Dr. Paul Nolting's Academic Success Press Blog: A Publication Dedicated to Math Success
Dr. Paul Nolting's Academic Success Press Blog: A Publication Dedicated to Math Success
ASP Blog: To get us started, can you briefly describe your background in helping colleges and universities increase success in math?
Getz: I taught high school and college math for twenty years before coming to the Dana Center. At the college level, I was the department chair of a department that was sort of unusual because it involved developmental and gateway math courses. We didn’t teach the higher levels of math, but we were in charge of all of the students coming in in their first math courses. In that role, our department was actually created to address high failure rates, and we were able to significantly increase student success. We implemented a lot of the practices that are now common at the Dana Center: integrated support, active learning in the classroom, revamping content and curriculum, etc. I’ve been at the Dana Center for a little over four years now, and I started working with the Carnegie Foundation to develop the curriculum for Pathways (of which I am the main author). After we completed that work, we started strategizing how to promote the same principles that we worked with at Carnegie around Math Pathways, and we created the new Mathways project to implement them in a systemic way from the state level down to the classroom. Now, I’m working a little more at the national level, along with multiple states.
ASP Blog: Can you describe for me the basic mission statement for the Dana Center?
Getz: Sure! We are an organized research center at the University of Texas at Austin, and our mission is to increase equity and access to education, primarily through math and science. We work with K-12 and higher education, and we work across the country. The center is actually much bigger than the higher education world. Sometimes people think if we are talking about higher education that there is just this small team at the Dana Center, but the organization itself is actually fairly large, and it is all under the direction of Uri Treisman, who is a very well-known and well-recognized figure in math education.
ASP Blog: What is your stance on the math redesign movement? In your eyes, what is it meant to accomplish, particularly for developmental education?
Getz: We really stress that the issue is much more systemic than just changing developmental education. The bigger issue is that we know that the completion of college-level math is a major obstacle for many students—when I say many, I mean hundreds of thousands of students, particularly at the community college level, but also at the four-year level. Really, this movement started with a focus on developmental education, because we started seeing data come out that tracked student progression across courses, and there was a raising of consciousness about the fact that very few students starting in developmental mathematics were able to get through a college-level math course.
[Now] we are seeing data that shows that even students who come in college-ready often don’t complete college-level math courses. There are very high failure rates in many college-level courses as well as at the Gateway level. As you get into more advanced students, the success rates increase. So we really try to emphasize that this work needs to look at entire math pathways. You can’t just separate one course out or two courses out, or a portion of that pathway, you really need to look at the whole pathway.
We don’t really talk about redesigning courses. We talk about redesigning pathways. We do this because it affects not just the system of an institution but entire states. It varies, of course, from state to state, so there are often state policies that become obstacles to implementing math pathways. There are issues around transfer and applicability. So, there is this systemic work that sits at the very core of math pathways.
ASP Blog: So are students today—particularly those who might not take on math-heavy majors—struggling more than similar students in the recent past? Or is it a matter of this problem has always been there, but we just haven’t been paying attention to it?
Getz: A little bit of both. It depends on how far back you want to go. But if you look historically at what has happened with requirements for mathematics in colleges, even a decade ago, it wasn’t all that uncommon for someone to be able to get a college degree without a college-level math course. There has been an increased emphasis on requiring everyone to take a college-level math course. As a math teacher, I think this is a good thing. I’m not suggesting that we pull this back. The problem was, however, that the math courses we had in place were all focused on getting students through calculus. I haven’t looked at historical data on success rates in this regard—but we do know that more students over the last couple of decades have had to take college-level math. So it makes sense that now that we have a more diverse population—diverse in the sense that they have very different educational goals—and that we have put them all into one slot, it is not surprising that this slot doesn’t necessarily meet all of their needs.
So one of the things that I always stress is that obviously student success is the big issue, and we always want to look at data, but from a math faculty perspective, it is also about students having the opportunity to learn math that will be very valuable to them. For the math faculty, it breaks my heart to see students learning algebraic manipulation skills that they are never going to use, when they could be learning really valuable mathematic concepts and skills that they really will use, and that will really improve their understanding of their world and help them become better consumers and better workers—help them better understand data-laden information that we receive all the time through work. So, I do like to stress both sides to this, because sometimes I worry a little bit about firm strategies that are just focused on getting students through math. What is really important is that these students learn something that is actually of value to them.
ASP Blog: What do you make of accelerated math courses? Paul often talks about how modern students have to learn new types of learning skills in order to keep up with faster, computer-based courses. Do you believe students must change their behavior to accommodate these courses?
Getz: It is an interesting idea that we would want to change human behavior to match the system we put into place. I understand what Paul is saying in that in some places this movement to do modularization might require changes in how human beings act and learn.
I find that questionable. I do believe what we can do is to support students to be more intentional and independent learners. I think that is a very important thing to do, whether they are in a classroom or sitting in front of a computer. But, I think what we really need to be careful about is understanding that there is isn’t a single strategy that will fit all students. Modularization and self-paced programs definitely benefit some students—students who are more motivated and more mature often do well in these programs. But a lot of places are backing off of modularization because they are realizing that all students don’t do well in the system. Research shows that those students who are at the greatest risk—those students who come in the least prepared, the least connected to their institutions—need strong engagement to their institution, to their faculty, to their peers. So, if those students are being put into individualized programs, then we need to pay real attention to the needs that these students still have. We can’t just say that we can change these students so that they no longer have these needs. I know that Paul has worked on how to help colleges figure out how to do this. How do you get these students to engage with their institution, faculty, peers, when they are sat alone in front of a computer? So those are the big issues here. I don’t think we can expect students to suddenly behave differently than human beings have ever behaved in the past. What we can do is build structures that build in the types of support that we know will help people become better learners.
