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Changing developmental ed at the classroom level

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​Paul Nolting has tracked an interesting trend when it comes to students learning developmental math: The more you take the same algebra class, the less chance you have to pass it.

Nolting, a learning specialist who is also an enrollment services advisor at the State College of Florida's Manatee-Sarasota Campus, has studied development math success rates of students at Valencia Community College and noticed that, on average, some 50 percent passed on the first try, but the number dropped to roughly 30 percent on second attempt and an additional 25 percent on a third time.

 
“What that means is that if you use the same instructional style on students for whom it didn’t work the first time, you are more than likely going to get the same results and even worse the second and third time you try,” Nolting says.
 
But Nolting, author of Winning at Math: Your Guide to Learning Mathematics Through Successful Study Skills, believes that community college developmental math programs, in order to be successful, should take note of past instructional failures and learn from them. And that means being innovative in the classroom.
 
“You have to try and get your students the first time out with the standard instructional design that most math instructors use,” he says. “But if that doesn’t work, you have to be willing to try alternatives, like putting more study skills in the classroom, using a lot of worksheets and emphasizing group work.”
 
The latter innovation has proven especially effective, Nolting says, explaining that there is camaraderie among people who are not doing well in a particular subject.

“Everyone is in the same boat, and no one is rolling their eyes or accusing someone of asking a stupid question,” Nolting says.
 
Jane Serbousek, an assistant professor of mathematics at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC), has approached the same challenge from a slightly different perspective.
 
“We decided to take a look at—based upon their majors—how much math a student really needs and how we can give them that, while also accelerating their progression through the developmental to the credit classes,” she says. "We are in the process of redesigning the developmental math curriculum and looking at models from the National Center for Academic Transformation, AMATYC's New Life and the Carnegie Foundation's alternate math pathways."
 
Serbousek has also tried to deliver the kind of instruction she thinks her students most need, not what tradition might demand, and places great stock in what the students say.
 
“In our first year in the Achieving the Dream initiative, we had one focus group study where the students told us that they did not think they were ready for college—they didn't know how to study or manage their time, and didn't know where the resources were,” she says.
 
The responses indicated to Serbousek that the problems faced by developmental students had just as much to do with their study skills as their test scores. NVCC links some basic algebra classes with a student developmental course emphasizing math study skills using Nolting’s Winning at Math as the textbook as one intervention to address the issue.
 
Such understanding is essential to building the confidence needed for eventual student success, says Michelle Zollars, an associate professor of developmental English at Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) in Virginia.
 
“Sometimes some of these students feel a little bit down on themselves for having to take developmental courses,” she says.
 
 But there is a thread connecting both 18-year-old freshmen as well as baby boomer students in their 50s and older, Zollars says.
 
“When we have students coming in who have been out of school for 30 or 40 years, but haven't done algebra or written a paper in that time period, it is pretty likely that they have simply forgotten how to do certain things,” she says.
 
The same holds true for PHCC’s youngest students: “Many of them stopped taking math in the 10th grade, so it’s been a while since they have tried to apply those skills.”
 
Nolting, who serves as a consultant for various community college remedial and developmental programs, says such new approaches to learning must naturally remain centered on students. They can also serve as a valuable learning experience for the instructors, he says.
 
“There are many instructors today across the country who are honing their skills at the exact same time that they are also developing strategies for the students to become better learners,” Nolting says. “And that's a good thing.”
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