Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Mod Squad at Pierce

Five members of the Pierce College math department--Cassie Cain, Sheri Lehavi, Brenda Rudin, Zhila Tabatabai, and Kathy Yoshiwara--are trying an experiment to improve student success in elementary algebra.

Five sections of elementary algebra, a total of 200 students, are involved.

The plan is based on the Emporium model ( ) developed at the Virginia Teach and implemented successfully at a variety of institutions nationwide, and specifically at Foothill College in Los Altos ( ).
The course is broken into small pieces, or modules, that students can cover at their own pace (with plenty of guidance and a detailed suggested schedule for successful completion in one semester.)

The modular format is designed for active learning. "Lectures…are replaced with an array of interactive materials and activities that move students from a passive note-taking role to an active-learning orientation." (NCAT) This format should also give students more control over the pace at which they cover the material, and encourage them to take more responsibility for their own learning. If students cannot finish the course in one semester, but do complete at least half the modules, they can opt for an Incomplete and continue the following semester.

Course Structure
The five members of the "Mod Squad" have organized the material into ten modules. A module consists of a pretest, four or five lessons with worksheets for in-class practice, a sample test, and a suggested schedule. There was an initial plan to have homework problems delivered and graded by computer, but that has not been implemented this semester.

Mod Squad members authored the modules, which students can purchase at the Bookstore at cost. Students will not need to purchase a separate textbook.

Study skills are incorporated into lessons as part of the course. The study skills activities are based on the lessons designed by the Mod Squad and already in use in Pierce College Learning Communities iand the ASAP (Algebra Success At Pierce, a 10-unit math + 1 unit study skills + 3-unit Personal Development) algebra course. We hope to be able to add a 1-unit study skills class to the Modular Math classes.

When students finish the assignments in the module, an instructor verifies that the portfolios are complete, and the students are given a ticket allowing them to take the in-class module test. These tests would require mastery at 85%. (The plan to have students take a qualifying sample test on the computer has been postponed.)

Students who do not pass the module test would be required to complete a second set of worksheets (and computer drill problems) before attempting the module test again.

Pierce does not have a testing center to accommodate self-paced courses. Instead, module tests are offered twice weekly, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with one or more of the modular classrooms used as the test room, and one of the modular team serving as proctor. All students who are eligible to take a module test would report to the test room and be given the appropriate module test. Tests are returned to the respective instructor of record for grading. Students who don't wish to take a test on that day report to one of the remaining classrooms for class as usual.

The course is team taught by the five instructors of the Mod Squad. Each instructor is responsible for the grading and record keeping for the students on her roster. However, all modular sections meet at the same time in adjacent rooms, and students may attend class in any of those rooms, depending on which module they are studying.

Class meetings concentrate on group work, practicing the skills on the modular worksheets. Instructors also offer short mini-lectures as needed. At least one classroom keeps to a schedule that allows students to finish the course in one semester, but others work at a pace to accommodate different students. Students working on the same module are formed into groups if they wish. The modular team instructors coordinate daily to plan scheduling and room allocation.

To facilitate active learning, there is a student tutor for each classroom. Tutors help instructors interact with students individually or in small groups and assist with organization and logistics, as students move from one setting to another. "Students need human contact…to assure them that they are on the right learning path. An expanded support system…is critical to persistence, learning, and satisfaction." Tutors are also crucial for checking the steady stream of worksheets and quizzes that provide students with immediate feedback. "Shifting the traditional assessment approach toward continuous assessment is an essential pedagogical strategy. … Low-stakes quizzes motivate students to keep on top of the course material, structure how they study, and encourage them to spend more time on task."

It is anticipated that many students will need more than one semester to be able to pass all the modules at the 85% proficiency level required. So students who have completed at least half the modules at the 85% level but do not complete the course in one semester will earn an "incomplete" grade in the course. They can pick up where they left off the following semester.

But in order to encourage reasonable progress, any student in the program who does not complete at least half of the modules in the first semester will earn a grade of F.

The modularized elementary algebra course serves as the elementary algebra component of our departmental MAP (Mediated Algebra Project, mentioned in the previous blog). We can monitor both courses via the common exam given to all Pierce College sections of elementary algebra and the common exam given to all Pierce College sections of intermediate algebra.

More on the MET, our common exams, in the future.

No comments: