At Parkland College, as at many other community colleges around the country, the number of incoming students who, after taking placement tests, are required to take developmental math courses, is "huge," said Geoffrey Griffiths, chair of Parkland's math department.
CHAMPAIGN — Solving and simplifying complex rational expressions and factoring higher-order polynomials are essential skills for students who will study calculus and go on to pursue a career in the STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — fields.
But for community college students who want to be auto mechanics or who plan to transfer to a university and major in English or psychology, it's likely they will struggle while taking — and often retaking — developmental math courses such as intermediate algebra.
"I can't look (an aspiring history major, for example) in the eye and say, 'you need to know this,'" said Parkland math Professor Brian Mercer of some of the more difficult algebra skills taught in courses.
At Parkland College, like many other community colleges around the country, the number of incoming students who, after taking placement tests, are required to take developmental math courses, is "huge," said Geoffrey Griffiths, chair of Parkland's math department. He estimated the figure at 60 percent to 70 percent.
Historically those students will have to take a sequence of classes, such as beginning and intermediate algebra, before they can continue on to transfer-level math courses that can be credited toward their program or major. Many of these students will retake a developmental math course several times before passing it, or they give up on completing their certificate or degree program, Griffiths said.
After considering several different approaches to this problem, Parkland College this fall will launch an alternative route to transfer-level math classes. There will be a new, separate track for students who don't plan on becoming accountants or engineers.
Parkland's move to the redesigned curriculum is part of a national push to create a new approach to teaching math to community college students. For example, the Carnegie Foundation has supported new math curricula called Statway and Quantway that aim to improve community college student retention and graduation rates.
"What this whole movement is about is getting people more appropriate material, but still at a pre-college level," Mercer said.
"It's a long overdue idea," he added.
Parkland math faculty examined the different models being used around the country and essentially decided to create their own.
And it does not involve the instructor lecturing in the front of the classroom and then asking students to tackle those equations on their own.
"The new route is very collaborative and problem-based," said Parkland math Professor Erin Wilding-Martin. Students work in teams and are led through topics, developing an understanding of the concepts as teachers walk around the class helping students one-on-one.
"The content itself is real-world relevant with applied topics. It's not, 'here's 10 equations'. They deal in real things, such as compound interest, that they will encounter in real life," she said.
Rather than focusing lots of time on procedures and the nuts and bolts of math, learning to do manipulation of symbols for higher mathematics, more time is spent interpreting what the results of those manipulations mean, Mercer said. That can include what he called consumer math, such as interpreting graphs. It's about spending less time on symbolism and notation and more about getting students to think critically and analyze situations in a mathematical way, he said.
As they developed the course materials, Griffiths said, they took out some content that mathematicians love, but non-math students find far-from-fascinating.
He insists the standards are not being lowered.
"Math lit is a rigorous, thorough math class," Griffiths said, but with "a different content and pedagogy."
The new course is not a college-level course, but it will be accepted as a prerequisite to college-level courses. For the new track, the college is offering Math Lit A and Math Lit B, which meet for eight weeks each, instead of the typical one semester. With both courses being offered in the first eight weeks and the last eight weeks of a semester, students could start again at midterm if they do not succeed. A student wouldn't lose an entire semester if he or she had to start over, Griffiths pointed out.
First-attempt success rates in recent pilot courses were 23 points higher than the traditional beginning and intermediate algebra sequence, according to Griffiths.
"It is still a hard class," added Wilding-Martin. In her courses, students spend a lot of time using Microsoft Excel to analyze information and how to solve problems for which there isn't a clean, clear answer, she said.
When she taught a pilot class last fall, the room was full students who likely would not go on to take college algebra classes. Many typically have been frustrated by math, she said. But this group engaged with the material.
"They really jumped in and grappled with the material. ...That's been exciting," she said. "It's not only a good thing for students, but rewarding from teaching side too," Wilding-Martin said.
As a result of creating two different tracks, Griffiths said, he expects the students in math courses will be more "uniformly capable." That will allow instructors in the STEM-track courses to add content and possibly move at an accelerated pace.
Looking ahead to when they roll out the redesigned curriculum, the faculty will be gathering and reviewing data on how the students seem to understand the math concepts as opposed to memorizing routine procedures and if they find the topics meaningful to their lives, Wilding-Martin said. They also will examine how the students go on to perform in college-level classes.