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

Traditional Delivery Pedagogically Ineffective

Lecture-Drill Especially Poor Fit for Developmental Math Students

Our research found that most developmental math courses are taught through podium-style lectures, what is often referred to as “sage on the stage” learning. Conversations with these sages and the students they teach surfaced widespread agreement that lecture-drill is a poor fit for developmental students. We pinpointed three fatal flaws with sage on the stage: delivery is passive, participation is optional, and lecture leaves no room for individualized problem solving.

Below is a collection of students who suffer at the hands of the sage on the stage model. First is Abby, who finds formulas too abstract without the opportunity for hands-on, practical learning during class. For her, math is simply a collection of formulas on a whiteboard and there is no connection to her life goals. The second student profiled is Nancy the no-show, who is balancing competing demands and needs strong incentives to keep her on task. Math faculty explained that students like Nancy don’t do optional work unless they see a clear link to their goals. Finally there is Fred, a math whiz who just can’t factor. His instructor doesn’t spend enough time on the concept, he never masters factoring, and he fails the course.

Although Abby, Nancy, and Fred are fictional students, their profiles are a synthesis of real stories from interviews with practitioners across the country. These are students who are underserved by the sage on the stage method of developmental math delivery.

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No Standing Ovations

Need for Math Delivery Transformation Recognized Across Campus

The failures of the sage on the stage model have fueled momentum on campus for instructional transformation. Students, faculty members, department chairs, and senior executives have all expressed a new appetite for change in the way students are taught developmental math.

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Abundant Alternatives to Sage on the Stage

But Most Strategies Culture or Resource Prohibitive

The good news is that there are abundant alternatives to sage on the stage learning, several of which are profiled below. Our research found that while many alternatives exist, most are cost, culture, or resource prohibitive.

While active learning strategies like Jigsaw, SCALE-UP, and the Case Method have the potential to boost student engagement, research found these strategies are difficult to enforce in the classroom, and leave much room for faculty error. These strategies are generally regarded as advanced teaching techniques that require experienced faculty and hours of professional development to implement correctly, often a luxury that math adjuncts aren’t aff orded.

Technological innovations like electronic clickers have been used in many classrooms to aggregate student responses and spark discussion. Despite their popularity, clickers only produce a marginal bump in student success, a disappointment considering the $20,000 average investment required for implementation. The fully online model also falls short of expectations. Research from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University has found that most fully online community college students have worse completion rates than those in face-to-face lectures. Although online courses allow students to pace themselves, their performance suffers without hands-on support from instructors.

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A Winning Model Emerges

Modified Emporium Improves Student Outcomes and Scales

Of the various instructional models we studied, the modified emporium led to the greatest, scalable gains in student course completion and learning. At first glance, the term “emporium” may sound more like a marketplace than a classroom. This thinking isn’t too far off; similar to a marketplace, math emporiums facilitate interactive relationships between students and faculty, provide individualized attention for students in need, and offer structured incentives for participation.

In the modified emporium, traditional classrooms are transformed into interactive labs. Students use computer software to complete problem-solving lessons for the majority of class time. Exercises are personalized to meet individual students’ needs and involve a host of multimedia instructional tools.

The emporium model also facilitates individualized support sessions between instructors and students. Rather than a generic lecture for all, students progress through content at their own pace, focusing on their own developmental needs and moving swiftly through content that comes naturally. When students fi nd concepts particularly challenging, faculty are there to provide additional assistance. Modified emporiums rely on faculty acting as student mentors—grades are based on multiple milestone quizzes embedded in the software, so instructors can remind students of their progress and encourage acceleration.

Results data shows that modified math emporiums work. Across the 15 institutions profiled, colleges saw an average 15% increase in developmental math completion rates, a 10% increase in gatekeeper math completion, and a 23% cost savings per student compared to traditional lecture-drill models. The cost reduction comes from an increase in faculty teaching load made possible by the added support of technology and tutors in the classroom.

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“But We Aren’t Virginia Tech”

Computer Warehouse Fodder of Staff Nightmares

With such impressive results data coming from campuses that have implemented modified math emporiums, it’s surprising that the model hasn’t spread like wildfire. As it happens, the modified emporium is haunted by its early reputation as an approach ill-suited for developmental students. The emporium model originated at Virginia Tech in 2000 as a massive computer lab where students worked through math coursework at their own pace (pictured below), a classroom seemingly void of support mechanisms so critical for developmental student success.

Community colleges have since adapted the emporium model to fit the needs of their unique student bodies by shrinking class sizes, embedding support mechanisms, and elevating the role of the instructor. The model still bears resemblance to its origin, but has now evolved sufficiently to earn a new name, hence the term “the modified math emporium.”

The modified emporium classroom, like its namesake, uses red Solo cups to signal when a student has a question. Students place the cups on top of their computer monitors while waiting for assistance from an instructor or tutor. This communication method can initially be unsettling for many faculty; red cups are often associated with weekend debauchery, not studying. However, plastic cups are an essential—and economical— way for students to request assistance without interrupting their work. Many institutions also use blue cups to signal when students are taking a quiz or assessment. Faculty at many colleges eventually saw the benefit of using Solo cups to facilitate communication after seeing how efficiently the modified emporium ran.

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Setting the Record Straight

No Shortage of Misconceptions About Emporium-Style Learning

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of misconceptions about emporium-style learning. Our interviews surfaced three commonly cited barriers to adopting the modified emporium approach: anonymous and self-paced curriculum won’t work for community college students, there are too many administrative roadblocks to implementation, and an inability to get faculty to support redesign.

After conducting more than 100 interviews with instructors, administrators, and students from different modified emporiums, we found that the most oft-cited barriers to implementation were avoidable, or just untrue. Individualized and guided support can be built into an emporium model, back-office efficiencies and workarounds are bountiful, and many faculty actually prefer teaching in the emporium.

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Maximizing Return From Flipped Classrooms

What You Need to Know to Get the Most Out of Your Modified Emporium

Our research also found that there are right ways (and wrong ways) to flip the classroom. Success is not automatic, and the outcomes data across modified emporiums varies. This is a model where implementation is critical for maximizing return on investment. The strategies featured in this section support leaders in implementing and improving the effectiveness of redesigned math courses.

For the modified math emporium, implementation is critical for maximizing return on investment. Even institutions with years of experience with modified emporiums are still searching for ways to further bolster student success. Numerous best practices, data, lessons learned, and artifacts from the models examined in this study are profi led in this section and available through our online implementation toolkit.

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Reengineering Developmental Math

Help Students Embrace Self-Paced Instruction