New statistics course aims to accelerate college students' path to success

April 2, 2012
Photo by 'arjin j'

Photo by 'arjin j'

Some California colleges are helping struggling math students complete all the math they need in a single yearlong course, instead of requiring them to take the usual sequence of courses that can take years to complete and that many never finish.

First offered during the current academic year, the course is called Statway — short for Statistics Pathway — and is aimed at students who are not ready for college-level math.

So far, five community colleges and three CSU campuses are participating in this national initiative, which is being developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, located in the foothills above Stanford University. Statway wraps the usual two-course sequence of elementary and intermediate algebra into a year-long statistics course.

The Statway project is part of a $13 million initiative that has attracted support from a number of foundations including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Community college students majoring in the humanities or social sciences must pass intermediate algebra to earn an associate degree and a college-level math course — typically statistics — for transfer credit to California State University. The Statway course satisfies both those requirements and, for many CSU students, will also be the only course they will need to meet the math requirement for a B.A. degree.

The course is tackling what has become a major obstacle for many students: getting stuck in the standard course progression from elementary algebra to intermediate algebra to a college-level course, such as statistics. An EdSource analysis of data from the state’s 112 community colleges found that only 55 percent of students who enrolled in a math course that they could apply toward an associate degree or use to transfer passed it during the fall 2010 term.

Particularly in intermediate algebra, students often get bogged down in formulas and calculations that seem to have little relevance to their lives, according to a number of community college math instructors, including Michelle Brock, who teaches in the Statway program at American River College in Sacramento.

Educators are finding that using statistics to solve real-world problems is a better way to engage students, said Karon Klipple, director of the Statway program at the Carnegie Foundation. In the Statway course, students delve into algebra only as much as they need to in order to understand the statistics they are learning. Because the course takes a year instead of the usual semester, students have more time to master the material and apply it to their own lives.

“In a sense what we’re saying is pretty radical,” Klipple said. “We think it would serve these students better and society better if they had a really strong grasp of statistics and quantitative reasoning so they can be better informed and make better decisions in their lives.”

Klipple says students work on issues such as global warming or determining whether more men or women text while driving. (It’s men.)

Although most community college educators agree that new approaches are needed to help students understand and pass intermediate algebra, not everyone in the mathematics community is wholeheartedly embracing the Statway approach.

Wade Ellis, Jr., is a retired math instructor from West Valley Community College in Saratoga, near San Jose, and currently consults on mathematical instruction. He has expressed some concerns that the Statway approach “may not provide the algebraic skills necessary for a thorough understanding of an elementary statistics course.” Ellis said he is withholding judgment until he sees how well students who have taken the course do in their further studies that require statistics. The Statway course may prove “to actually be better,” he said.

The faculty and administrators involved in the Statway program, offered in California and four other states, have collaborated on developing a common curriculum. No matter where the program is located, students follow the same curriculum and take the same final exam.

The course consists of 80-minute classes, four days a week. Despite its rigor, 84% of those who signed up last fall were still enrolled at the beginning of the second semester, Klipple said. And 75% had earned passing grades.

“This is hugely exciting,” she said. “These are elementary algebra students, and they have just finished the first half of a college-level course.”

Statway instructor Michelle Brock says that the course helps students develop their critical thinking abilities. “Statistics is about how to use the numbers,” she said, not just plugging the numbers into a formula to get an answer.

Many of her students, Brock said, “would have given up on finishing college, on making plans beyond college because they would have gotten stuck in the math.”

One of those students in Brock’s class is Tina Banks, 39, who graduated with an associate degree in 2006 before intermediate algebra was a required course. Now she wants to transfer to a four-year university, and needs more math to do so. But she has tried six times unsuccessfully to pass intermediate algebra, and, she notes, “I’m not getting any younger.”

She is now halfway through the Statway class, and has earned a B+ grade. Based on her success so far, she has been accepted at four CSU campuses where she hopes to pursue a degree in creative writing.

Banks said the Statway course worked for her for a number of reasons. For one, Michelle Brock, the instructor, “from the very start debunked a lot of preconceived ideas about math — about there being ‘math people’ and ‘not math people.’”

“That was brilliant,” Banks said. “Nobody addresses that in math class.”

Students say that having the class every day, instead of every other day like many college classes, reinforces students’ understanding of the curriculum. And they like that the homework consists of online exercises that give them immediate feedback.

Another plus, Banks said, is the camaraderie that has built up in the class because students work together in groups.  “It’s not so isolating,” she said. “If I feel I don’t know something, I have three other people I can ask. We get comfortable with each other so I don’t feel ashamed if I don’t understand everything.”

Three more community colleges and three more CSU campuses are expected to offer the Statway course in 2012–13 or soon after.

California colleges and universities participating in the Statway initiative: 

American River College in Sacramento
Foothill College in Los Altos
Pierce College in Los Angeles
Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut (near Los Angeles)
San Diego City College

CSU Northridge
Sacramento State University
San Jose State University

California community colleges and universities that are in the planning stages for implementation:

Cosumnes River College in Sacramento
De  Anza College in Cupertino
Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill

California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
CSU East Bay
San Francisco State University

To find out about EdSource’s upcoming symposium “Striving For Success in a Time of Crisis:  Strategies for Children, Families and Communities,” click here.

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