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Sept. 18, 2019

Mathematics department charts a new course for college algebra

More than 2,500 incoming Michigan State University freshmen interested in a STEM career have a new route to success, thanks to a team spearheaded by MSU math instructor, Jane Zimmerman, and associate professor of mathematics, Teena Gerhardt.

In the past, students with lower scores on their math placement test embarked on a non-credit-bearing pathway prior to enrolling in MTH103, or college algebra. Zimmerman and Gerhardt helped lead the effort to replace that course with a credit-bearing one they believe will result in increased student participation.

Alongside the semester-long MTH103, Zimmerman and Gerhardt created a new, two-semester course, MTH103A and 103B, to provide more time for students to master college algebra material.

Zimmerman was already piloting new ways to teach college algebra in the Dow STEM Scholars Program, an initiative funded by MSU and the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation to increase the number of students who graduate with degrees in STEM disciplines.

“The DOW program provided the opportunity to pilot new ideas on a smaller scale,” said Zimmerman, who has been working with DOW students for five years. “It would have been extremely difficult to implement these changes on a large scale without ironing out the wrinkles with a smaller number of students.”

Last fall, the team conducted a full-scale pilot with 600 students.

“Overall pass rates and exam scores show significant improvement with the new curriculum,” said Sue Allen, the course supervisor for incoming freshmen. “This new curriculum is more closely aligned to future math and science courses the students will take and provides them with a solid math foundation.”

Gerhardt, an experienced instructor who has taught everything from calculus to topology to software programming, helped fine tune the class Zimmerman created.

“We used a ‘backwards design’ approach, starting with concrete learning objectives and aligning the materials to match,” said Gerhardt, who also restructured the calculus class MTH103. “No available textbook aligned perfectly with the objectives we developed, so we merged materials from an open source college algebra textbook that was free for students with materials we created ourselves, specifically tailored to each learning objective.”

Built on a functions-based approach where mathematical functions are studied through equations, graphs, tables and real-world situations, the course is accessible to visual learners. The Standards- Based Grading system, or SBG, Zimmerman put in place for 103A and 103B, gives students a clear way to track their progress.

“We had a lot of IT and administrative support from the mathematics department in creating a gradebook for SBG, and that was huge,” said Zimmerman, who also utilized MSU’s HUB for Innovation in Learning and Technology to help implement their ideas.“The students appreciate multiple opportunities to show mastery, and we have seen definite signs of persistence in their learning — mastery levels tend to improve from quiz to final exam.”

“The changes are positive,” added Gerhardt. “Our preliminary data shows that more students are making it through the MTH103A and 103B pathway compared to the classic MTH103 curriculum.”

By: Val Osowski