It’s a fact as plain as 2+2=4:
For many students, college algebra – or a remedial math class they may need before starting college algebra – is a barrier toward getting their college degree.
“There’s a view that persists that math is hard,” said Lori Winningham, vice president of academics at Butler Community College. “People don’t like it. Some believe they can’t do it … and if they get frustrated, they give up.
“We wanted to improve student success in our math classes and also increase the number of students getting degrees.”
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Beginning this fall, Butler will revolutionize the way it teaches math, offering college algebra and three other courses in five-week chunks, or “modules,” rather than the traditional semester-long format.
The modular courses – pre-algebra, fundamentals of algebra, intermediate algebra and college algebra – each will be divided into three five-week modules. Once a student completes all three modules of intermediate or college algebra, he or she will receive three hours credit for the course.
Students who have trouble completing any module can repeat it during the next five-week period rather than having to wait until the following semester, saving time and money.
“Many students are comfortable with the first chapter or so of content but then get bored and check out,” said Bethany Chandler, a math professor at Butler who helped develop the new modular format.
“Studies show that too few students who start in developmental math courses will persist to college algebra,” she said. “The majority of students who disappear from the (math) sequence are dropping out without completing the course.”
About 50 percent of students don’t pass college algebra with a grade of C or above, as noted in a recent report from the Mathematical Association of America. The report called Americans’ struggle with math “the most significant barrier” to finishing a post-secondary degree, and it urged universities to update curricula and explore new ways to teach math.
National data also shows that almost 60 percent of students entering a community college must take a fundamental class. Often that class is a math class.
Winningham, a former math professor and dean, challenged Butler’s math faculty to devise strategies to help students be more successful in math. Their response was to break the classes up into smaller components, which students may find less intimidating and more convenient.
The new modular format also will allow Butler to place students more precisely where they should be, she said.
“They will get credit for what they know” on the college’s placement test, Winningham said. “And then they take only the slices they need.”
The new format – which is classroom-based, not lab or web-based – is the first of its kind in the region.
Developing it was a “several years” process, Chandler said. One of the biggest challenges was scheduling, because the university will offer every module every five weeks at its El Dorado campus.
Intermediate algebra and college algebra also will continue to be offered in the traditional three-credit-hour, semester-long format.
Another change: Instructors will be required to submit final grades more quickly and more often.
“It’s a huge shift in how we’ve done things, so it’s just a matter of getting everyone to understand how the process works,” Chandler said.
The college also is trying to get the word out to current and prospective students. Many have said they like the concept, Winningham said.
“I was so very, very proud of the math department at Butler,” she said. “They looked at the data, looked at what the current curriculum was, and we wiped the slate clean and started from scratch.
“They have really, really thought outside the box.”