Virginia is implementing a new approach to math instruction that offers possible lessons for California, where large numbers of students arrive without the preparation needed to take courses they can use to transfer to a four-year college.
During the coming academic year, all 23 colleges in the Virginia Community College System will tackle the challenge of getting students up to speed in math more quickly, as described by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The goal in Virginia will be for liberal arts students and those on a technical career path to complete any extra math preparation they might need—often called developmental math—in a single semester. Students in fields requiring more math background before enrolling in college-level courses will be expected to do so in a single year. To do this:
- Colleges will offer a sequence of math courses in the form of nine one-unit modules rather than semester-length courses. The modules will focus on math content ranging from fractions to quadratic equations.
- Students will take only those modules that focus on math content they still need to learn. This is in contrast to traditional math courses, in which students typically spend a full semester even if it includes some material they already know.
- Students will take only those modules required for a particular course of study. Liberal arts students who need extra help will only be required to fulfill the first five modules. Science, engineering, math, and business administration students will be required to fulfill all nine. And the requirements for career-technical students will vary by program. Students will take extra modules, if needed, only if they change their program of study.
The approach is significantly different from how community colleges typically tackle the problem. Colleges usually place unprepared students in a sequence of semester-length math courses, after assessing students to determine where in the sequence they should start.
In California, these sequences generally have three or four levels such as Arithmetic, Pre-Algebra, Elementary Algebra, and Intermediate Algebra. California students must complete Intermediate Algebra to get an associate degree and to qualify for higher-level math courses they can count toward transfer to the California State University or the University of California.
But these sequences have a downside: the more levels students must complete before taking a math course that counts toward an associate’s degree or for transfer to UC or CSU, the longer it will take them to get there—and the smaller their chances of ever doing so. For example, a recent EdSource study found that only 16% of first-time students in California who started in Pre-Algebra later completed a course beyond Intermediate Algebra.
In an August 2010 report, the Virginia system’s Developmental Mathematics Redesign Team argues that “[s]imply tweaking what is in place is not enough” to address the problem.
Instead, Virginia’s redesign suggests the following:
- Semester-length courses need not be the standard method for providing math instruction leading to college-level courses.
- Students spend no more than a single year in these more basic courses.
- Colleges should focus on helping students build the math skills and knowledge they need to pursue a particular program of study, not recreate a course sequence similar to what students may have taken in the middle grades or high school.
The Virginia and California systems differ in important ways, including the fact that the highly decentralized California system has nearly five times as many colleges. But the Virginia redesign team’s August 2010 report and subsequent 2011 curriculum guide are worth a close look for the guideposts they could provide for California’s vast community college system.
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