Math faculty examine numbers to improve student learning

About five years ago, professors in Iowa State's math department were tackling several challenges:

  • D-fail-drop (DFX) rates in precalculus were up to 65 percent
  • 30 to 45 percent of precalculus students passed
  • 60 percent of calculus students regularly attended class

Today, after some tweaking, collaboration and old-fashioned hard work, those less-than-enviable numbers have turned into points of pride for Iowa State's math department:

  • DFX rates in precalculus have dropped to about 25 percent
  • 75 to 80 percent of precalculus students pass
  • Up to 90 percent of calculus students (in team-based learning sections) regularly attend class

The problem

When associate professor of mathematics Tim McNicholl joined the ISU faculty in fall 2012, he was tasked with figuring out how to help more students pass precalculus. He and other faculty members worked to pinpoint the problem, which led to an interesting discovery: Of the 1,000 students enrolled in precalculus at the time, one-third were upper-level design and architecture majors who needed the class to satisfy a credit for their majors. The remaining students were freshmen science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors, who needed to pass the class to continue in their chosen fields.

"We were dealing with two very different populations," McNicholl said.

The solutions

Immediately, McNicholl and the other precalculus instructors made small, but not insignificant, changes to the class: better coordination between class sections, common assignments and exams, and less material.

"The DFX rate dropped to 35 percent that semester, just with those changes," McNicholl said.

Shortly thereafter, the math department dissolved the original precalculus class (Math 142) and created a calculus prep class for STEM majors (Math 143), and an applied trigonometry course for design and architecture students (Math 145). In addition, instructors implemented the Pathways to Calculus curriculum in Math 143, developed at Arizona State University after years of research into what students need to be successful in calculus and continue in advanced math courses.

All about the numbers

As part of the Pathways curriculum, ISU precalculus students take the Precalculus Concept Assessment test at the beginning and end of the semester to determine how they've progressed. Initially, most students score about 7 out of 25 points. By the end of the semester, those scores typically improve to about 14 out of 25. According to Pathways research, student success in calculus is indicated by a score of at least 13 out of 25.

"We have a shortage of STEM workers in the country, and the more people we get through precalculus and calculus, the more students we get through the STEM pipeline," McNicholl said.

On to calculus

Over the past few years, professor of mathematics Elgin Johnston and senior lecturer of mathematics Heather Bolles have transformed their calculus sections for greater student success using team-based learning (TBL).

What is TBL?

TBL is a form of active and small-group learning that can be implemented in a large classroom. It requires students to do assignments before class in order to inspire more engaging classroom discussions. During class, students work on significant team projects, applying calculus concepts. With support from a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant, Johnston and Bolles, with input from faculty in science and engineering, have spent years developing and refining their TBL materials. 

Johnston and Bolles assign their students readings, videos and a quiz prior to class. When class convenes, students work in their assigned groups of five to seven individuals, and take the quiz again.

"They almost always do better after the team quiz," Johnston said.             

Greater student success

Bolles said one of the positive outcomes of TBL is that more students physically come to class.

"We've had significantly higher attendance rates," Bolles said. "We had rates as low as 60 percent before the TBL implementation, and now we're at 85 to 90 percent."

Johnston attributes the increased participation to students feeling accountable to their teams.

"Some teams get very close by the end of the semester," he said.

Like McNicholl, Johnston and Bolles measure students' calculus knowledge at the beginning and end of the semester. What they've found is that the students in TBL sections score higher than students in non-TBL classes. In addition, TBL students earn higher scores, on average, on the departmental midterm and final exams.

"TBL lets students be actively engaged in the classroom, and their learning is better for it," Johnston said.