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V6I3: Early Math Reforms as a Cornerstone for Student Success (and Student Success as the Foundation for Early Math Reforms) at Boise State University

Jim Munger, Special Assistant to the Provost

Gary Hagerty, Retired Director of the Math Learning Center

Tom Bailey, Interim Director of the Math Learning Center

Zeynep Hansen, Vice Provost for Academic Planning and Institutional Effectiveness

Susan Shadle, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies

From left: Marlene Tromp, NWCCU Board of Commissioners; Zeynep Hansen, Vice Provost for Academic Planning and Institutional Effectiveness, Boise State University; Gary Hagerty, Retired Director of the Math Learning Center, Boise State University

In 2005, Boise State faced unacceptably low retention and graduation rates; e.g., the Fall 2005 cohort’s first-year retention was 62.7%, 4-year graduation rate was 8.2%, and 6-year graduation rate was 29.2%. Median rates for our peers for the same cohort were at least 7 percentage points higher.  In response, a Freshman Success Task Force was created. The Task Force identified early academic success, quantified as first semester GPA, as the best predictor of first-year retention. And a key contributor to poor early academic success was poor performance in early math. The first three courses in the algebra sequence, (Elementary, Intermediate, and College Algebra) had pass rates of only 40%, 38%, and 47%, respectively. Those low rates had a high impact because nearly half of  incoming first-time full-time freshmen took one of those courses in their first semester; the impact was even greater for underrepresented minority students. 

In response, Boise State’s Math Learning Center (MLC) was given the charge to remedy the situation, and during the next nearly two decades implemented a number of changes under the leadership of its director, Dr. Gary Hagerty.  Five innovations are key in the MLC’s work. The first is based on the belief that success in math classes requires not only successful math content delivery; it also requires self-efficacy: students must believe that they can be successful in mathematics. Therefore, self-efficacy is a focus, especially at the “elementary algebra” level, where poor perception of ability in math is more prevalent. Building self-efficacy begins with mastery experiences using ALEKS software: students progress when they “master” a concept but are not penalized, grade-wise, if they take several tries to get to the correct answer. Students learn that long-term success often involves incorrect answers in the short term.  

The second innovation utilizes the ability of ALEKS software to enable students to proceed at an individually-appropriate pace and to do so in a system that maintains contact with the instructor and structures student time to develop math skills and the academic skills required for the university setting. ALEKS enables struggling students to take the time necessary to master the material whereas students who can progress rapidly are able to do so and may even be able to jump to the next highest course at no additional cost (we call this “adaptive placement”). The flexibility of ALEKS also enables what we call “accelerated placement” based on a “zero-credit corequisite:” the top 50% of students who previously would have placed at the “elementary algebra” level are now placed at the “intermediate” level, and are given the support needed to be successful.  

The third innovation is that the MLC has its own student success advisor, who identifies (via ALEKS) students who are struggling, then alerts instructors to encourage students to get back on track. The advisor contacts those who continue to struggle and works with them throughout the semester to develop a plan for success. The advisor also works with students in all MLC classes needing test extensions (e.g., because of illness) and administers early final exams so students can immediately move to the next class.  

The fourth innovation is that the MLC promotes overall academic success, and, in particular, helps instill in students the academic skills that will aid in the successful transition from a high school student mentality to a college student mentality where self motivation, time management, individual accountability, etc., are necessary. Out-of-class time on ALEKS is required and monitored, thereby promoting time management and self motivation.  Students are coached by instructors and staff regarding the skills and habits necessary for success in college. 

The final innovation is a focus on relevance and problem solving guided by the instructor, utilizing peer learning. One class period a week is devoted to group problem solving, in which students learn how to determine which of their mathematical skills are applicable to a particular problem. To ensure relevance, client departments are consulted as to the sorts of problems that should be used.  

Changes to early math classes began in earnest following the September 2005 Task Force report. By spring of 2008, the MLC had not improved student success; therefore, a new director (Dr. Hagerty) with wider authority was hired, enabling rapid change to the courses the MLC controlled. Over the next 15 years, the MLC worked with partners to implement changes, carefully monitoring the impact of those changes on student success.  

The instructional model was changed from a pure emporium approach (with no scheduled class time) to a structured, scheduled, face-time model with a consistent instructor, an emporium underpinning, and help available from tutors. Beginning in Fall 2009: (i) the focus was changed from simply teaching mathematical content to using mathematical content to help students transition from high school to college, improve academic skills, and increase self-efficacy, (ii) ALEKS software was implemented to deliver content and monitor student progress, (iii) a focus on problem solving was created, (iv) specific math skills that students needed to master were identified. During the 2011 to 2013 period, (i) the MLC took responsibility for College Algebra and Trigonometry in addition to Elementary and Intermediate Algebra, (ii) two academic advisors were hired, and (iii) the process of “adaptive placement” was developed to move high performing students to the next higher course. In 2017, the zero-credit corequisite model for accelerated placement was developed. In 2018, MATH 149 Business Algebra was developed in collaboration with the business college. In Fall 2020, two new courses were launched: (i) MATH 103 Mathematical Transitions for Success replaced MATH 025 Elementary Algebra, and focuses on academic success and self-efficacy, preparing students for success in subsequent coursework. It is especially appropriate for returning students and recognizes that there are students who will not be successful if pushed through a general education math class in a single semester.  (ii) MATH 133 Elementary Models and Functions replaced MATH 108 Intermediate Algebra and, because it is now a general education course, serves as a stepping stone to either a STEM/Business pathway or as the only math class needed for students in other majors. In 2021-22, a new placement tool was developed because standardized test scores are no longer required for admission.   

