Area colleges are targeting one of higher education’s biggest barriers in an effort to help struggling students past an historic roadblock: math.
College math classes have long been seen as a “filter” or a “weed out” course for students seeking a degree, administrators from colleges throughout the Miami Valley told the Dayton Daily News.
RELATED: 5 ways area colleges changed the way math is taught to help students It used to be a “point of pride” for professors if their course or college as a whole was too tough for some students, University of Dayton president Eric Spina recalled.
“I remember when the dean, or whoever, would get up and say look to your left and look to your right,” Spina said. “One of you will be gone in one year.”
Just half of all college students pass their college Algebra courses and some calculus classes are described as “insurmountable,” according to a report from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
But over the last decade or so, colleges have sought to remove a roadblock that has prevented many students from getting into the career of their dreams.RELATED: Sinclair gains national attention with its math class makeover
Some have rearranged their curriculum while others have increased tutoring and support for students.
At Wright State University, where many engineering students were derailed by back-to-back calculus courses, graduation rates increased from 24 percent around 2004 to 56 percent as of 2015, the college reported.
Sinclair Community College, Clark State Community College, UD and Miami University have all made efforts aimed at helping more students succeed at math.
Key to the change at UD is helping students overcome the preconceived notion that they are incapable of understanding difficult math courses, said Becki Lawhorn, UD director of student success.
“I think it’s a confidence challenge,” Lawhorn said. “Math and sciences tend to be, I don’t want to say glorified, but people are groomed to expect these things are going to be hard. It creates a lot of mental barriers and blocks.”
Not ‘watering it down’
For some, getting up to speed in math often meant taking remedial courses that didn’t count toward their degree.
Sinclair restructured its remedial math classes in 2009 so that they might work better for the student, said Kathleen Cleary, provost of completion at Sinclair.
One focus was improving math placement tests.RELATED: UD President says school is sticking with the Paris Climate Accord
“Math is considered one of those big hurdles,” Cleary said. “The lower (students) were placed, obviously the less likely they were to graduate.”
Students who struggle in math often just forgot what they learned from past classes, Cleary said. Instead of making students repeat courses, Sinclair offers a one-week refresher class that Cleary calls a “math boot camp.”
Around 80 percent of people who participate in the boot camps pass and are able to eliminate at least one remedial class, she said.
Both Sinclair and Clark State are also trying to better align types of math classes with career fields, meaning an engineer may be required to take calculus or algebra but an accounting student would be better suited for statistics.
RELATED: Area college to start self-driving car program Clark Sate has sought to take more of a “holistic approach” that asks “where does math fit into that curriculum?” said Amit Singh, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Clark State.
It’s not an attempt at “watering down” math classes, Cleary said, but rather finding the right fit for the right student. In the past, some Sinclair students were taking math classes that were more difficult than was needed for their field of study.
“Engineers don’t need the same math as visual artists,” Cleary said. “It’s not that we’re watering it down. We just want them to master the math that they need.”
Colleges have also tried to make math more relatable to the world students are about to enter.
In high school, students learn math by memorizing formulas. In college, students are expected to apply their math skills, which is a difficult hurdle for some, Lawhorn said.
RELATED: WSU faculty call budget proposal disgraceful, absurd “How do you transform A + B = C into a broader concept?” she said. “That is less about mastering a skill than about developing your mind and changing the way you think.”
Sinclair’s instructors try to “contextualize math with real world problems,” said Cleary. By doing that, instructors are able to show students how math can be relevant while encouraging a “deeper learning” of how it can be used, she said.
Prentice McGruder, a student studying theater and culinary arts at Sinclair, is enrolled in a quantitative reasoning class to meet his math requirement. He thinks the class is a good fit for him and will help him manage his personal finances.
“We look at big numbers and statistics,” he said. “I feel like it’s applicable to real life.”
Helping students get to the next level
Students can now look further than the back of their books for help solving a math problem.
Most area colleges offer some form of tutoring for people who struggle with math and some have gone a step further to ensure easy access to it.
RELATED: Antioch U. chancellor talks about move of school and sale of building UD started the Student Success Network in 2015. In general, the network allows faculty to share feedback with students, Lawhorn said.
While the system is often used to provide positive feedback, an instructor can also use the network to convey a concern about a student known as an “early alert.” Wittenberg University in Springfield uses a similar system.
If a concern is brought up, a UD math professor can loop in a tutor who can then follow up with the student and offer one-on-one help, according to UD.
“There’s a lot of pressure put on young people to come in here and act like they know what they’re doing,” Lawhorn said. “It’s OK to not know what you’re doing. This is how we’re going to help you get to the next level.”
In the math lab at Sinclair, students have access to computers where they can listen to lectures and use programs that help them solve math problems.
Sinclair students can also be tutored by a faculty member or one of their peers in the math lab, depending on whoever they’re more comfortable with.
“We teach them the way that we learn the math,” said Mehdi Moazen, a student and tutor in Sinclair’s math lab. “We are like a friend to them.”
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