getting the brain exercise we like to think with factoring.  The are ways to make students work hard and think critically AND learn content that will help them in the next course.  We don't have to do topics just for the sake of mental exercise.  We also don't have the luxury of time to do that anyway in MLCS.

But doing something just because we always have doesn't make sense.  My father is a retired math professor.  He knows how to calculate square roots by hand and use a slide rule, but I don't.  I learned trig with trig tables and stats with stats tables, but my students know neither.  Times change and so does content.  100 years ago, a college student had to know Latin to graduate.  We laugh at that now, but at one time it was considered essential to being college educated.  Again, times change, and mathematics education has to evolve with those changes.  We have precious little time with students and need to prepare them for their next course and college in general.  If a topic is not going to serve those goals, it needs to re-evaluated for inclusion in a course.

These are some of the big obstacles and some ideas.  Hopefully they will help some.  If you've tried something that worked and helped you gain a pilot, please share in the comments or send me an email.

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