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Math makeover: Colleges swap lectures for active learning

Universities have struggled in recent years to keep up enrollment in introductory math classes, especially among students of color. A new national initiative is helping schools reshape their classrooms and hold on to prospective majors.

Lindsay Augustyn/University of Nebraska
Undergraduate learning assistant Meredith Hovis (c.), a secondary mathematics major, facilitates active learning and group discussions with students in a Math 101 course at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on March 2, 2016.

When Nathan Karas showed up to his first day of Intermediate Algebra at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the classroom didn’t quite look like what he expected.

For one, there weren’t any desks. Students collected around a handful of long tables. There also wasn’t a lecturing professor at the front of the room. Instead, an instructor and a learning assistant (LA) drifted throughout the class. And those other students Mr. Karas sat down with? They weren’t just his neighbors; they were his partners. Each table was expected to work, study, and take quizzes together, as a group.

UNL is part of an initiative that fosters active learning methods – such as those found in debate and collaborative problem-solving – in college math courses. The project, called Student Engagement in Mathematics through an Institutional Network for Active Learning (SEMINAL), was born out of a crisis in university math: Too many students, especially students of color, were either failing out or giving up. In 2012, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) sought to determine why. Their findings: the traditional math classroom dynamic – with a lecturing instructor and an emphasis on individual work – doesn’t appeal to a broad swath of learners.

Since then, academics across the country have been working to rethink what an accessible math class could look like.

“Those of us who have succeeded in mathematics know that you’ve got to take what’s in the book ... and really wrestle with it. Ask the what-if questions. Look at the hard problems,” says David Bressoud, professor of Mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and a SEMINAL advisor. “And that’s not how most students have learned how to study mathematics,” he says.

Active learning can have significant benefits for students, according to recent research. Those in active learning environments were about 33 percent less likely to fail in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses, according to 2014 research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

But for cash-strapped schools, implementing these practices can be seen as prohibitively expensive. And that’s where SEMINAL comes in. Kickstarted by a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the program has provided funding and best practices training across the country. The Association for Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) oversees SEMINAL and launched the initiative with three universities – including UNL – in 2016. In February, nine additional schools joined the effort.

More attention in class

In Nebraska, Karas had always been interested in math, but he had a difficult time in high school and struggled with courses that felt like they sped through a crowded curriculum.

“I was just trying to get a C at least, just to graduate. I never felt like I could totally demonstrate my actual curiosity because the pressure and the feeling of being left behind was overriding that ability to feel accomplishment,” he says.

But in Intermediate Algebra, Karas thrived on the close connection to his professor and LA during class, and became a leader within his study group. The transition wasn’t always easy. If someone in his group didn’t show up, he and his peers had to work doubly hard to finish projects. But the intimacy of the class also meant that Karas felt seen in a way he hadn’t before. “You get paid much more attention to in this type of class,” he says.

Pass rates for the algebra class Karas took have increased from about 60 percent to about 80 percent since 2016, according to Wendy Smith, the associate director of the Center for Science, Mathematics & Computer Education at UNL and a SEMINAL coordinator. And now the program is becoming more intentional about where it concentrates its efforts.

An option for vulnerable students

The effects of active learning are most pronounced among students who are vulnerable to failing out, according to a 2014 study in the journal Innovative Higher Education. And that figure is especially important for students from underrepresented groups, particularly students of color.

Only 48 percent of students from a racial minority at the University of California-Los Angeles continued studying STEM courses through their senior year of college, compared with 74 percent of white students, according to a 2017 study from the university’s Higher Education Research Institute. White students from well-resourced backgrounds are far more likely to excel in a traditional lecture-driven environment, says Dr. Bressoud, because they’re equipped with greater literacy and confidence in math. And for prospective STEM professionals of color, he notes, seeing fields that lack racial representation can be a strong deterrent in itself.

SEMINAL’s nine new institutions represent a response to that unequal dynamic, says Howard Gobstein, the executive vice president of the APLU. The list includes California State Universities at Fullerton and East Bay, which both serve largely Latino populations, and Morgan State University, a historically black university in Baltimore.

“We didn't choose just all the most research-intensive, largest institutions.... We wanted to make sure that we were also selecting leadership institutions across various categories,” he says.

Faculty skepticism

When SEMINAL’s three core universities first began the program, the schools strategized on how to win over support from students, says Dr. Smith. But the biggest source of resistance actually came from faculties.

When Ricardo Carretero, a professor of mathematics at San Diego State University – another of the project’s founding institutions – learned about SEMINAL, he wasn’t convinced it would work. Facilitating active learning takes much more time than preparing lectures, he says.

“I didn't know about active learning the first time it was presented to me. I thought, ‘Well this is just nonsense, I just need to deliver a good class and with a good class I should be able to get the students to understand,’ ” he says.

But slowly Dr. Carretero began seeing a change in his students’ demeanors. They spoke up more frequently, became more creative with their approaches to solutions, and started to do better on quizzes. According to data provided by Carretero, average test scores in the active learning Calculus II course increased from 49.4 percent to 66.9 percent, from the fall of 2015 to the fall of 2017. Over the same time period, the rate of students earning lower than a C in the course dropped from 43.9 percent to 26.7 percent.

“Little by little I'm realizing how important it is in getting students motivated and engaged instead of being passive,” he says.

For Karas, who passed his Intermediate Algebra course and is now enrolled in College Algebra and Trigonometry, another active learning course, the effects of the program have been profound. Karas doesn’t know what he wants to major in, but he plans to continue on in the department. His success has opened a whole world of curiosity.

“It’s the difference between looking up at the top of a skyscraper and feeling the world from being at the top of that same skyscraper,” he says. “There’s so much more that is visible, there's so much more to think through.”

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