Will I Use This Stuff in Real Life? Answering the Classic Question Through Assignments in an Online College Math Class

Concurrent Session 1
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Brief Abstract

Join us to see how we successfully revised an online math course for non-majors and how you can adapt this approach for your students. Revisions to adaptive learning content and assignments focused on developing real-life quantitative reasoning resulted in more engaging content, leading to improvements in submission rates/grades/pass rates.


Dr. Bhalla holds a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Virginia and has published and presented in the areas of spatial perception, body image, and the pedagogy of teaching and assessment, especially with regards to serving the non-traditional/post-traditional learner. She is active in the American Psychological Association's working group on Undergraduate Education in Psychology. For over two decades, she has served traditional and non-traditional students, both campus-based and online, in the capacity of faculty member, department chair, undergraduate dean, and vice-president of academic affairs. She currently serves as the Dean for General Education at American InterContinental University.
Dr. Kathleen Embry currently serves as the Online Program Chair for General Education at American InterContinental University. She holds a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education from Capella University and has presented and co-authored on the supervisory relationship with virtual faculty members. With more than 20 years’ experience in on-line and face-to-face higher education teaching and administration and an additional 15 years in marketing, management, and entrepreneurship, Dr. Embry brings a plethora of experience to her engagement with online faculty and students, and within the online classroom. Positions held in higher education include adjunct instructor, Program Chair, Dean of Design Studies, and Director of Education; with additional corporate experience in Regulatory Compliance.

Extended Abstract

This presentation will describe our successful efforts to revise an online math course for non-majors. Examining data from multiple sources pointed to a need for extensive course revisions: Low submission rates for problem sets as well as grades for all the various assignments (including adaptive learning content) indicated that students were both not engaging with the content, and not performing as well when they did. Student comments in end-of-course surveys and feedback to faculty showed that students felt the class was not really useful to them and was perceived as a required but difficult and uninteresting class. Hence, adaptive learning content, discussion board prompts and problems sets were revised to focus heavily on developing real-life quantitative literacy skills. Our goal in this presentation is to share how we sought to increase non-majors’ engagement in an online math class, and brainstorm collectively on how this approach may be adapted for other institutions and types of student served.

Our university was faced by the common issues that a lot of other institutions face with a college level math class offered fully online to non-majors. These included

  • how to teach math in a fully online format
  • students with varied levels of preparedness (typical of non-traditional, first time college students)
  • the long gaps for most students from when they took their last math class
  • students questioning whether they would ever use the content in the real world
  • students experiencing high math anxiety and apprehension at being required to take the course
  • students’ lack of engagement with the content
  • lack of assignment submissions
  • high failure and withdrawal rates, resulting in students repeating the class multiple times

At our institution, this class is a 100-level, basic college math class taught to non-Math majors. It is required in all undergraduate programs at our institution, counting towards our General Education requirements. It taps the General Education and Institutional Learning Outcomes of Quantitative Reasoning. While it is meant to prepare our students with the basic math skills to be successful in majors such as Business and Criminal Justice, its primary objective is to develop and hone basic quantitative literacy in all students.

Changes Implemented:

Given the issues we were facing, we decided that instead of continuing attempts to keep tweaking the existing course and existing content and assignments, a bigger change was needed:

