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
Dr. Nolting Speaks with Math Professor Leah Rineck about Her Innovative Modular Classroom Model
Nolting: I know a lot about your background, having worked with you on different projects
and seeing you at conferences, but for our readers, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your mathematics background and your current position.
Rineck: I currently have a master’s degree in mathematics. I’ve been teaching math for eleven years at [The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee], and I am currently also working on my Ph.D. in math education. At UW-M, I teach and coordinate Math 94—Foundations of Elementary Mathematics. We start with students who have an ACT level of less than 16, and we go from basic math all the way up to beginning Algebra.
Nolting: I know you have attended and presented at AMATYC and NADE conferences. Can you describe what you spoke about?
Rineck: I have talked quite a bit about the course I teach and coordinate. It is a unique course in that it is a vertical redesign—so we don’t teach material in the same order we would normally teach math in. We teach it in a modular design, where we talk about definitions of all the items we are using, then we do operations, then we do solving—we solve inequalities and equations together—then we do applications. I have also talked about how to incorporate manipulatives and formulated assessments into courses. Manipulatives are not just for elementary and middle school students, they help conceptual understanding for adult students also. I have had a number of students really enjoy [manipulatives], as they can finally understand why integer operations work the way they do.
Nolting: Yes. I have had the same experience with manipulatives. You started talking about the design of your course. Can you go into a little more detail—specifically the types of students who are taking your class?
Rineck: The math course is a six-credit course. It is all developmental mathematics, so it is six-credits for financial aid and payment, and it is zero credit toward graduation. It is accelerated, so students do two or sometimes three classes in one semester.
It is designed in a way that we define everything thing. So in the first module, we define what a number is, what types of numbers there are, how to plot things on number lines and coordinate graphs. But we also discuss complex numbers and how to plot them on complex grids; the properties of real numbers; exponents and exponent properties, even rational exponents. The second module is operation—with all these [same] topics. For instance, in our addition section, we add everything: integers, rational numbers, rational expressions, polynomials, complex numbers, and radical expressions—all at the same time. This way students actually see the connections with all of these topics. They have been taught so often “This is how you add a fraction” and “This is how you add a polynomial” and “this is how you add a rational expression” but they don’t see the continuity between those three things. We try to reinforce that continuity.
Nolting: So they take six-hours, but they can complete one or two courses during that time?
Rineck: Right. If they complete their online homework before the middle of the semester, we actually let them accelerate into a credit-bearing class. They stay in the same classroom and do the material we are working on, but we do have time built into the class for reviews and working with manipulatives, so that during those same class periods, the students who have accelerated work on their credit-bearing material.
Nolting: You teach at a university. I’m wondering how these courses play out with the types of students you have?
Rineck: It works really well. UW-M is virtually an open-access university. I think right now 85-90 percent of applicants are accepted. It is an urban university, so we have a lot of commuters and non-traditional students. About 35 percent of the students in my course are international. We have twenty percent students of color. Five percent are veterans. The course is designed for student success. We try our best to make sure all students succeed. To that end, we require that all students be eligible to take exams. We require students to do their homework to be eligible to take an exam. Some of them get upset, but when I explain, “Why do you want to take an exam you aren’t ready for? Then you don’t do well and hate math even more. Let’s do our homework, let’s be prepared,” then all of a sudden they start succeeding in mathematics.
Nolting: I visited your classroom a few years ago, and I know the curriculum has changed. How has the success rate changed between then and now?
Rineck: Before our redesign, we had below a fifty percent pass rate for our developmental sequences. Currently, my course has a seventy-five to eighty percent pass rate, depending on the semester. Typically Fall semester is better than Spring—because in the Spring semester, we have a lot of repeaters. Frankly, that is my next goal: trying to figure out how to help these repeaters.
Then we also have a quantitative literacy pathway that also has a 75 percent pass rate. I think currently our algebra pathway, which is right above where I start, has about a sixty-five to seventy percent pass rate. My course is doing very well because it is very comprehensive. Students are required to be there—so the more math you do the better you get at it.
Nolting: I know that some institutions are really struggling to increase pass rates in modular course designs. Yours is about the highest I’ve ever heard of. Getting seventy-five to eighty percent—that’s higher than regular classrooms. What I’d like to do, is go step-by-step to describe the changes you made to your courses. First, can you explain the unique challenges of the modular design?
Rineck: The modular design typically requires mastery at each module. That is a little bit different than just getting a “C.” With modular design, teachers aren’t used to requiring mastery at every level. The pushback from students, and from teachers for that matter, can be hard.
Nolting: What would you tell students about what is uniquely difficult about modular courses?
