Reengineering Developmental Math

Accelerating Student Success Through High-Return Personalized Pathways

Topics: Community College, Academic Affairs, Academic Planning, Curriculum Development, Program Approval, Program Prioritization, Student Retention and Success, Developmental and Remedial Education

Contain Administrative Transition Costs

Lessons (Hard) Learned from Early Adopters

In addition to maximizing the pedagogical effectiveness of the lab, members wondered how to logistically operationalize the model—how can colleges contain administrative transition costs? Our research surfaced many lessons learned from early adopters of the model. This page features three of most important lessons for first-time implementation: develop a cross-departmental implementation roadmap, allow time for a pilot phase before full-scale launch, and remember to place red and blue Solo cups in the lab with each student.

First, develop a cross-silo implementation road map. Flipping the classroom cannot be confined to the math department. Student services and facilities must be involved in both decision making and execution for the model to succeed. If representatives from each department are not included in planning, math faculty members may make seemingly harmless decisions that can lead to administrative chaos.

Second, allow for a gradual pilot phase before moving to full-scale implementation. Many institutions accumulate unnecessary costs while sorting out large-scale logistical concerns and learning to make the model work for their campuses.

The third major lesson learned seems trivial but is surprisingly important: do not forget to stock the lab with a signaling device, such as red and blue Solo cups. Red cups signal that a student has a question; blue cups signal a student is taking a quiz or exam. We interviewed members from one institution that forgot to place cups on student desks the first week of their redesign, and it was a major drain on productivity. Without the cups, students must to raise their hands to solicit help, preventing them from working through modules. The absence of blue cups also made it difficult for faculty to tell which students were allowed to have their notebooks out and which were in the middle of a quiz or exam. This anecdote is a cautionary tale—emporium success truly does lie in the details, even the smallest ones.

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Optimal Cross-Silo Implementation Timeline

Phased Implementation Allows Ample Planning Time with Student Services

Based on best practices and lessons learned by early adopters, the Community College Forum created an optimal cross-silo implementation timeline for phased implementation of the modified math emporium. Practitioners recommend to start redesign planning discussions at least one year before full implementation. This allows sufficient time for research, cross-departmental consultations, and a one-semester pilot phase.

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What Matters Most In Software Selection

Interfacing Software and SIS Vital to Lab Administration

Software selection is one of the biggest administrative decisions to be made when transitioning to the modified math emporium. In choosing among the many software package options, college leaders must consider several factors, including interface design, supplemental materials, customization features, and technical support. Our research found that the most important feature of any emporium software package is its compatibility with the student information system (SIS). Automatic synching between emporium software and the SIS saves hundreds of hours of administrative work.

There are numerous benefits of utilizing a math emporium software package that interfaces with the college SIS. First, enrolled students are automatically uploaded to a digital faculty grade book. Instructors rely on the grade book to track each student’s progress through the curriculum and identify roadblocks that arise. Software compatibility also allows for students enrolled in the course to be automatically registered for the emporium software and progress to be automatically uploaded to their official transcript. In the absence of software interfacing, administrators face more than 800 hours of their time completing these tasks manually.

Virtually every institution we interviewed uses a third-party vendor software package rather than attempting a home-grown solution.

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Software Evaluation Rubric Supports Vendor Selection

Weighted Point System Mitigates Unproductive Internal Debate

Software evaluation rubrics list software package features and assign a standardized number of points to each feature, weighted by importance. To guide strategic software selection, each task force member should complete a software vendor evaluation rubric. The Community College Forum considers SIS compatibility the most important and often overlooked feature of any software package. Its importance relative to other software features is reflected in the sample rubric below.

We recommend that each member of the developmental math redesign task force complete a software evaluation form with his or her own evaluation of each package. To mitigate unproductive debate, aggregated results from the individual evaluations should determine the final software selection.

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Seeking New Registrar

Freestanding Modularization Creates Course Scheduling, Registration Fiasco

College leaders implementing a modified emporium must also consider the impact of transitioning from a semester-long curriculum to a modularized model. Math modules are discrete curriculum topics (e.g., factoring, systems of equations, etc.) that are critical to any flipped classroom; students pace their own progression through each module and focus on their own areas of difficulty. However, the idea of eliminating traditional semesters in favor of freestanding, one-credit modules may cause members of the registrar’s office to run for the hills.

Depending on the number of math modules created for a single developmental math course, the college registrar may suddenly be faced with up to 12 one-credit freestanding mini-semesters. This can create countless administrative quandaries: How many sections of each module should be offered per semester? What happens when a student doesn’t complete a module? How do we crosswalk current students into modularized courses? All questions without easy answers.

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Students Ultimately Pay the Price

Administrative Chaos Translates to Reduced Flexibility, Support, and Choice

Abandoning traditional semesters in favor of freestanding mini-semesters often leads to administrative chaos for students. Mini-semesters reduce students’ enrollment flexibility, acceleration options, and access to support.

The most immediate effects of freestanding mini-semesters stem from their similarities to traditional semesters. The college can only offer a limited number of modules each mini-semester. Students who master the material before the end of the allotted four weeks cannot accelerate to the next course, which leads to stop-and-start learning. Every four weeks requires another registration period for the next mini-semester, additional work for both students and administrators.

