Saturday, August 1, 2015

Do we still need beginning algebra?

After teaching a math literacy (MLCS) course for four years while still teaching traditional beginning algebra courses, I've begun to really question the role of a traditional beginning algebra course for developmental students at the college level. Currently, my college uses the following approach to incorporate our math literacy course:

The advantage to this approach is that it's not too radical. Students and instructors alike can stay with what they know or they have the option to do something different. It invites changes rather than forces it. And for that reason, it's been a very good way to go for us. Our school undertook a massive redesign in 2009 which we mandated. Adding more change with a new course while taking away courses instructors have now become comfortable with would not have gone over well. Anyone who has worked with redesign knows that redesign doesn't happen in a vacuum; it happens because of people who work and support it. So buy-in matters tremendously.

The disadvantage is that this approach maintains the status quo, which is a traditional path that I'm not convinced works anymore, if it ever did. It's easy to think, "I took algebra and I'm a math teacher so it obviously worked." But that's not actually true in the majority of cases. If you're a math professor like me, you probably took algebra in junior high and high school. I've never taken developmental algebra at the college level as an adult. And that difference is massive. I didn't take the course after years of frustration with math classes and possibly a full time job and family. I honestly didn't care that the "two trains" and "coins in the pocket" problems were wholly unrealistic. They were formulaic and therefore often not that challenging. I saw those problems as "types" and learned the algorithm to get through them.

An adult student, whether they are 18 years old or much older, is seeing this content at a pace that's twice as fast than the first time they saw it years prior in high school. And with the adult mindset they have that almost always includes the perspective from the workplace, they question why anyone cares about coins or a myriad other topics we teach. As they start to question the point of the content along with the frustration they have learning the content, they lose motivation quickly. And if it's a bad enough experience, they stop taking math and sometimes stop going to college altogether.

A depressing reality too many of us see all too often.

Although my goal for my beginning algebra students is to gain basic algebraic knowledge AND the ability to use that knowledge, that doesn't often happen. Students who pass the tests are able to do exactly that: pass tests. They know the "how's" but the "when" and "why" are lacking. The reason for that is the curriculum and approaches we use.  We focus on teaching a litany of skills, testing on them, and then lather/rinse/repeat. Students don't see the content as connected and therefore are usually not able to transfer what they learn to a different context or problem.

In the last year or two, I've seen some schools going to this flowchart instead:

Because the math literacy course we teach is chock full of algebra, students get enough algebra with this approach. They can transition to intermediate algebra and continue to gain more algebraic skills. But what they have that is different than the student coming from a beginning algebra class is the ability to think critically, solve problems (not just exercises) that may be closed or open, and apply their knowledge to other areas. In other words, they learn how to learn and how to use everything they learn.

Having all developmental math students who place at the beginning algebra level start with MLCS instead of beginning algebra provides a solid base for students in terms of content and what we expect college students to do with content, that is, use it. Yes, they'll get lots of beginning algebra skills, but it's what they can do with those skills that matters. Do my beginning algebra students see more skills than MLCS students do?  Yes.  But how many of the skills do they actually retain and understand well enough to use in the next course?  I would wager it's far fewer than an MLCS student.

But there's one more reason I see this new flowchart as the better way to go:  motivation. Students starting college at the beginning algebra level are often depressed by the courses they have to repeat and how far they have to go before getting college credit. Starting in MLCS shows them something different that is not high school, v2. They see relevant content and different content. Anything familiar is still done differently. And upon successful completion of the course, they're eligible for a credit bearing course, something most beginning algebra students in the U.S. are not.

Radical approach? Yes.  But ultimately, it can and does work. Isn't that the point of developmental education, to be effective?