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

Help Students Embrace Self-Paced Instruction

Personalized Student Support Worth the Investment

“Anonymous” Classrooms Cheap Only at First Glance

Helping students embrace self-paced instruction requires a lab with built-in personalized support. Students should feel attached to the classroom, their peers, and most importantly, their instructor. Cost calculations of different delivery models found that while models with limited personalized instructor support, like open labs and online courses, may appear cost-effective at first, they yield lower returns on investment than highly personalized modified math emporiums. The model has a lower cost per successful student than online, open lab, and lecture classes.

Although our research found slight differences in the size and setup of the modified emporium classrooms, all successful models share two key features. First, all courses have 35 students or fewer to allow instructors to keep track of student progress and create a sense of community in the classroom. Secondly, all courses maintain a maximum 1-to-18 instructor-to-student ratio.

The numbers proposed aren’t magic—some institutions have smaller classes, some larger. Decisions about lab size and instructor-to-student ratios come down to institutional culture and resources. However, colleges with the most successful math labs found that size matters for helping students embrace self-paced instruction. Small class sizes allow staff to execute on the strategies detailed in the pages that follow.

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Staffing Your Emporium

The Who’s Who of Student Support Professionals

Responsibilities within the math emporium are divided among faculty instructors, tutors, and lab supervisors. Lab supervisors coordinate all of the sections held in the lab, taking over the majority of administrative and technological responsibilities. Instructors and tutors work together to field student questions and maintain order in the lab. Most math emporiums staff one instructor and one tutor in a class of about 30 students. For many faculty, tutors are the most exciting aspect of the modified math emporium, sharing many (less desirable) instructional responsibilities in the lab and reducing faculty workload.

Emporium tutors come from different educational and professional backgrounds; however, our research surfaced three particularly high-performing tutor partnerships. Sinclair Community College hires student volunteers from the School of Education at the University of Dayton to tutor in the lab as part of their service requirement. Sinclair does not pay the tutors any salary or stipend, but the student volunteers benefit from the direct service opportunity. As aspiring teachers, the University of Dayton students learn the importance of math education in the K-12 system. Student reactions reflect their renewed commitment: “I’m going to be a high school teacher eventually, and watching these kids study eighth grade math in college was shocking; it motivated me to be a better high school teacher.”

Northern Virginia Community College also employs student tutors in their math emporiums. These tutors are advanced math students, many of whom completed their developmental coursework through the same emporium model. These tutors serve as role models, peers, and success stories for developmental students.

Employing current advanced math students also generates opportunities for work-study. El Paso Community College is dedicated to recruiting student employees for its modified emporium. The program provides much-needed campus employment for student tutors, a strategy that has been shown to boost the tutors’ retention.

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As If Every Student Went to Office Hours

Staffing Structure Enables High-Impact 1:1 Coaching During Class Time

The modified math emporium essentially turns class time into de facto office hours. Every class session is an opportunity for students to receive answers to their most pressing questions through one-on-one student-to-instructor coaching. When compared to the amount of individualized instruction students receive in traditional lecture-drill classrooms, it is easy to see why students learn more in the emporium. Instructors have time to meet with students individually, a higher quality interaction that facilitates greater learning and stronger student-instructor relationships.

Our calculations show that instructors spend far less one-on-one time with students in traditional lecture classrooms than modified emporiums. Assuming a class size of 25 students, the average student receives 38 minutes of individualized instructor attention each semester in a lecture classroom. Under the same assumptions, the average student receives 211 minutes each semester in a modified emporium. This is a 550% capacity increase for one-on-one instructional interactions.

The most important advantage math emporiums have over lecture classrooms is not the quantity of time, but the quality of student-faculty interactions. Virtually every software package on the market can be set up to enable instructors to see the modules students need to complete, students’ intended concentration, their academic history, and even their financial aid status. This information enables faculty to create student-level dashboards that guide coaching sessions. These dashboard-driven student coaching sessions are a true best practice; instructors help students navigate personal roadblocks to completion that would not have been noticed or addressed in the absence of this personalized support structure.

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Creating Communities in the Classroom

Clustered Seating and Faculty Meeting Space Organically Facilitate Learning

Innovators use clustered seating assignments and designated faculty meeting spaces to ensure students feel a connection to the class and to their instructor. In a self-paced classroom open to students with different levels of need, it is important for faculty to create a sense of community in the classroom. Although opening math labs to students at different developmental levels increases students’ enrollment options, administrators are careful to ensure there are mechanisms in place to create a strong sense of community in the classroom.

