Clicking Free of the Math Trap

   by Stephen Smith

Math is a black hole for many struggling college students.

Whether they major in business, biochemistry or behavioral science, many students find college math requirements trap them in a spiral of failure nearly from the moment they step on campus. "Math is probably the number one roadblock to student graduation," says John Squires, head of the math department at Chattanooga State, a community college in Tennessee. Squires is on a professional crusade of sorts to show that computer-based instruction can save most students who would otherwise fail their math courses and give up on college.

The problem is that many students graduate high school unready for college-level mathematics, primarily algebra. Sixty percent of new arrivals to U.S. community colleges have to take remedial math, according to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. At some institutions, Squires says, that figure approaches 90 percent.

Chattanooga State student Katrina Ingram in the Math Emporium with tutor Angie Blevins. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

States and students spend an estimated $3 billion a year on remedial courses of all kinds, but most of the 1.7 million students who have to take catch-up classes will likely quit college before finishing. A government study found only 27 percent of those who need remedial math ever make it to graduation.

Students have to pay for remedial courses but get no credit for passing them. Many get discouraged at having to pay to retrace their steps. Recent studies also suggest that, because of the way college placement tests are administered, tens of thousands of entering students are forced to take make-up math they may not need.

Virtually all American colleges and universities require students to show college-level math proficiency in order to graduate. And, many academic and government studies have found college graduates earn almost twice as much as high school graduates over their lifetimes. So, passing college math can add up to real money down the road.

Do The Math

Chattanooga State's large, modern campus sits on a grassy expanse along the Tennessee River, a few miles from the city's downtown. More than 15,000 students attend the school. Chattanooga State is among a growing number of colleges and universities using banks of computers in a well-staffed "Math Emporium" to help entering students clear the remedial math hurdle.

"The key to getting students successful in math is two-pronged," Squires says. "Number one, you get them to actually do the work. Number two, when they struggle when they do the work, you get them the help they need. It's a very simple formula, but it works." Squires calls his program U Do the Math. Chattanooga State and many other schools refrain from calling their programs "remedial"; they prefer the more benign term "developmental" math.

Squires says too many high school students can successfully stumble through their courses doing the least amount of work—and learning—possible. "I would often get the question [from entering college students], 'What do I need to pass?' That's not a good question. You ought to be focusing on, What do I need to do to learn this? But they were just focused on surviving, not really learning the material."

The advantage of using a computer-based math curriculum is that the software relieves faculty of the enormously time-consuming task of quiz and exam grading, Squires says. In the computer-driven, math emporium approach, instructors have more time to work with students one-on-one.

Another key, Squires says, is requiring students to do at least some of their work in the math lab, where help is at the ready. This is a twist in the conventional story of computer-driven education. Squires believes it is essential for students to gather in a physical place.

"Software can do a great job with the rote stuff. The software cannot sit with a student, listen to their voice, look at the work and say, 'This is where you're missing it.' Providing just the right amount of human touch is what we're trying to do."

(Photo: Chattanooga State)

The math emporium at Chattanooga State features 160 computer screens glowing on long tables in a wide, windowless room. Math tutors stand by to assist. Students prop colorful plastic cups on top of the monitors when they want help. There are also five classrooms filled with computers where lecture and discussion sessions are held. There are no textbooks. All of the coursework is online, and each student's performance is closely tracked by the software. Instructors can see which concepts cause a given student the most trouble. The online curriculum was created by the educational publishing giant Pearson.

On a steamy summer afternoon, nursing student Katrina Ingram is working through a statistics problem in the math emporium with tutor Angie Blevins. The 22-year-old Ingram powered through an intensive 15-day summer statistics class while also working two jobs—home health aide and museum security guard.

"I couldn't have done it without the tutors," Ingram says. "I spent every day in the math lab when I wasn't working."

Ingram was one of those students who had to suffer through remedial math when she enrolled in college. Ingram had been home-schooled in Iowa, and her high school transcripts lacked the state stamp of approval she needed in Tennessee. Because the Chattanooga State computer math classes are self-paced, Ingram could grind through the material much more quickly than in a traditional, classroom-based course.

"We are able to move our students through developmental math faster, both the elementary and intermediate algebra," says Mosunmola George-Taylor, dean of the Mathematics and Science Division at Chattanooga State. "In the past, the student could only take one course per semester. But now, a student who is aggressive and hard-working can go through both in one semester. That student is saving money. Instead of paying for two courses, the student pays for one."

With the blessing of his supervisors, John Squires travels the country advising other colleges and universities on how to set up their own math emporiums. Groups of teachers and administrators from across the map are frequent visitors to the Chattanooga State campus. Chattanooga State is working with area high schools to create math emporium programs there as well.

"Success begets success," Squires says. "A lot of students don't like math because they aren't successful at it. They never got it. If you get them understanding it, they'll stick around."

Developmental math students include teenagers just out of high school and older students returning to finish their degrees. The average student age at Chattanooga State is 26.

Paying for Staying Power

Chattanooga State invested close to $1 million in the math emporium program. It now has about 2,600 students enrolled in college-level math, and 2,000 in remedial math. It's the first time in memory that there are fewer students catching up in math than there are students moving forward.

Chattanooga State's longtime president, James Catanzaro, is an aggressive backer of the math lab approach. Like virtually all American public colleges and universities, Chattanooga State is under pressure to teach more students with less financial support from the state. Catanzaro expects the math lab to help more students stay in school and graduate. "Every time a student drops out, that's a loss of revenue," Catanzaro says.

The state of Tennessee recently linked the level of public funding to a college's performance, so student retention and graduation rates have become even more critical.

"What I'm after is the graduate who is proficient, who has mastered the subject," Catanzaro says. "To get a C or a D as a passing grade, those are really F's. If one doesn't leave this institution with high competency in a field—like math or German or French—within a short time what you think you've gained you have not gained."

Math is especially critical at a place like Chattanooga State because many of its students pursue degrees in engineering, business and manufacturing technology. The school has close ties with area business and industry. It is a key training facility for a local Volkswagen assembly plant, a major employer in the area.

"With good math skills," Catanzaro says, "more of our students are likely to go into engineering, instead of fields that have little connection with the actual world out there."

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