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Closing the Math Achievement Gap

In the spring of 2008, Dr. Maria Fernanda Botelho, a professor at the University of

Memphis, was determined to improve the success rate in her elementary calculus course, so she was open to trying new methods. “My observation was that by the third or fourth week I would have only 40 percent of the [enrolled] students left,” Botelho recalls.

So she began training on Pearson Education’s MyMathLab software after two other professors had begun using it in their classes at the university. During the summer session, Botelho incorporated the system into the syllabuses of her two general education elementary calculus classes.

Using the online technology, students are required to solve problems in a laboratory environment. An instructor-led lecture introduces basic concepts, and students spend the remaining class time solving MyMathLab problems using their laptops. The program provides feedback, grading and support resources including tutorials.

The results were immediately noticeable, Botelho says. “I saw attendance go from 40 percent to about 70 or 80 percent throughout the semester,” and she says, “that led to retention and, ultimately, to success in the course.”

Botelho’s experience was shared by others in the Memphis Mathematical Model, or MMM, the university’s MyMathLab-enabled program.

Dr. Tom Nenon, vice provost for assessment, institutional research and reporting, introduced MyMathLab to the UM campus in 2008, because “at the time we had a 46 percent success rate in lower division math courses.” Nenon says he wanted to explore different pedagogy and take advantage of some of the technological tools that were showing success elsewhere.

“Pearson’s is one of several good tools available, but it is a good tool,” he says.

The Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Memphis reported that an additional goal was achieved—a narrowing of the achievement gap between Black and White students. According to the study conducted by UM professors and titled “The Effectiveness of Blended Instruction in Postsecondary General Education Mathematics Courses,” which compared student performance before and after the program was initiated, “racial withdrawal rate disparities decreased with the use of MMM. In traditional elementary calculus, 22.4 percent of Black students dropped out compared with 15.4 percent of White students; in the MMM calculus courses, 6.8 percent of Blacks withdrew compared with 9 percent of Whites.”

The study further found that overall performance disparities between Black and White students were reduced in MMM-taught classes. For example, across all three regular courses, Black students passed at a rate of 39.9 percent when taught using traditional pedagogy compared with a rate of 56.2 percent when taught using MMM.

Greg Tobin, president of English, mathematics and student success at Pearson Education, says the overall response has been positive and that it has had a viral effect. “What happens typically is that, when the course is adopted by one professor, other professors quickly pick up on the benefits.”

However, he is aware that skeptics are concerned that introducing more computer-based technology to the classroom ultimately may lead to less interaction with the instructor.

“Sometimes we get a negative reaction from people who think we are trying to usurp the role of the teacher,” Tobin says. “It’s a misunderstanding if they think the software will take the place of the teacher; instead, it gives the teacher the opportunity to play a bigger role.”

Botelho agrees. “Now with [My-MathLab] the evaluator is the computer, so the students see me as someone who is not there to judge them but to help them. It allows me to become more of a mentor, and this component is very positive,” Botelho says. She adds that the automated grading system allows her to spend more time helping the students who need guidance—time that previously would have been spent on grading and paperwork.

The University of Memphis study also found:

• Of the study’s 11,970 enrolled students, 5,530 earned a passing grade, reflecting a combined 54 percent success rate for the three courses. Of the 11,970 enrollments, 1,596 withdrew from their courses.

• For every course, the withdrawal rate in the MMM classes was lower than that in the traditional classes. For example, 17.9 percent of students in traditional elementary calculus withdrew, whereas only 8.4 percent withdrew from the equivalent MMM courses.

• More students passed in MMM classes than in traditionally taught classes. For example, approximately 49 percent of students in traditional courses passed, whereas about 72 percent passed when exposed to the MMM teaching methodology.

Nenon says the overall success rate—with less than 50 percent of faculty employing the method—has risen from 46 to 64 percent.

• Overall favorable results included decreased dropout rates for students in college algebra, foundations of mathematics and elementary calculus courses.

Similar results have been reported at other institutions.

Tobin says data from the University of Alabama show a higher rate of increase in student performance where the cohort was African-American versus Caucasian.

“It’s a very gratifying result because we do want to make sure that students who may show patterns of frustration are able to succeed using these tools,” Tobin says.

Of course, not all students are fans of the program. Several blogs and social media pages are devoted to positive and negative commentary of the system. A blog called “Down With MyMathLab” provides angry users a forum to vent. But most negative comments are countered by favorable reviews similar to those on the MyMathLab site.

Pearson Education touts a case study of its MyMathLab software at the University of Idaho, which reported successful results when students were offered the choice of completing a traditional homework assignment or one through MyMathLab.

“Instructors soon realized that students who chose the MyMathLab option were better prepared for exams. In fall 2004, instructors tracked student success with both of the homework options and concluded that students who completed their homework with MyMathLab were far more successful in the course than students who chose the traditional homework option,” the case study states.

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