Programs focused on keeping math students' grades above water
By Bryan Trude
Scribbling formulas on the dry-erase walls of the Math Learning Success Center's study rooms gives students plenty of space to calculate and think.
When walking into the office of William “Bus” Jaco, you wouldn’t think you were entering the workplace of one of the country’s leading living mathematicians. A small, cozy space, there’s room for his desk, a small table with chairs piled high with books, a few other chairs, and a tall bookshelf that dominates the back wall.
Alongside family photos, the bookshelf for the head of the OSU Department of Mathematics is piled high with books one would expect to find in the office of the man who helped establish one of the cornerstones of 3-manifold theory, the JSJ decomposition theorem. One small pile of books on that shelf, however, stands out, laying horizontal while every other tome sits vertical and shelved — a handful of volumes of Euclid’s Elements, a foundational text of algebraic and geometric instruction for more than 2,000 years.
The prominence of Elements among Jaco’s collection belies his attitude when it comes to his department’s research and focus on how math is taught at the most basic of levels. It’s a path that he, along with associate professor Chris Francisco, has taken to heart.
William "Bus" Jaco, left, and Chris Francisco see the MLSC as one of many innovations the OSU math department is making in mathematics education.
The journey has established Oklahoma State as an emerging leader in math instruction that is garnering attention from institutions around the world.
“When I started as department head, one of the first things we did was a plan to enhance student learning and success in mathematics,” Jaco says. “The provost then wanted a catchy name, so we just modified the name to ‘Success in Undergraduate Mathematics’ or SUMS.”
It was out of the SUMS program that the department’s advancements in mathematical instruction were born, beginning with their most visible achievement, the Mathematics Learning Success Center.
Redefining support for math education
One of SUMS’ crowning achievements under Jaco, in his view, is the rebuilding and revitalization of the Mathematics Learning Success Center. Occupying 8,000 square feet on the fifth floor of the Edmond Low Library, the MLSC was established in 1985 to serve as a general tutoring center for undergraduate students. When Jaco took over the department, he led a relocation and remodeling effort that saw the center reopen in April 2013.
Today, students visit the MLSC an estimated 2,100 times each week for tutoring and assistance services in lower-level math courses, according to Francisco, who serves as the department’s associate head for lower-division instruction. More than 75 percent of the students enrolled in lower-division math courses utilize the center over the course of a semester.
“That’s the most impressive thing, three-quarters [of the students] go,” Francisco says. “It’s hard to get three-quarters of people to do anything.”
“It is unbelievably well-used,” Jaco adds. “This is a tremendous facility.”
Recently, the department received a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to host a series of workshops for directors of mathematics resource centers from the United States and beyond, highlighting the MLSC and the system in place at OSU.
Working with the center’s director, Melissa Mills, Jaco and Francisco hope to spread the MLSC’s model nationwide by utilizing the program to study influences and techniques that help math students succeed, aided by Mills’ background in math education research.
“One of the nice things about having a director who is a math education researcher is that it allows us to study students,” Francisco says. “For example, she did a research study where she showed that even after controlling for other factors … students who use the MLSC on a regular basis significantly improve their grade.”
Blazing a new path
Students filling the MLSC benefit directly from innovative programs designed to improve graduation rates without wasting precious time.
This concern with the improvement of student grades has defined the direction of the entire program under Jaco, spawning two new ideas that promise to help OSU redefine the educational experience of low-level math students.
“College algebra is not for all,” says Jaco, citing it as the mantra of the department’s “Math Pathways” initiative. “If you look across the whole state system, the default course is college algebra. You generally have, on average, 50 to 60 percent of college students failing college algebra.”
When looking into these high failure rates, Jaco found that while a majority — at least 60 percent — of students statewide are required to take college algebra, relatively few of them are in a degree program that requires calculus, for which college algebra is considered an introduction course. The Math Pathways program at OSU was formed to address this problem of 60 percent of students failing in a required math course that does not benefit their degree program, by providing math courses for students that better conform to their program requirements.
“Instead of just college algebra, you have college algebra, a modeling course, you have statistics, and you have a quantitative reasoning course,” Jaco says. “Instead of a student having to take college algebra to get a math requirement out of the way, they now have four choices at OSU, and we’re now assisting in implementing that across the whole state of Oklahoma.”
Jaco hopes that the Pathways program will help students succeed in getting any kind of degree. According to Jaco, only 40 percent of university students statewide succeed in earning a four-year degree within eight years, and only 14 percent of students earn a two-year degree within four.
The department’s second initiative is working to address this problem.
“Students are not prepared,” Jaco says. “What we’ve been doing is putting students in remedial classes; however, remediation does not work.”
Individual instruction and tutoring is a hallmark of OSU mathematics education.
In the traditional model, freshmen entering college with below-average math scores can be required to take a remedial course for zero credit, consisting of high school-level math instruction, which must be passed before a student can go on to take college-level instruction. The problem with this system, according to Jaco, is that at every step in remediation, half of the
students drop out before they have even taken a course eligible for college credit.
To combat this issue, Jaco, Francisco and the rest of the faculty at the Department of Mathematics have introduced a concept called “Co-requisite Instruction.”
“With Co-requisite Instruction, what that means is that we’re going to put [remedial students] in a college-level course, and get them college-level credit,” Jaco says.
Rather than enroll underprepared students in remedial “zero-level” coursework, Co-requisite Instruction enrolls students in the same low-level courses as every other student, according to Francisco. The difference, however, is that Co-requisite students participate in additional sessions specially tailored for them.
Rather than coming to a course three days a week, Co-requisite students would attend class five days a week to participate in activities to provide extra practice and instruction with undergraduate learning assistants, according to Francisco.
“We have been very sensitive to the idea that we do not want to dumb things down at all,” Francisco says. “We want to give students the right course to prepare them for the career that they will be in, that will have the same rigor as their other courses and better prepare them.”
Francisco’s findings indicate that even with underprepared students, as long as students came to class and did the homework in the five-day section, they could succeed in college-level instruction at the same rate as students who placed well in testing.
“It got people through much faster, and it got people through who might not have gotten through before,” Francisco says.
The Co-requisite Instruction model is beginning to gain traction across the country, Jaco says. Francisco often speaks at other universities and colleges about the concept, while officials from universities from across the country have been coming to Stillwater to learn about all of OSU’s math instruction programs firsthand.
“It’s been a busy road, but it is a good road, we have been traveling,” says Jaco.
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Published by STATE Magazine Editor Elizabeth Keys, Winter 2016, Volume 12, Number 2
Uploaded on December 1, 2016