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
Academic Success Press is proud to present the third and final segment of Dr. Nolting's interview with Jane Tanner, president of AMATYC. Here they discuss active learning, motivation, placement exams, and study skills. Enjoy!
Nolting: Earlier we talked a little bit about the “active learning process.” What role does active learning play in new math redesigns?
Tanner: It involves a lot of group work—actually meeting and discussing and picking each other’s brains—rather than a teacher walking up to the board, putting a problem down, and then saying “alright, everyone try another problem just like this” then “alright what did you get for an answer.” [This old method] loses people. In active learning, the teacher can actually move around the room, make sure that students are all working towards the problem, and ask thought-provoking questions.
Nolting: It sounds like this calls more on cognitive and modality styles…
Tanner: Exactly. What we are trying to do is address issues that are barriers to success. Active learning might be the way to go.
Nolting: Many math redesigns haven’t addressed the true roots of some students’ problems. Many of them have been underserved since elementary school. Some come to college drastically underprepared, others well prepared. How can colleges make up for this difference?
Tanner: That is a hard question. I attended the International Congress on Mathematical Learning this summer in Germany, and one of the last sessions boiled down to, and I am sure you have heard this, that college teachers blame a lack of preparation on high school teachers, the high school teachers blame middle school teachers, middle school teachers blame it on the elementary teachers, and the elementary teachers blame it on parents.
I don’t want to answer that way: but we do need to address that somewhere along the line students aren’t being turned on to mathematics. That means that they are more likely to not listen, to not prepare, to struggle. What can be done? Well, there are summer bridge programs, for one. These are programs—which might be for economically disadvantaged students—that give students more of a chance, sometimes by including study skills as well as math skills. This gets [math] back into their memory, as they have now tackled it more recently [before beginning their first college semester].
But that is another big problem: not all states require four years of high school mathematics. If you don’t like the math, and you only need three years, what do you decide to do in your fourth year? You don’t take it. Then you come into college and you need math. So where do you place? Developmental math. Students should take some sort of math course during their senior year of high school. That would really help. Also, colleges need to have some sort of placement exam or something else to identify when students are struggling and to get them into the right courses. I know representatives from my college worked with you [Dr. Nolting] at the first math summit. We ended up having a college skills course using one of your books. I think they ultimately wound up teaching those skills and strategies in each of the individual developmental classes. Also, if you try different pathways, and if you can get students through an algebra course and into something more interesting, they care more about the stuff that they will actually use in their careers.
In my presentation in Germany, I had a slide, which was taken from a local newspaper from January , which stated that only 40 percent of students who graduate from high school in New York State were ready for college. This was a statistic released by the New York State Department of Education. [The researchers] featured an aspirational number, which meant that if your students scored at least a 75 on an English regent exam and 80 on a math regent exam, you were considered ready for college. Only 40 percent in New York were considered ready. Research from April 2016, suggests that only a third of U.S. high school students are ready for college-level math coursework and reading. The performance of the highest achieving students is improving, but the lowest achieving students are performing worse than ever. It is definitely a problem.
Nolting: Some states no longer require any placement tests in math, English, or reading. What are your thoughts on that?
Tanner: We had a mix up about a year ago, when we changed our instrument [of placement], and we had to create something like 26 sections of our basic math class based on this placement exam. We had to scramble to find enough teachers to teach the courses. We now only use a placement exam if a student has been out of high school, or if they transferred in from another college. At a department meeting, it was reported that this seems to be working—students seem to be getting into the correct class.
Nolting: Also, math departments work closely with learning resource centers and math labs. What role do they play in helping unprepared students?
Tanner: The math lab we use, generally students go to it to get help on problems from the classes in which they are currently enrolled. I don’t think this involves working on other skills. But we do have something else called a diagnostic center. If you take a placement exam or you don’t like your placement, you can go to the diagnostic center and they will give you additional testing and give you packets to work on so that you could get through a beginning algebra class or even an intermediate algebra class through diagnostics and not have to take it as a course. If you do this during the summer, the diagnostic center can give you some work to do, and you have to pass a final exam, but this could save you from having to take a semester course.
Nolting: Despite research to the contrary, an assumption still exists that students are locked into certain behaviors—one is the type of student that one is and nothing can change this. I bring this up because in the past I know we have talked about how to determine how motivated students are. Some people assume that students are inherently motivated or unmotivated. Students often buy into this philosophy, especially when they think they aren’t good at math. What role do you think motivation plays in college mathematics, and how can you convince students to prioritize math?
Tanner: I think there are two types of students: students who come out of high school and nontraditional students. I think nontraditional students have gone through so much to come back to college.
I really like working with mature female students who have been told in the past that they aren’t good at math and at some point started to believe it. They get to me five, ten, fifteen years after high school. When I still taught in the classroom, [some of these students] would come up to me and say, “Oh my God, I never understood this before, but with you I understand it. I wish I had had you in high school, you are such a great teacher.” When this happened, I would say, “Yes, thank you. I am a good teacher, but I can’t take all the credit.” These students are older now, they have goals. They see what they want to do. They more than likely have children, and they don’t want to let them down. They want to show them that they are worthy of an education, that they can accomplish goals too. It means a lot to them now, while it didn’t mean much fifteen years ago.
I think that motivation is there [for these students], and we need to figure out a way to motivate our students who are coming right out of high school in the same manner. They haven’t lived live life like nontraditional students. They come to college with the same bad habits they had in high school. If they didn’t do their homework in high school, then they aren’t going to do it in college. We need to get them motivated, so that they can become successful.
Some of these new courses we are working on, in terms of Pathways and emporium model, may just do that. Certainly study skills play a role in this. Again, if they didn’t know how to study in high school, they won’t know how to study in college. They need to be taught how to learn math if they don’t know how to do it.
Nolting: Right. As you said earlier, the answer might be to add study skills directly into math courses. Research has shown that dedicated study skills courses do improve success rates of students—but it is hard to get students into these courses.
Tanner: Right. We used to have an hour long workshop on math anxiety—a word you don’t hear too much anymore—and I’m not sure how many people ever took it. But I do believe that you need to put study skills into these courses, because students need to know how to study. Tell them what worked for you in school. Or let your class work out what works for them. Maybe it doesn’t necessarily have to come from teachers, but rather from their peers.
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