Doubling classroom time helps community college students overcome math hurdles
February 9, 2012 | By Susan Frey | 3 Comments
Note: This article was updated on Feb. 13, 2012 to clarify some aspects of the program.
If you’re having trouble with math, try spending twice as much time in class learning it.
That strategy plus intensive support from tutors and counselors inside and outside class are making a difference for students at De Anza Community College trying to overcome one of the major stumbling blocks to academic success.
An EdSource report released this week showed that large numbers of students taking college-level math courses required for an associate degree or transferring to UC and CSU failed to successfully complete those courses.
The classes in the Math Performance Success Program at the community college in Cupertino are at least double the length of the typical 50-minute course. De Anza’s approach is one of a number of strategies underway at some community colleges to help students who struggle with math, often with long-term implications for their futures.
Set off in a separate room in the corner of the bustling Math, Science & Technology Resource Center, the 12-year-old program has achieved a high success rate, according to college administrators. They say 85 percent of students pass Intermediate Algebra, which is required for an associate degree, compared with a 56-percent overall success rate for the course among De Anza students who don’t participate in the program. The program is a collaboration between Instruction and Student Services.
The program is open only to students who have a history of difficulties with math, said Barbara Illowsky, chairperson of the De Anza Mathematics Department and past president of the California Math Council Community Colleges, representing math instructors throughout the 112-college system. Students are not accepted unless they have failed or dropped out of a previous course, or say that they have high anxiety about math when they apply to the program.
Four classes—Pre-Algebra, Elementary Algebra, Intermediate Algebra, and Statistics & Probability—are offered through the program. The statistics course can be used as one of the courses needed to transfer to a UC or CSU campus, and is typically taken by students seeking degrees in humanities and social sciences. The De Anza program focuses on these students because administrators have found that students pursuing careers in science or engineering are less likely to have trouble with math.
“The most important thing about the program is that the instructors make you feel like you can learn it,” said Jackie Palon, 56, who has come back to college because she wants to switch from teaching English as a second language to becoming an elementary school teacher. She was brought up expecting math classes to be “a horrible experience,” she said.
“Now I feel like, OK, it’s hard but I can do it,” said Palon, who has earned straight A’s in the math classes she has taken at De Anza.
Both a tutor and counselor are in the classroom to provide assistance to the students and support the instructor, according to Melissa Aguilar, co-director of the Student Success Center. Typically, half of the class is spent in lecture and the other half with the students working together to solve problems, with the help of the instructor and tutor.
Many students in the program need the extra counseling help because they are struggling with personal challenges, such as high levels of math anxiety or a lack of self-confidence, said Herminio Hernando, who coordinates the program.
And many students say they struggled with math before coming to college, barely meeting high school graduation requirements.
Martin Finger, 29, who is considering a major in film and television production, was a special education student in elementary, middle, and high school.
“I would never even bother trying because I knew it really didn’t matter [to his teachers],” he said. “I was a special ed kid, and they would push me to the next grade anyway. They didn’t seem to care whether I learned anything or not. I had to start from scratch when I got here and was nervous about that.”
Finger did well enough on a placement test administered by the community college to be eligible to take Elementary Algebra, but soon fell behind. The instructor “gave me all these equations, and I didn’t know what to do with them. He said, ‘How come you don’t know how to do this? You shouldn’t be in my class.’”
Discouraged, Finger decided to go back to the basics. He found the initial courses easy to grasp, but was challenged by Intermediate Algebra, the next course in the sequence. “Instead of being taught one or two things each week, you were being taught like 10 different things each week. You have to kind of figure out how you throw it all together, and it gets confusing.”
Finger relied on the tutors in the Math Performance Success Program to help him make it through the course and the subsequent statistics course. He has been so successful that he is now himself a tutor in the program.
Mario Lemos, 25, who is majoring in kinesiology, communications, and counseling, had been out of school for several years and says he had even forgotten his multiplication tables by the time he enrolled at De Anza. But he says he likes to challenge himself, so he began in Pre-Algebra instead of Basic Math, using flash cards to relearn the times tables.
What he likes best about the tutors, he says, is that they give him another way to look at and solve problems.
Both Lemos and student Jackie Palon say they appreciate how the program instructors and tutors relate mathematical concepts to daily life.
Instructors will “start with games or they just use a quotation and ask, ‘How is that related to math?’ They make you think,” Palon said. “It’s not mechanical. It’s not just memorization.”
For a further explanation of the Math Performance Success Program, see a presentation by Barbara Illowsky, chairperson of the De Anza Mathematics Department and past president of the California Math Council Community Colleges.
For a statewide look at math performance in community colleges, see EdSource’s report, Passing When It Counts.