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Making Struggle Productive

February 6, 2015

“No pain, no gain.”

Students who have struggled in a math class can relate to that expression.

Some also know that even with “pain,” there might be no gain. Just ask non-STEM majors—those who are not majoring in math, technology, engineering or science—who are having a hard time in their general education math course.

Now, though, a hybrid math course combining the existing Math 041 curriculum with two additional hours of computational support helps students turn that pain into what math educators refer to as “productive struggle,” marked by motivation, support and feedback.

It often involves self-testing and mixed practice, and to students, can mean having more confidence in their own strategies.

“In some ways, if someone says to the professor, ‘Can you help me?’ before they’ve really tried to work it out themselves, what are they really learning?” says BMCC theatre major Mark Wallis.

He describes his experience in the new hybrid math class led by Professor Eugene Milman, and created by Milman and his colleague, math professor Michael George.

Wallis says he is comfortable with struggle in class, but “I think it’s a bit different for me because I’m older than many of the students."

“When I feel I’ve hit a brick wall, when I’ve tried every angle, every strategy that I’ve learned in class, that’s when I put my hand up.”

Group benefits

The new math course, piloted in four sections at BMCC, enabled students to “extract data from situations and apply it,” says Professor Michael George.

“They’re working collaboratively in small groups and problem solving, instead of following a step-by-step procedure, and it supports a feeling of involvement for students. They’re more deeply integrated into the fabric of the classroom.”

He adds that the groups provide a structured space in which students can support and give feedback to each other, and BMCC student Mark Wallis agrees.

“When we were in groups, if there was something one person didn’t know, someone else would usually know it. If it turned out no one knew the answer, then would we ask the professor.”

Moving more quickly through developmental math

Professor George, along with his colleague Professor Eugene Milman developed the course as part of the Quantway Network Improvement Community (NIC) project to develop math curricula at 21 community colleges in 10 states.

"While the course does contain elements of algebra, it really shouldn't be confused with our MAT 051 course (elementary algebra), which is for STEM students," George clarifies."It's really a quantitative literacy course with computational support. This stuff is extremely confusing for someone unfamiliar with the complexities of the curriculum."

The Quantway project is sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and was launched at BMCC in Spring 2012.

The NIC initiative addresses a serious challenge to today’s community college students: Over 60% enter college with math skills placing them in non-credit-bearing, developmental courses.

After passing that course or those courses—depending on the degree of support they need—they can take the credit-bearing math class required for their degree.

The Quantway course was designed to move students through that first level of developmental math, but “Quantway used to only be available to students with higher arithmetic scores,” says Professor George.

“At BMCC, we are now opening this pathway out of remediation to students with lower arithmetic scores by offering a new course that combines quantitative literacy, the Quantway curriculum, with computational support. We’re expanding this thing that’s already working, to bring more students into the quantitative literacy pathway.”

What is “quantitative literacy”?

Quantitative literacy refers to math that involves “real life” situations and data, explains Professor George, such as problems related to gas mileage or interest rates. Eventually, fluency with these kinds of problems enables students to construct and evaluate arguments or data, in general.

Quantitative confidence also builds students’ ability to ask the right questions and helps them develop “habits of mind to succeed in real life, later courses, and their careers,” says Professor Milman.

Does every college student need to be proficient in math?

“I’m a theatre major, and honestly I was dreading the math course,” says theatre major Mark Wallis. “When I actually first saw the math intake test for CUNY, I’d never seen algebra in my life. I didn’t even know what it looked like on the page. I’m more confident now that I’ve completed the class, and I feel ready to go on to the next level.”

He also now sees the value of math in his chosen career, theatre. Wallis has been developing his persona as a performance artist since the late nineties, featured in venues including the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.

“Theatre is about so much more than acting,” he says. “There is staging, for example, which can be very complex. You have to do ground plans, and they have to be correct. If a piece of scenery is in the wrong place, you will literally walk into it.”

Critical thinking across the curriculum

Now that the pilot classes indicate that students are benefiting from the new hybrid math class, BMCC faculty is being trained to deliver instruction for the new class.

Ultimately, students will not only move more quickly from developmental math classes to required, credit-bearing classes, but graduate in a more timely fashion.

In addition, they’ll take away the ability to think more critically in their non-math classes, whether the course focuses on history, social issues or a number of other subject areas, says Professor Milman.

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  • A new hybrid math course, Math 041, combines introductory algebra and quantitative literacy
  • It helps students move more quickly from developmental math classes to required, credit-bearing classes
  • Four pilot sections have showed promising results

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