  • We brought in an external team of subject matter experts (SMEs) with a mandate to design a college level math course for teaching and assessing basic quantitative reasoning. When the SMEs completed their recommendations for topics and course objectives, we found that these were largely the same as what we already had in place.
  • What we needed to change completely was how we approached the teaching and assessment of these objectives.
  • The revisions that commenced kept one major focus in all decisions: Make it relevant to our students’ lives and contexts. Every example had to apply to the daily realities of our students, such as managing a budget, juggling time and priorities between school and jobs, repaying student loans after graduation, etc. Hence, theoretical examples, or examples applicable only to traditional age students were ‘banned’. Wherever possible, practical topics such as those related to financial literacy were woven in.
  • We kept the traditional approach to with regards to a textbook and adaptive learning lessons (and a couple of end of unit quizzes) to ensure that students learned the fundamentals. But the language used in the adaptive learning content was also reframed to be less formal (non-textbookish) and non-threatening, as it would be if an instructor was explaining how to work on a problem during a tutorial. The weekly topic titles were also framed to be fun and catchy, so they were enticing (e.g. “Betting Your Bottom Dollar: Applications in Probability”).
  • In addition, given that this was a fully-online class, even with live video lectures and recorded mini-lessons from faculty, we had to ensure that the content taught via the adaptive learning platform was a good mix of text and videos, as well as sample problems and practice exercises. Using an adaptive learning platform also allowed a student to practice a concept as much as they needed to gain mastery while moving more swiftly through topics they could master more easily.
  • The layout of the course was redesigned so tests and assessments only commenced after the students had been allowed enough time to build a foundation, or refresh their knowledge.
  • In terms of the assignments, engagement with faculty and peers was encouraged through weekly graded discussion boards. These opened with a real-life hook, and tackled topics that asked students to reflect on the week’s topics as applied in real life. For example, analyzing a decision they had made in the last two weeks that involved risk for the unit on probability.
  • Graded problem sets used to be drills, asking students to solve endless word problems pretending to be application based, but still far removed from our students’ lives. These were changed to tasks which were grounded in real-life such as setting up and analyzing a monthly budget against the 50/30/20 rule. This gave students the opportunity to demonstrate their learning with very clearly applied and realistic problems. In addition, the topics targeted in these assignments sparked other conversations like living within a budget, etc.

The changes made were reviewed by faculty who teach the class regularly at our institution. The review committee also consisted of adjuncts who teach a similar course at other institutions to ensure we were calibrating the level and rigor of the course appropriately and not watering down the course while trying to make it more inviting and engaging. The review committee also ensured that the assignment instructions were clear and comprehensive, so students could complete them independently without follow-up explanations from the instructor (this was especially important because our students often work on assignments at the last minute, literally hours before the midnight deadline). They also made sure that wherever possible, we were teaching the basic math concepts in the context of real-life, interesting topics that would encourage students to learn the material, even master it and certainly attempt to complete the work.

Data and Results:

The new course has now run for three 10-week sessions, and the outcomes have been very rewarding and promising. Course level and session level data reveal that more students are submitting work, and the grades for work completed are better. This has resulted in pass rates improving by almost 20% (from 45-50% to 65-70%) as can be seen in the graph below depicting F/W rates comparing three sessions of data with the new content to the prior three sessions with the old content. This is the biggest shift we have seen in the last three years, attributable in large part to increased submission rates, but also in improved grades on individual assignments.

Figure: MATH125: Old versus New course F/W Rates

As more data is collected, we will examine individual elements of the course such as the adaptive learning content, the problem sets, quizzes, and discussion board prompts by each topic/unit to see which ones may need further adjustments.

Feedback from both faculty and students has also been very positive, as can be seen from the two samples below:

Student comment: Even as an adult, I never imagined how our entire universe, from nature, health, infrastructure, and even something as simple as an anthill, revolves around the measurement of numbers. I really enjoyed learning just how important numbers are incorporated into everyday life.

Faculty comment: I have just graded the budgeting assignment. I remember when our first project was painting the room and I used to receive many sarcastic comments like “who needs this” or “how is this going to help me”. Now, ALL analyses and feedback were positive and some students even go to the extent of speaking to their spouses about budgeting or wanting to share what they have learned to their friends and other family members. I have never been this excited in grading a project in a long time!

Session Focus and Goals

This presentation will highlight how a data driven approach to course revision can help guide decisions on course revisions. Presenters will share sample assignments, problem sets, and the presentation slides (including the data). The goal of the session will be for participants to come away with ideas for improvements they can implement at their institutions. Hence we will devote about half the time (about 25 minutes) to share our approach to the data collection and resulting revisions, and the rest of the time (about 20 minutes) to engage the audience so participants can:

  • Share the challenges they encounter with their online math courses
  • Describe what strategies they have adopted and how they have worked
  • Share best practices in both curriculum design and instruction of online math courses
  • Brainstorm how some of our strategies can be adopted at their institution