Mallory Morast had a solid game plan for her pandemic-era career change. A nontraditional student, Morast had enjoyed the hospitality industry but was ready for a more stable and fulfilling career. She was drawn to social work with an aim to help incarcerated women and their children. But her enthusiasm didn’t make her biggest stumbling block — math — any less intimidating.
Morast, now 37, had bad memories of the subject from childhood and hadn’t been in a math class since getting her associate’s degree in criminal justice at College of Southern Nevada years ago.
In spring 2021, her advisor told her she needed college algebra (Math 124), an important prerequisite, but would need to pass the placement test to get into the course first. What’s more: she had a tight deadline. She’d have pass both the placement test and course over the summer, otherwise it could have a devastating domino effect on her fall enrollment.
Enter UNLV’s student support infrastructure, a team of tutors, faculty, and staff across multiple departments, and the Math Bridge program offered through the Academic Success Center.
Relationships Lead to Success
From establishing first-year seminars to expanding advising staffing, UNLV has undertaken a number of efforts in recent years aimed at bolstering student success, said Jeffrey M. Orgera, associate vice provost for student success within the office of the vice provost for undergraduate education. The push has aligned with a shift over the past few decades on college campuses from a “sink-or-swim” approach that places the responsibility for student success on the pupil alone to an approach that recognizes the many different stumbling blocks students may face.
Along the way, UNLV has made strides in establishing programs to help students like Morast, who are perfectly capable of succeeding, to do so with a bit of extra guidance.
“Student success is really about helping students build relationships with fellow students, with staff like advisers, and with their faculty members,” Orgera said, “and the more relationships they have, the more likely they are going to feel comfortable enough turning to one of those people when they’re at a crossroads.”
Students who do not have a support network or connections to faculty, staff, and peers on campus are more likely to take breaks from school that ultimately become permanent, he added. Such losses hurt those students and the university community, which flourishes when students succeed.
Through the Math Bridge program’s five-week online course, Morast was able to build her confidence. She played and replayed the recorded modules until she mastered specific skills. She received guidance from a fellow student who acted as a program facilitator, texting when she had questions. She also touched base with other students during the program’s Friday live sessions.
Morast came down to the wire to pass that placement test. “If it wasn’t for them and their support and just believing in me — that was the only reason I was able to pass (the placement test),” she said. “I was so afraid, so unsure of myself.”
She continued to tap into student support resources during summer session III and — much to her own surprise — got an A in Math 124. "I just can't tell you how good that felt," Morast said, tearing up. "I know now that I can handle any class challenge coming my way."
Tackling the Skills Gaps
Upon entrance and exit from Math Bridge, students’ math skills are assessed. The goal is to identify the areas students need to work on to place into the college-level math courses necessary for their degrees. Through intensive studying and tutoring, they can avoid taking developmental, noncredit courses, which can delay their progression toward a degree.
Last year, 89.9 percent of students in the Math Bridge program improved their assessment, said Dan Gianoutsos, senior associate dean at the Academic Success Center. Since the program started, 70% of students who completed the program successfully placed into a credit-bearing math course for their major. The program has been so successful that the center soon will be adding fall sessions.
In Math Bridge, as in other university programs, there’s emphasis on identifying specific student struggles and addressing them through collaboration, individualized solutions, community support and ongoing communication.
“They don’t feel like they’re on their own on this math journey,” Gianoutsos said. “They feel like they have this team and this support unit and that they have a clear path to get to where they need to be as well as all of the support to get through that path.”
Along with Math Bridge, Morast also has taken advantage of supplemental instruction and coaching workshops at the Academic Success Center. Toward the end of Math Bridge, Morast had improved significantly, but she was just short of placing into Math 124. But her Math Bridge instructors knew she was capable and, with an additional week of intensive tutoring, she tested into Math 124 just hours before the summer session III started.
Ko Yang, learning programs coordinator for the center, said programs like Math Bridge and tutoring exist to eliminate individual gaps in knowledge. Staff try to anticipate potential disparities that could exist and how to address them. For instance, a nontraditional student who has not been in a math class for years likely has different gaps than a first-year student who recently took a basic algebra course in high school.
The university has made special efforts to provide more of that type of individualized attention to students, including its effort to lower the ratio of advisors to students on campus. In 2020, there were nearly 500 students per advisor at UNLV. Now, that ratio is down to 384 students per advisor, which is close to the 350 student per advisor ratio that is considered in line with best practices nationally, Orgera said.
Morast said her educational experience at UNLV has been so full of support and personalized care from faculty and staff that she initially believed the university must be much smaller than it is. Now on her way to graduating, she’s mentoring other students herself as support staff for the College of Urban Affairs’ Urban Adventures class.
“I’ve never felt like I’m one of 30,000 people. My advisers email me back immediately. My professors email me back immediately,” she said. “My college career at UNLV has made me feel like I’m not just 1 out of 30,000 people. It’s felt very individualized, and it’s just been such a great experience.”
UNLV Student Success Initiatives
In fall, a university collaboration and an initiative of the Nevada System of Higher Education led to implementation of new “co-requisite” instructional programs for math and English. For years, students who required additional support to reach college-level math or English first took non-credit developmental classes to prepare.
“Students weren’t progressing through those developmental courses and (were) leaving the institution frustrated and feeling like they didn’t belong,” said Jeffrey M. Orgera, associate vice provost for student success within the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.
Now, students who may have previously been required to take multiple developmental courses can instead take the necessary college-level courses in their first year, paired with additional labs to support their success.
About two years ago, the university also created the first-year advisor position, a new type of academic advisor focused on incoming, first-year students. From the moment they register for orientation, students engage with the advisors to build their course schedules and explore opportunities for campus involvement, Orgera said.
There is at least one such advisor for each college, and this month UNLV hired Karen Volanti as executive director of the first-year success programs.
“The expertise of these advisors is knowing many of the opportunities and resources available for first-year students,” Orgera said. “Their job is to be an expert in the required courses for our degrees and deliver that information to students in a manner that is compelling and helps students see the bigger value of earning a degree. The first-year advisor also shares tailored opportunities for enrichment, connection and engagement at UNLV.”
“These students are not all 4.0 students,” Orgera said. “They are valuable as peer mentors because they have had to work hard, be resilient, and face challenges to reach their goals at UNLV. Students can learn even more from peer mentors who have faced adversity and through connections to resources found their rhythm. They serve as excellent role models and mentors for our incoming students.”