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Center for Teaching and Learning

Focused Inquiry Groups (FIGs) - Title III

Alternative Developmental Math Program

Area of Inquiry

The lack of engagement and preparation in developmental math classes is clear to all. In Summer 2007, we piloted Leap Ahead in Math workshop to help students be more prepared for their next math course. We used the computer assessment and learning system ALEKS, which created a study plan for individual students based on what they know. Students filled out a survey at the end. The responses to ALEKS were overwhelmingly positive, and students also responded that they would like to see ALEKS incorporated as part of a regular class.

In the workshop, we observed some astonishing student behaviors. Students were very engaged with doing math. Many students worked for over two hours without a break. It was extremely rare to see a student surfing the net or reading e-mail even though they were sitting in front of a computer for long stretches of time. Most surprisingly, students seemed to have very little trouble reading the explanations provided by ALEKS to help them solve problems. As many developmental students are reluctant to read their textbooks, this is astonishing. It suggests that students can and will read when they do not have to search for the text providing an answer to a question that is immediately at hand. The students were engaged and reading more probably because ALEKS only gave students topics determined to be within their zone of proximal development (i.e. what they are ready to learn), thereby reducing the frustration level developmental math students often encounter when they are in a lecture course.

With the success of using ALEKS in a workshop, we are asking for support to incorporate ALEKS in courses to create an alternative developmental math sequence from the current lecture sections. The funding will support faculty time to further research and develop a program design, to implement a pilot of the design on Math 105 (Basic Math), to observe firsthand the use of ALEKS, to respond immediately to curricular needs during the pilot, and to find solutions to bureaucratic challenges. A successful pilot will provide evidence for institutionalization of an alternative developmental math program for Math 105 as well as Math 65 and 55.


Discoveries to Date

While we have a sense of the potential benefits of using ALEKS for a course, the devil’s in the details. We will need time to research how others have implemented ALEKS in a course and develop our own program design. We will need to address issues specific to this course format, as lectures are no longer the only major delivery method and grades are not determined by the traditional scheduled chapter tests. We will collaboratively create class policies and course structure for Ming’s two sections of Math 105 in Fall 2009, so they will be more reflective of a pilot for a subdivision, as opposed to one instructor’s effort. We want to get a speaker/consultant who have been involved with using ALEKS, such as Wade Ellis, math faculty at West Valley Community College.

Math 105 Pilot
Firsthand experience is the best way to learn from the pilot experience, but because the college makes teaching assignments at least nine months ahead, only Ming has signed up to teach Math 105 in Fall 2009. To engage a larger number of faculty firsthand, we plan to have instructors team teach with Ming when he takes students to the lab to work on ALEKS. This way, a larger number of faculty members can learn directly about how students work with the computer system and reflect together how best to structure the technology into instruction. We will have regular meetings to discuss how the pilot is going and record noteworthy instances (both course-specific and general comments) for others who will use ALEKS.

Because ALEKS creates an individualized curricular trajectory for each student, class lectures will focus on developing big concepts, rather than just teaching skills. The idea of these concept lectures is that they will engage a large number of students regardless of what they can do computationally, as our experience tells us that computational fluency does not imply conceptual understanding. Mathematical thinking involves formulating the appropriate operation to compute, not just carrying out computations. We will use some time in the summer to identify and develop these concept lectures. During the fall semester, as instructors work with ALEKS and note places that need to be supplemented, we will create material together to suit the classes’ needs, so Ming is not solely burdened with running sections in the new format and adapting to needs as they arise.

To further support the students as they work on specific learning topics, we plan to give short mini-lectures during lab to a group of students who are about ready to learn about the same topics. ALEKS allows us to identify them. While student teaching assistants can also help give these mini-lectures, it is beneficial to have team teachers do so in the pilot. Giving mini-lectures is a way to manage differentiated instruction, which is done more frequently in public schools (especially in elementary education) but not often in post-secondary education. Team teaching will help us figure out together how to implement and manage differentiated instruction well and encourage more of us to attempt a delivery method less familiar to us.

Future Plans

During Summer and Fall 2009, we will also undertake tasks to prepare to expand the pilot. We will need someone to work with our dean to figure out lab space and technology needs if more sections are to use ALEKS. We will examine scheduling late start sections in Fall 2010 to accommodate fast-paced students using ALEKS.

We plan to create a slower two-course sequence for Basic Math, like we have for Elementary Algebra. The slower sequence for Basic Math won’t be in effect in 2009-10, but its structure gives students with lower learning rate the incentive to continue working in ALEKS. As Marcia Kolb will also teach Math 105 in Spring 2010, we want to create a process by which students can carry over their accomplishment in ALEKS from Ming’s class into Marcia’s class (should they be able to enroll in her section). Thus, a student would have a real incentive to persevere despite unlikely prospect of a passing grade in Ming’s class, because whatever they accomplish would really stay with them to Marcia’s class.

To further support students, we want to investigate options for students who need even more time than the current slower course sequence. For instance, maybe a student needs to take two semesters to complete Math 65A instead of just one, in which case we will need to complete the necessary bureaucratic work to make an In Progress grade possible. Another way to encourage students to continue working on developmental math is to offer variable credit, so students can, for example, receive ½ unit credit for completing the appropriate proportion of a course. However, a variable-credit program might create problems for students on financial aid. We need to work with many areas to identify other potential roadblocks and research options to overcome them.


  • Ming Ho
  • Anita Wah


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