Moving Mountains: Creating a Pathway to Success in Mathematics


Mark Gruen, Associate Dean, STEM, Southern New Hampshire University

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For many students, mathematics can feel like an insurmountable mountain that stands between them and the career of their dreams. Several years ago, the mathematics team at Southern New Hampshire University started looking closely at the success of our students in their first math course, Calculus I. While success varied by degree, the two most striking findings were the high variability in performance during the early weeks of the course and, the area where students struggled the most, review of functions and trigonometry. Combining this data with information we had from our Advising staff, Admissions staff and student evaluations, the team made the decision to add two new courses to the STEM programs that required Calculus: MAT-136 Quantitative Analysis and MAT-140 Precalculus, no remedial math required.

These new courses addressed the challenge of preparation for Calculus, but they did not take into account the variability in student readiness. What we needed was a flexible entry point to accommodate the mathematical background of the student. To address this component, the team implemented a prior learning assessment (PLA) for both MAT-136 and MAT-140 using the ALEKS PPL system. This allowed students who were prepared to start in Precalculus or Calculus I to demonstrate their knowledge and earn credit to accelerate them toward their degree.

In order to collect data and measure the effectiveness of the accelerated pathway, we provided free access to ALEKS PPL for all students entering during the 2017-2018 year. Of the over 3,200 students who took the assessment during the pilot, 59% earned a score that would place them in Quantitative Analysis, 23% earned a score that would place them in Precalculus, and only 18% earned a score placing them in Calculus I . This confirmed our thinking that Calculus I was likely not the best fit for our learners’ first math course. This information from the pilot assessment provided data that supported our hypothesis that a pathway through the mathematics curriculum was both needed and necessary to support student learning.

Since this initiative was launched in 2017:

  • More than 1,000 students have earned credit for one or more math courses.
  • Over 1,500 courses have been waived, resulting in more than $1.8 million in tuition savings for students.
  • Student success in Calculus 1 (MAT-225) has consistently risen as enrollment in the course has grown.
  • Students who earned credit through the Pathways to Math Success assessment succeeded in MAT-225 at a rate of 83%.

Through this process of developing pathways for students through the traditional entry points of college mathematics, we realized that there was another group who would benefit from a similar pathway: students with prior knowledge in statistics. While not traditionally part of secondary mathematics education, some students come to SNHU with significant experience in this area through work or through coursework too old to transfer. For these students, we developed a statistics pathway utilizing ALEKS courseware that provides an opportunity to earn credit for MAT-133 Introduction to Statistical Analysis.

As the Pathways to Math Success initiative has grown, we have begun to ask ourselves more questions. How can we use a similar structure to support students in other disciplines, such as science or programming? Is there an opportunity in our graduate programs to provide similar pathways? Should all students take the assessment(s) in an effort to better support learning and teaching at the University? While these questions remain, we are confident that students in our undergraduate STEM programs are on the path to success in mathematics.

Mark and his team from Southern New Hampshire University are recipients of an OLC Effective Practice Award for this model.  They will be recognized at the OLC Awards and Leadership Ceremony and Reception at Accelerate 2019.  Effective Practice awards recognize programs and initiatives that support Learning, Faculty, Students, and provide both Scalability and Access so that others may integrate them into their own institutions.  You can read more about this Effective Practice here.

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