Much of the above work required collaboration with stakeholders. Adaptive placement depends on a partnership of the MLC with the Registrar’s Office; each switch requires a manual change of student records by the Registrar’s Office.  MLC staff members work closely with new student orientation to ensure correct placement and with academic advising staff to clarify math pathways and strengthen the message of self-efficacy. Collaboration with units that depend on the MLC’s coursework (e.g., engineering) helped ensure the relevance of coursework. In parallel, the Department of Mathematics reformed Calculus I and II with a focus of relevance and problem solving, created a new entry level class for a statistics pathway, revised second-level statistics to focus on team-based learning, and created corequisite sections for entry level statistics and math for liberal arts. 

As a result of the MLC’s efforts, pass rates for Elementary and Intermediate Algebra nearly doubled (increasing from 40%, 38%, and 47% in 2005-06 in Elementary, Intermediate, and College Algebra, respectively, to 75%, 72%, and 75% in 2022-23). Courses that depend on the foundation provided by MLC courses also had increased pass rates: Calculus I increased from 52% to 82%; and Calculus II increased from 52% to 82%.  

What is the scale of impact of these improvements? In 2005-06, nearly half of incoming first-time full-time freshmen took one of the MLC’s courses; that number has now risen to over half, with a greater percentage of URM and first generation students. In 2005-06, the high failure rate in early math and differential impact on URM and first generation students can be argued to have been contributing to inequity. In recent years the high success rate in early math and continued differential impact on those students can be argued to be contributing to an increase in equitable outcomes for students. 

Other indicators of the scale of impact: (i) More than half of recent baccalaureate graduates from first-time-in-college cohorts have taken one or more of the MLC’s courses. (ii) Engineering and Computer Science (Engr/CS) majors rely heavily on math and Engr/CS majors might typically be expected to enter college calculus-ready. Boise State graduates an average of 312 Engr/CS majors per year from our ABET-accredited programs (includes all cohort types). Of those, a third had taken one or more of the MLC’s courses, demonstrating that large numbers of Engr/CS students were able to graduate even though not “calculus-ready.” Furthermore, an average of nearly six Engr/CS graduates a year took the MLC’s Elementary Algebra class.  

University-wide retention and graduation rates (which were below those of peers in 2005-06) are now higher than our peers. First year retention increased from 62.7% for the Fall 2005 cohort to 79.2% for the Fall 2021 cohort. Four year graduation rate quintupled from 8.2% to 41.4% for the Fall 2018 cohort. Six-year graduation rate doubled from 29.2% to 59.1% for the Fall 2016 cohort.  Finally, the number of baccalaureate graduates more than doubled from 2005-06 to 2022-23.  It is important to acknowledge that we undertook a wide range of other initiatives during this period including (i) revision of first year writing, (ii) implementation of Learning Assistants, (iii) creation of a Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies, (iv) revision of new student orientation, (v) creation of a new general education program,, (vi) shifts to professional advising staff , and (vii) creation of a new Center for Teaching and Learning. 

The MLC’s program was developed over a decade and a half through the intentional, creative work of the MLC director, staff, and faculty, and with support from key stakeholders. We offer the following recommendations regarding implementation of a similar program. 

  • The MLC’s program is centered on student success and self efficacy, going beyond the bounds of what is traditionally taught.  The necessary changes will create resistance in many quarters.  Therefore: (i) Strong central support is critical. (ii) A strong foundation in student success in the institution’s strategic plan is important. (iii) Autonomy in operation is necessary; the director needs to be able to make changes without impediment.  At the same time, connection to a traditional math department is professionally beneficial for the program’s faculty and facilitates curricular alignment, etc. (iv) It must be understood that implementation is a complex and long-term process. (v) Changing campus culture is not easy, and will require a change management strategy. 
  • A sustained focus on continuous improvement is critical, with an assessment protocol that includes measuring the success of students in the program’s courses and in courses that rely on the foundation built by the program’s courses. Results should identify areas that need improvement and evaluate the effectiveness of improvements. Also, solid evidence is needed to promote the program’s success and build campus support.  
  • Embedded student success advising staff is critical.  
  • Providing a strong foundation in math cannot be sacrificed for expedient movement through classes, especially for pathways leading to higher-level STEM coursework.  
  • Self-efficacy is as necessary to student success as is math content, and thus must be a focus of the message that students receive from MLC personnel and others.  
  • Increased relevance and inclusion of problem solving result in increased engagement.  
  • The use of ALEKS software enables many aspects of the MLC’s program: (i) more support for those who struggle, (ii) faster progress for highly successful students (“adaptive placement”), (iii) placement into a higher level class with necessary support (“accelerated placement,” “zero-credit corequisite”), (iv) identification of struggling students for proactive intervention, and (v) monitoring of outside-of-class time promotes accountability. 
  • Our successful use of ALEKS results from its integration into a broader instructional system: (i) students spend one class period a week working on ALEKS in a classroom setting and one class period a week engaged in group problem solving and (ii) students are required to complete four hours a week on ALEKS outside of class time.   

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