Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) Mathematics Professor Claire Wladis has received a $1.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant—the largest ever received by a BMCC faculty researcher—to develop a test that measures how well college students understand fundamental algebra concepts.
This will be the first test of algebraic conceptual understanding for college students developed and validated in the postsecondary context, according to Wladis, who is the principal investigator of the five-year research project.
Kathleen Offenholley, professor of mathematics at BMCC and Jay Verkullien, professor of educational psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center will serve as the co-principal investigators. BMCC Mathematics Professors Dale Dawes, Elisabeth Jaffe and Audrey Nasar will participate in the research and development of the test.
Elementary algebra and other developmental math courses have long been identified as barriers to student degree progress and completion. As few as one fifth of the students placed in developmental math courses successfully complete a credit-bearing math course in college, according to data from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.
At BMCC, almost 80 percent of first-time freshmen require developmental math, according to the college’s 2015 Enrollment, Retention and Completion Report.
Wladis and her team will create and validate an item pool of roughly 200 items that test conceptual understanding in algebra. She says algebraic concepts are critical because without them, students are simply calculating things without actually understanding them.
“That lack of understanding leads to misuse of calculations and mistakes, not just in algebra class, but also for students who go on to take other math classes like statistics and calculus,” said Wladis.
The current CUNY algebra entrance and exit exams test how well students can perform certain algebraic calculations—but the tests do not tell educators why students get certain problems wrong.
“The test that we are developing should provide us with insight into what students are thinking—helping us to pinpoint specific misconceptions, or to identify specific ways of thinking that students are employing when approaching algebra problems,” said Wladis.
The research team plans to recruit developmental math instructors at BMCC as well as other CUNY colleges to give their students sample questions during class and then provide feedback to the research team. She expects that approximately 5,500 BMCC students will take the test at some point and another 2,500 students from other colleges will also participate.
“Our hope is that the resulting test will allow instructors to better pinpoint student misconceptions in algebra so they can address them during teaching, and it will allow researchers to figure out which methods best help students to learn critical algebra concepts,” said Wladis.