Rineck: They have to be aware that this is not how they’ve ever learned mathematics before. I would hope that they have the support they need. A lot of times, I find that students are missing just one or two components. Then, all of a sudden, when they understand these components, they just fly. But they have to understand that this is a little different from how they’ve learned before, and they have to be open-minded to that. That is one of my great struggles right now. I keep hearing: “Well that is not what I’ve been told before,” or, “That is not how I’ve learned it.” Sometimes you just want to say, “Well…that may not have worked for you in the past, so let’s see if this way works for you.” So that open-mindedness really helps, for a lot of reasons.
Nolting: Right, so you are building confidence among students in both you as a professor and the design of the course itself. I want to get back to the step-by-step design of your course. Can you explain the curriculum—particularly how you flip the classroom with study skills and other materials.
Rineck: Yes. So the entire classroom is actually flipped. For the math materials—not the study skills materials, but the math materials—I have created videos and a workbook that goes along with the videos. Students watch these videos outside of class and attempt their homework and workbook work. The workbook has multiple points of entry. For the most part it goes from pretty basic material to pretty challenging material. What I am looking for is that students have tried the material and attempted the work so that when they come to class we can discuss where their difficulties were. Instead of going through the simple procedures, I’d rather have them try it, then we can talk about, for instance, what the difference is between a negative number and a negative exponent (as well as their similarities).
Then, for the math study skills component, I have them watch some videos on growth mindset at the beginning of the semester before they come into class. Once the class starts, I have them read your Winning at Math textbook. This is part of their outside homework. They do the study skills assessment, the locus of control assessment, and also complete some questions about what they’ve read. I find that students typically don’t have a problem with this, as it isn’t a math textbook, and students do actually like reading the book versus actually doing their math homework.
So that’s how I flip the classroom. It takes a lot of time, a lot of prep-work. But I’ve found it is very successful for the students who really try. For the students who struggle, they are able to keep watching the videos and reading the book until they finally get what is going on—this versus us going really, really fast in class, where students are just copying what teachers are putting on the board.
Nolting: How does the math study skills evaluation help students?
Rineck: It helps the students because they get a report at the end of the evaluation that tells them where they have good study skills, and where they need some help. It identifies the chapters in the book, which they can go to to get the help they need. It also identifies some pretty good warning signs for me, so that if a student has consistent scores except for one, I can stop and talk to that student and say, “I am pretty concerned about your test-taking strategies. Let’s talk about this so that you understand how to prepare for a test, and let’s see if that helps you in the future.” Or, if it is their learning and memory scores, I can ask about what their challenges have been in the past, and figure out if there are things I can do to help them ensure success.
So the study skills assessment is something I really push students to do—actually it is one of the requirements for students to take the first exam. This way, I know where students are coming from, and they know where they are coming from and what they need to do to help themselves.
Nolting: It sounds like the evaluation pinpoints the areas students need help in. They learn some of those areas outside of the classroom, and you probably teach some of those areas within the classroom as well. But what I am picking up from you is that you are able to go up to a student and say, “Hey, it looks like you are good here, but you need help here.” That’s exactly what I wanted this evaluation to be—a math diagnostic. You can go right to the study skills—often just one or two areas—and fix those things so that students can be successful in math.
Rineck: Totally. It has been such a valuable tool for me to use. If the scores for a whole class are low in say test-taking strategies, then we can set aside time to talk about test-taking strategies. We can talk about what we can do to improve test-taking. If the scores are low in note-taking, then we can talk about note-taking.
I do have to tell you a little anecdote: One of my students from last spring came up to me. She was really excited at the beginning of the semester because I email students and call everybody, and before they come to class, they have to watch videos on the “growth mindset.”
When she came to class, she immediately said, “You get me!”
I said, “Thank you! I hope so!”
Then she started with the study skills book, and she comes in like two weeks later and she says, “You know…I’ve never taken notes in math class. I have taken notes in all my other classes, but never in math class. I started taking math notes like the way the book describes, and I’m really starting to get it!”
I looked at her and I said, “Huh! Do you think there is a correlation there?” And she laughed.
I don’t think students realize that there are specific things you have to do to be successful in math, and if you do them you can be successful.
Nolting: I have some instructors tell me that they don’t have time to teach study skills. It sounds like this student may not have passed your class without reading about them. What would you tell instructors who are reluctant to incorporate study skills into the classroom?
Rineck: In my experience, having taught a lot of things now, I’m starting to learn that if you go slow, you wind up going fast. Taking time at the beginning of the semester to teach study skills, to teach test-taking strategies, to teach how to reduce test anxiety, students build the base they need. I teach this material during the early part of the semester and by the second half of the semester, they actually start going faster because they have the tools they need to learn the material. So yeah, it does take time, but eventually, because they start doing what they are supposed to be doing, it takes less time in the end. You do actually make up the time.
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