Students who enter a university unprepared for the rigors of college-level math have traditionally been placed into a remedial, semester-long course that usually repeated the math problems introduced in high school.
Sometimes a student would have to take multiple remedial courses before entering a credit-bearing math class, delaying graduation by a year or more and fueling their frustration.
Other times a student might choose to delay taking a remedial math course until senior year, where they might struggle with the concepts, repeat the course, get discouraged, and never finish their degree.
But no longer. UNLV has been working diligently and intelligently to fix what some call a “broken” system.
“With a remedial approach, students concentrate on what mistakes they’ve made in the past with little or no attention to what they are doing now and what they will be doing in the future,” said Bill Speer, director of the Math Learning Center. “What we’re offering with our preparatory math courses at the Math Learning Center is a bridge from where you are, mathematically, to where you need to be. Students work arm-in-arm in a collaborative effort with our professors in the spirit of getting prepared for what the student needs next to further their quest for a degree.”
The reimagined vision is reflected in the shift in approach to content from “remedial” to “preparatory.”
“Words do matter, and these two words have emotional baggage and impact to them that must not be ignored,” Speer said.
Joey Rizk, an incoming UNLV freshmen, agrees.
“We’re kind of taught as we grow up that remedial is kind of bad — that remedial classes are filled with people who have bad grades, and for people who are not very good at math,” said Rizk, who participated in the university’s Math Bridge program this summer. “If it’s called preparatory, it would make me feel that it’s prepping me for the math I need to go to, instead of, ‘I’m in this class because I’m dumb.’”
Speer tells his students that preparatory math is akin to coming across potholes while driving your car.
“With preparatory math we recognize that yes, you’ve hit some potholes in your mathematical background, and yes, we have to identify those holes and do some repair work,” Speer said. “But those are potholes we’ve already driven over. Let’s focus our attention most heavily on the road ahead of us, and knowing where you want to go, do what we can to ensure that there’s a clear pathway ahead. If we spend all of our time looking in the rearview mirror, we are certain to crash.”
This new vision, and new connotation, has propelled the Math Learning Center forward into making some changes in how math concepts are delivered to students. Prior to the establishment of the Math Learning Center, students who placed into remedial courses met for two days a week, for 15 weeks, and most of these students had to take two remedial courses before reaching college-level math.
“That meant that you could spend a full year of your academic life in non-credit, remedial experiences,” Speer said.
Now, students who are placed into intermediate algebra experience a seven-week, intensive, “preparatory” model, where students meet four days a week — and when they pass, they go on to their credit-bearing math courses the following semester. There are two different versions of the preparatory course — each one targeted to the specific concepts that students will encounter in their next, college-level course.
“The Math Learning Center, in concert with the math department, has done some incredible work with realigning the math pathways, because not every major requires the same math skills,” said Laurel Pritchard, vice provost of undergraduate education for UNLV.
In Fall 2018, the Math Learning Center saw a 78% pass rate — nearly double from the remedial math approach used prior to the establishment of the center.
“It’s proven to be really successful,” Speer said. “But there is always room for adjustment and improvement.”
And for those who do not pass the newly remodeled preparatory course, they can enroll in a follow up seven-week course in that same semester, which still gives them the chance to complete the full preparatory experience in one semester and stay on track for their degree progression.
“This revised preparatory course is still four days a week for seven weeks, but it’s more personalized,” he said. “You didn’t come out with a high enough score to pass the first class, but we can look at what you learned, and we can work on what you still need to learn. The absolute worst thing we could do is put you through the same exact class learning the same exact concepts, wistfully hoping that it would work out better without changing anything.”
The “revisited” preparatory class has had preliminary success — a 95% pass rate.
While these are positive indicators, Speer said the ultimate goal is to get UNLV students in and out of their respective gateway math courses within their first year, and with a passing grade.
Carryn Warren, an associate professor of mathematical sciences at UNLV, agrees.
“The whole goal is to give students what they need to be successful, whether it’s at the preparatory level, or at the college level,” she said. “The end goal is to prepare students for the world, for their major.”
With improving student success top of mind, Warren took a hard look at Math 120 — UNLV’s gateway, college-level math course that primarily serves liberal arts, fine arts and social science majors — and proposed sweeping changes.
“How could we reinvent the class and make it what the university, and students, needed it to be?” Warren asked.
She modified the course content and changed the structure of how the class is presented to include more collaboration among students. Students who take the course today will find that it’s based less on memorization and rote procedures — synonymous with secondary math instruction — and more on how math applies to everyday life.
“It’s math that makes sense in the real world, instead of math for math’s sake,” Warren said. “I believe it’s met with great success.”
She’s also collaborated with Speer on ensuring that the content from the university’s preparatory course is in sync with what students will find in Math 120.
From Spring 2017 to Spring 2019, the percentage of students who successfully completed the course grew from 62% to 80%.
“At UNLV, we’re doing some very creative things that other schools simply aren’t doing,” Speer said. “Our successes have been the focus of interest at several national and international meetings.”
The changes are not only happening on UNLV’s campus through programs like summer Math Bridge, the Math Learning Center, and redesigned course content in the university’s math department, but it’s happening in area high schools, too.
UNLV has been working with colleagues at the Clark County School District on the creation of a pilot program that brings the preparatory model into the 12th grade.
“If you’re a senior in high school, you’re preparing for something: life, career, four-year university, community college, military,” said Speer. “So how do we get you best prepared for any of those options?”
Through the pilot program, a small number of CCSD students who tested below the required ACT score for college-level math took part in a preparatory math class during their senior year. The class was initially piloted in only three high schools, but preliminary data showed strong results.
In the first year of the program, 81% of students improved their scores enough to qualify for a gateway math course.
“It was successful enough that CCSD decided to double the number of schools involved in the second year,” Speer said.
UNLV, too, is launching its own pilot program this fall, but it’s a slightly different take on the preparatory model.
It’s called co-requisite instruction, and the pilot is the result of a new policy passed by the state Board of Regents of the Nevada System of Higher Education earlier this summer.
Instead of revisiting math concepts, or providing “remediation” in one semester to prepare a student for what he or she will encounter in their college-level course the following semester, the full math experience is completed all at once. Students will revisit the math concepts they missed in prior years, alongside learning new concepts in their gateway course.
And professors will be there to provide the “just-in-time” support that the student needs. Advisers have been working to identify students that would be a good fit for the corequisite model, Speer said, which is being piloted in six sections this fall. Tutors on campus are also being prepared, said Michael Ramirez, coordinator of tutoring and supplemental instruction at the Academic Success Center.
“I think that the co-requisite model has a lot of potential,” Speer said. “We know that traditional remediation in Nevada has not worked. We’ve got to do something different. We’ve got to do something better, and that’s what we’re trying to do with all of these various efforts to help students succeed.”