Explaining freestanding modules to external bodies is also problematic. Federal financial aid programs, like Pell grants, often require students to enroll in full course loads to maintain eligibility. Students enrolled in freestanding mini-semesters for their math modules risk losing financial aid because they are only enrolled in a one-credit course as opposed to a normal three-credit course. Four-year university partners are similarly unwilling to accept freestanding mini-semesters as an alternative to traditional semesters; students attempting to transfer developmental credit from mini-semesters often find their petitions denied.

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Solution: Shell Courses “Hide” Modules

Rolling Modules into Traditional Semesters Prevents System Meltdown

Fortunately, early adopters offer an administrative solution to freestanding modules called shell courses. Shell courses “hide” modules in traditional semesters, allowing students to self-pace while keeping administrative processes the same for the registrar’s office. The example below shows how shell courses solve for common problems with freestanding modules, using a fictionalized student named Jane.

Jane’s placement exam indicates she must complete Modules 2, 4, 7, and 9 before enrolling in college-level math. The left side of the diagram above shows her progression through freestanding modules. First, Jane enrolls in Module 2 for the first four weeks of the semester. She masters the material quickly, and completes the module in just two weeks. Although Jane is ready to move onto Module 4 right away, it is not offered until the second half of the semester. Jane must wait until Module 4 is offered, and cannot work on math for six weeks. When she is finally able to enroll in Module 4, she finds it difficult, and cannot complete it in the allotted four weeks for the course; she must re-enroll in Module 4. At the end of a 16-week semester, Jane completes only two modules, and spends the next semester completing the remaining developmental modules.

In the shell course model, Jane registers once for a course called “Developmental Math.” All of the students enrolled in this course work on math modules they need to complete their individual developmental requirements. Jane starts with Module 2 and completes the lessons after two weeks. She moves right to Module 4, Module 7, and Module 9, without any breaks in her learning. From the registrar’s perspective, Jane enrolled and completed a one-semester course, fulfi lling her developmental requirement. In interviews with enrollment managers, we found that shell courses are simple to use and contain administrative chaos.

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Unique Designs, Similar Results

Shell Courses Structured Differently Across Institution Types and Sizes

Shell courses can be structured differently according to institutional type, size, and goals. Standardized 16-week shell courses work well for colleges interested in reducing administrative work for enrollment managers. Colleges aiming to reduce students’ tuition burden typically adopt shell courses of different lengths, with students paying only for the number of credits earned during the semester. The two shell course models are shown below.

Jackson State Community College uses 16-week shell courses for all developmental math students, regardless of the number of modules needed to complete the sequence. The college created three shell courses for their developmental math students—Developmental Math I, II, and III. Students are required to complete at least four modules in each course. If students have fewer than four modules remaining in their developmental sequence, they must complete these modules by the end of the semester. The model benefits enrollment managers by minimizing the amount of time spent registering students according to their placement and progress. All developmental math students start in Developmental Math I and earn credit for each shell course once they have completed four credits.

Northern Virginia Community College employs a different shell course model. By default, all students are enrolled in a 16-week, four-credit shell course and expected to complete at least four modules by the end of the semester. Students who need fewer than four modules to complete the developmental sequence can register for three-, two-, and one-credit shell courses. Students pay only for the number of credits needed to complete their developmental math requirement, a great incentive for acceleration.

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‘Incompletes’ Promote Mediocrity or Encourage Progress?

Colleges Split on Merits of Incomplete Grades for Slow Modular Completers

Regardless of shell course structure, students across colleges are typically expected to complete a minimum number of modules by the end of the semester to receive credit for the course. However, college leaders are divided on grading policies when a student does not complete all of the modules required for the semester. Below, our fictional student Jane highlights the two opposing positions in this debate.

As a student at Chattanooga State Community College, Jane would fail her developmental math shell course if she completed only Modules 2, 4, and 7 by the end of the semester; she placed into Module 9 but did not complete it in time. Advocates of this strict pass-fail policy encourage students to perform to course expectations. The consequence of falling short of expectations is course failure. The prospect of failure motivates students to complete their required modules by the end of the semester.

Like many community colleges, Jackson State Community College requires students to complete four modules to pass a shell course. But as a student at Jackson State, Jane would receive an “Incomplete” grade for getting through three of her four required modules. Students who complete at least half of the required modules for a shell course receive an Incomplete. Students who complete fewer than half of the required modules fail the shell course. Advocates for this flexible grading policy argue “partial credit” encourages students to continue with the module sequence despite challenges encountered.

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Optimizing Staffing Levels to Match Student Demand

Some institutions give students the choice of when to work on their developmental math modules; instead of attending class at a certain time and day, instructors require students to work in the lab a certain number of hours each week. Matching lab staffing levels to student attendance patterns reduces unnecessary spending on instructional compensation during off-peak times in the lab. Lab supervisors use data from their math software platform to analyze peak hours of student lab attendance and staff the lab accordingly.

Administrators at Cleveland State Community College found that most students attend lab between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. on weekdays. Although the computer lab is open from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., only a few students chose to work through their developmental math modules in the early mornings or late evenings. The lab is staffed to meet levels of student attendance: fewer staff report to the lab in the early morning and late evening. This maintains a low student-to-instructor ratio and minimizes unnecessary staffing expenses.

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Help Students Embrace Self-Paced Instruction

Create Self-Sustaining Faculty Buy-In