ASP Blog: You have already described the Dana Center a little bit in earlier responses, but I am curious how, exactly, your organization is engaging in math redesigns? You mentioned earlier that you are focused more on systemic issues than just issues with individual courses. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Getz: We are working at the state level to address policy—to identify and address policy obstacles. We try to empower faculty to have a voice in that—helping to set the vision for what Math Pathways should be in a state. We have a variety of students we do this through. And then, we work across two and four year institutions to identify and address obstacles in transfer and applicability. We work at the institutional level by providing tools and services that help colleges see what it will take to implement Math Pathways in a systemic way.
You may be picking up that I use the word systemic, systemic, systemic. Where we see people fail is when they think they can go to math faculty and ask them to simply implement a redesigned course. This doesn’t get deep enough. It is like tweaking around the edges. At the classroom level, we have developed curriculum for courses that are based upon this Pathways model, and also support major courses that are designed to be used in a classroom that are based around active learning pedagogy to increase engagement with students. Then we provide training both directly related to teaching these courses, and generally around active learning pedagogy.
ASP Blog: Can you explain the Pathways program, maybe in simple terms—what it entails, and what you think it can accomplish?
Getz: The model is based on four principles. The first principle is that all students should have access to pathways that are aligned to their program of study. The second is that these pathways should be accelerated so that most students can complete a college-level course in one year or less. The third is that there should be strategic integration in alignment with student success strategies in math courses. And the fourth is to use evidence-based curriculum, design, and pedagogy.
For the courses themselves, we develop tools and applications for institutions to apply these principles. So we offer a toolkit from which a college can choose which resources they use. Our course materials are part of the resources. The reason I have to make this distinction is because in Texas they have a statewide implementation of the NMP principles—that does not mean that every college is teaching the courses we developed. Some are doing their own versions; some are using other materials from other sources. So we talk about this as “coherence to principles without uniformity in practice.”
In the courses we design, there are three pathways: quantitative reasoning, statistics, and then what we call the STEM-Prep pathway, which is the pathway that leads to calculus. Within these pathways, there are individual courses. The reason we chose these pathways is that they seem to be the broadest paths that meet the greatest needs. Some colleges have a need for a technical math pathway. In some systems, we see people have a different pathway for business. So it is not like we are saying that these are the only pathways that ever make sense: it is just that these three are the ones that we created courses around. We see it as a starting point for discussion.
We think it is really important that colleges and systems evaluate what pathways they need based upon their student needs, which is kind of getting down to what programs do you offer, which pathways match those programs the best. One thing that can happen, and is of a little concern, is that you don’t want too many pathways. The other side of this, is the growing understanding—which comes out of behavioral economics—that too many choices is not good. People have less satisfaction in general when they have too many choices. You may have heard this in talk about 401k plans. When speaking to colleges about guided pathways, it is best to have two to five. This is a good range of choices that are broad and general so that students do not have to make decisions based solely on their major, but rather the selection of programs they are interested in.
One of the concerns about pathways is that students often change their minds. They move between majors. So if you make them make a choice too early, they might lose credit. What we are seeing is that students can generally make a choice like, “You know, I’m kind of interesting in social sciences or liberal arts” versus “I’m interested in a hard science field.” People don’t often bounce around between these types of choices. So by setting up guided pathways, you can have a small number of choices that make it easier for students to navigate.
ASP Blog: There seems to be a fine line here: you want students to have options, but you can’t inundate them with choices either. It sounds like you are really trying to strike a balance.
Getz: Right. Another thing that is important here is “opt-in” and “opt-out.” By having guided pathways, it establishes a default. This helps students say: “I walked in, I don’t know much about college—my family has never been in college—and I talked to an advisor, and I defined my general interests, and he or she helped me by giving me this default policy.” But you always want an opt-out policy. If students have a good reason to make a change, they should have the flexibility to envision a different pathway for themselves. We don’t want students to get into pathways that are so rigid that they can never get out—but you want something that is well-defined and easy to navigate. Then if students need to opt-out and can make a good case for it, they have that opportunity.
ASP Blog: So where do you see the redesign movement ultimately going?
Getz: I see that there is a growing trend to accept math pathways. It is very interesting to me how when I speak publicly, the difference in questions I get now versus four years ago. There is real legitimization happening in the math education world as national leadership and professional associations continue to come together. We are definitely seeing that leadership from math professionals are advocating and supporting math pathways. That is huge because there was a concern from math faculty about increasing standards and rigor. It has just taken awhile to come to accept that, no, we are not lowering standards—we are creating greater opportunities for students to learn meaningful mathematics. So I think this trend is going to keep moving forward. I think we are going to continue to see a variety of strategies regarding implementation. I think we will continue to see things like modularization and distance learning, and there will continue to be strong classroom-based programs.
That’s the good side. I’ll also tell you the bad side. We have a real trend toward more courses being taught by adjuncts, who tend to be underpaid and underprepared. It is certainly my hope that we will reverse that trend in the sense that at least if there are adjuncts, they are getting better support and that they have access to more training and have more of a voice in the courses that they teach. Given the economics of education, I’m not sure this will just go away. So I think we need to think about how to support faculty who are in that position, who are hired two days before classes start. We really have to think deeply about what help these faculty members need to be successful with students.
And that just about wraps it up! Please check back Wednesday for a new post.
Dr. Nolting is a national expert in assessing math learning problems, developing effective student learning strategies, assessing institutional variables that affect math success and math study skills. He is also an expert in helping students with disabilities and Wounded Warriors become successful in math. He now assists colleges and universities in redesigning their math courses to meet new curriculum requirements. He is the author of two math study skills texts: Winning at Math and My Math Success Plan.
American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges presenter, Senior Lecturer-Modular