A mixed computer lab has the potential to create havoc for instructors, tutors, and students. Students sitting next to each other working on completely different topics are likely to have trouble helping one another when problems arise. For instructors, switching between seemingly unrelated questions can be disorienting, and doesn’t provide a bigger picture of students’ shared problems in a particular topic. As a result, progressive faculty seat students in close proximity to peers working on a similar set of modules. Students can ask their neighbors for help and instructors have a sense of shared trouble areas; if multiple students are struggling with the same problem, the instructor can pull the group aside to deliver a mini-lecture that clarifies the concept.

Data shows that developmental students excel in self-paced work when they have an adequate support network on campus; successful math emporiums have faculty who establish themselves as instructors, coaches, and mentors for their students. Instructors at Northern Virginia Community College designate a meeting space in the front of the computer lab for weekly one-on-one meetings with students during class. These meetings are opportunities for instructors to discuss each student’s progress through the curriculum and address problems as they arise. Instructors use a combination of faculty dashboards and student pacing calendars to guide students toward timely completion of their developmental requirements.

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Holding Students Accountable for Progression

Student Pacing Calendars Encourage Timely Completion

Community College Forum interviews with math faculty found that most developmental students require continuous encouragement from instructors to stay motivated during the semester. In self-paced courses, instructors rely on pacing calendars to keep students on track for success. Pacing calendars outline deadlines for completing milestones in the modular curriculum. Students use the calendar to pace themselves and discuss progress setbacks with their instructor.

At the beginning of the course, students sit with instructors to discuss the number of modules required for their developmental sequence and their academic goals for the semester. Instructors set deadlines for completing chapter quizzes and modular exams tailored to each student’s developmental needs and academic goals. Each week, math lab students meet with their instructor to review their progress and ensure they stay on track to complete their modules on time. This strategy ensures students maintain steady progress and do not rush to finish all of their required material at the end of the semester.

Supplemental materials:

Download PDF Jackson State Community College Pacing Calendar
Download PDF Montgomery College Pacing Calendar
Download PDF Northern Virginia Community College Pacing Calendar

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Course Contracts Generate Student Commitment

Formal Agreements Encourage College-Ready Behaviors

Most instructors with experience in the modified math emporium understand it takes time for students to adjust to new modes of learning. Students may be unsure how to behave in a new course format, which could delay their completion goals. Cleveland State Community College ensures that developmental math students read the course syllabus to learn the class policies and strategies for success. The syllabus outlines the grading policy, attendance requirements, and honor code. Students must sign the agreement before beginning work on their modules.

Supplemental materials:

Download PDF Cleveland State Community College Course Contract
Download PDF South Texas College Course Contract

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Everything Counts

All-Inclusive Grade Scheme Requires Student Participation Throughout

Active engagement through homework and class participation prepares students to perform well on final exams. Successful math emporiums use all-inclusive grade schemes that require students participate throughout the semester. Our interviews with community college math faculty coupled with data from the University of Alabama support the idea that all-inclusive grade schemes improve student outcomes.

While community college faculty agree that “students don’t do optional,” many developmental math classes only require students to complete a course final. Innovative colleges recognize the academic benefit of completing homework assignments and participating in class discussions, and make these activities part of the course grade. Students are motivated to complete the work, familiarize themselves with the material throughout the semester, and ultimately perform well on their final assessment.

The University of Alabama instituted a developmental math lab in fall 2000. The first semester of the lab included an all-inclusive grade scheme: attendance was mandatory and counted as part of the course grade. On average, students in the Intermediate Algebra course maintained a 2.8 GPA. When the all-inclusive grade scheme was eliminated the following semester, grades declined. Course performance sunk by 11%. When administrators realized the effect of class requirements on student performance, the all-inclusive grade scheme was reinstated. Average performance rose once again.

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Financial Incentives for Acceleration

El Paso Community College Encourages Speedy Completion with Tuition Savings

Administrators can also help students embrace self-paced instruction by charging for time in seat as opposed to credits enrolled. Unlike a traditional semester model, math emporiums can be structured to charge students for the number of semesters enrolled, providing students an opportunity to save hundreds of dollars by accelerating their developmental completion in the emporium.

El Paso Community College is one of many institutions that see higher rates of student success from acceleration with the modified math emporium. Students are encouraged to master material quickly in the hopes of completing additional coursework before the end of the semester. The more developmental credits students complete in one semester, the less time and money they must spend for these courses in the semesters that follow. Our interviews with lab tutors revealed that students respond very positively to these incentives. One tutor shared that he encourages students to stay committed and come to the lab as much as possible by reminding them of the exact dollars saved from acceleration.

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Traditional Delivery Pedagogically Ineffective

Contain Administrative Transition Costs