Analyzing the Fear of University Math Courses
It wouldn't be surprising to many incoming freshmen to learn that math courses present the greatest obstacle to students’ receiving their bachelor’s degree, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Governors State University is working to change that trend.
As opposed to remedial prerequisites for math courses, Associate Director of the General Education Council and mathematics professor Chris Tweddle devised a corequisite course for students who need additional help in elementary statistics. The pilot ran in spring 2021, with small classes designed around three core ideas:
1. Work with real world data to get students invested in the statistics
2. Develop students’ mathematic identities and instill a growth mindset
3. Engage artificial intelligence to help students work on algebraic concepts at their own pace
Dr. Tweddle said the practice of boosting math scores with remedial courses inspired the pilot because remedial, non-credit courses keep students from continuing their college career, with only about 30 percent of those students passing and continuing to enroll in courses at the college level.
And for students starting college with less opportunity, the remedial courses become an academic and financial road block.
“Black and brown students get trapped into the cycle of remediation at community colleges,’’ he said.
Fortunately, GSU chose a different path in 2014 when freshmen first came to campus. The focus was placed on multiple pathways to earning math credits with no prerequisites required.
“As opposed to the traditional approach to college math where everyone is on a track to calculus, most majors outside of STEAM majors won’t use calculus. It’s not a good fit for them,” Tweddle said.
Instead, students in the social sciences and business courses can take elementary statistics and liberal arts students can take quantitative literacy, which covers topics including financial mathematics, logic, and voting theories to explain how outcomes of elections can change. The focus is on mathematical ideas that people encounter every day and might not think about the mathematical theories behind.
“These courses prepare people to be good consumers of mathematics,” Tweddle said.
Despite designing courses, like elementary statistics, to be more analysis-driven as opposed to formula memorization, the pass rate for the course was only 60 to 65 percent.
“That was not far from the national average, but we strive to be better than average. And if you do well in statistics you’ll know what that means,” Tweddle laughs.
This inspired a different formula and a new course.
With the pilot, Tweddle aimed to get the students engaged with the content of the course by using real world data, such as income disparity by race from the U.S. Census Bureau. In small groups of two to three students and with the assistance of embedded supplemental instructors, the data were analyzed for central deviation and was then pulled together to answer questions on race disparities.
“Everything in a textbook is always nice and neat but real math tends to come out messy. The important part is what does it tell you?” Tweddle said.
Next, the course aimed to help students develop their mathematical identity. Growth mindset activities and discussions with peer mentors from the Center for the Junior Year on math anxiety helped students not just to perform better in their current classes, but to transfer this mindset to the rest of their college careers and beyond.
“We’re hoping that by building that growth mindset, they can realize ‘Sometimes I struggle but that doesn’t mean I’m not capable. Some things just take a while,’” Tweddle explained.
Finally, instead of having students sit through the same algebra classes they’ve taken before, the class utilizes ALEKS––an artificial intelligence designed to shore up students’ algebra weaknesses. Students work at their own pace on topics from pre-algebra to pre-calculus that adapt to their specific needs.
“It explores the boundaries of their knowledge and addresses mathematical gaps that they might need later in their field,” said Tweddle.
With the semester coming to a close, Tweddle is looking at the assessment pieces; including, a mathematical autobiography that students drafted at the beginning of the course to reflect on positive and negative experiences they had had with math. At the end of the course, students revisited the autobiography to write about what has changed over the course of the semester.
For Tweddle, the real impact will be shown in future pass and retention rates, but the feedback for now has been positive.
“We’d like to continue to expand the corequisites on our radar. We need to support students on campus, especially freshmen.”