‘When you struggle, you’re growing’

Developmental math students often expect to fail, writes Gay Clyburn on the Carnegie Commons blog. Many believe in gender or race stereotypes about who’s “a math person” and who isn’t.

Carnegie’s alternative math pathways — Statway in statistics and Quantway in quantitative reasoning— teach students that ability is malleable. A “Starting Strong” exercise is designed to mitigate what David Yeager calls “learned helplessness.” Students read an article explaining that neuroscience shows that, with enough effort, they can grow their brain.

Just reading this article on brain growth has shown a significant  effect on student persistence and success in a randomized trial, says Yeager.

Statway and Quantway have tripled success rates for remedial math students in half the time, reports Clyburn. “Carnegie has been able to maintain this level of student accomplishment, even as the initiative has grown to include new colleges, new faculty, and many more students over the past three years.”

At the annual Community College Pathways National Forum,  Yeager urged instructors to create a class culture that expects success. Students need praise after accomplishment (not before), frequent encouragement and continuous feedback, he said.

Students should be told the brain is like a muscle, Yeager said.  “The more you use it, the better it works.” Or, “the more you practice, the smarter you become.”

He recommended phrases to use, such as “when you struggle, then you’re growing.”

ASAP isn’t for everyone

Student retention has improved at New York City community colleges that offer the ASAP program, writes Matt Reed, in response to an Atlantic story. ASAP requires students to enroll full-time and provides “intrusive” advisors who function as “something between a truant officer and a personal trainer,” writes Reed. “It even works well for students who start out in developmental courses, which is no small achievement.”

Among other things, it solves — by essentially ruling out — the institutional dilemmas of student enrollment volatility.  Students are enrolled year-round, with January and summer costs covered by the program.  (Financial aid still largely assumes the fall-and-spring semester model.)  The support staff is well stocked, and the total enrollment in the program is capped.  And the budget per student is approximately double the budget per student where I work.  Double our budget, and I bet we could get some results, too.

. . . Beyond the money, though — and let’s not forget the money — a program like that succeeds to the extent that it makes students resemble students at traditional colleges.  There’s a constituency for that, but it’s only one constituency among many.

Nontraditional students “don’t have the option of dropping everything to attend full-time,” Reed observes. He cites an argument in Slate:    “Failure is actually one of the greatest strengths of our higher education system,” writes Tressie McMillan Cottom. “In no other country can a student fail so often, so spectacularly, with such a low penalty. Especially for nontraditional students, failure may be underrated.”

The full-time, double-the-cost ASAP model isn’t a practical answer for most colleges, Reed concludes.

San Jose State, Udacity rethink MOOC pilot

San Jose State and Udacity have put their low-cost, for-credit MOOC experiment on hold for a semester because of high failure rates, reports the Los Angeles Times. In the spring pilot, pass rates ranged from 29 percent in remedial math to 44 percent in college-level algebra and 51 percent in elementary statistics. There was one encouraging sign: 83 percent of students completed the classes.

Udacity, a private Silicon Valley education group, and San Jose State will study ways to improve the classes.

“The improvements we are considering include developing introductory materials that will help students prepare for and engage in college-level online classes. We would also like to look at the impact of the frequency of quizzes for grades and other similar incentives to help students move through the material in a timely manner. Another focus will be to explore opportunities to move to open-registration, self-paced classes with student-set deadlines.”

Students in the summer courses received more orientation and appear to be doing better.

Only half of Udacity students were enrolled in San Jose State and some had flunked remedial math earlier, reports Inside Higher Ed. Some were inner-city high school students who turned out to lack access to computers and community college students. “We stacked the deck against ourselves,” said Provost Ellen Junn.

Typically, online courses work best for mature, disciplined, competent students, which suggests that MOOCs aren’t likely to work well for high school kids and remedial students.

Students said they needed more time, Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun tells MIT Technology Review.

I can’t pass algebra

Javier Cabral made it through high school without passing algebra, but hit a wall in community college, he writes in Zócalo Public Square. He failed algebra seven times in 4 1/2 years at Pasadena City College and, finally, dropped out to pursue a writing career.

I coasted through middle school arithmetic classes, and, in high school pre-algebra, when math bit me in the rear, I bit back and weaseled my way to a C by teaching my teacher—who was having troubles with his wife at the time—how to play “Angel Baby” on the acoustic guitar. Geometry came next, and I passed with no trouble.

Fast forward to my still Algebra-less senior year in high school. Without a passing grade in algebra, I couldn’t graduate—but I got lucky again. Apparently, my problem with algebra was shared by many other students and posed a threat to the pristine record of my “California Distinguished” high school. The administrators decided to count Accounting I as an algebra equivalent. I passed that with a B+.

He hoped to transfer from PCC to a four-year institution, but was placed two classes below the transfer requirement class, Statistics 50. He failed. Eventually, Cabral was diagnosed with a math disability, which got him extra time on tests. That didn’t help. He tried computer-based pre-algebra and failed that. Finally, his counselor told him about an intensive new class, Exploring Topics in Mathematics, which would teach “quantitative literacy.” If he passed, he’d be eligible for transfer-level Statistics 50.

Before long, going to class started to feel like a family reunion. It was, dare I say it, fun. Everybody shared the pain, and there was a relieving sense of acceptance. (Professor Jay) Cho taught us how to complete linear equation problems, something that used to give me headaches, by relating them to blood alcohol levels when you drink and drive. (It worked. I got a B on that exam.) He used the almost-daily tardiness of the Goth girl to teach us relative frequency approximation of probability. I loved it. It was a modern-day version of Stand and Deliver.

Twenty of the 35 students passed the class, a high success rate for a developmental class. Cabral passed! Then he failed Statistics 50, also taught by Cho.

 “Math is becoming a filter for a lot of people,” Cho told me recently. “Structurally, we are designed to lose a lot of students. The state gives us a lot of money for nothing. Returning students are forced to retake the class and shut out valuable space for new students.” In Cho’s view, his new teaching style addresses the problem. In my view, Cho’s an amazing teacher, but not a miracle worker.

Cabral doesn’t believe he’ll ever be able to solve quadratic equations, no matter how hard he tries. He wants to go to a university to “learn more about art, philosophy, literature, and history,” he writes. “Math requirements will prevent that. Should they?”

MOOC option is ‘massively bad idea’

California’s plan to substitute MOOCs for entry-level community college classes is a “massively bad idea,” argues Rob Jenkins, an English professor at Georgia Perimeter College in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Under a bill in the Legislature, students shut out of entry-level, high-demand classes could take approved online courses — including MOOCs, or massive open online courses — offered by private providers.

Many community college students are poorly prepared for college work, writes Jenkins. Graduation rates are low. Those who enroll in online courses have lower completion rates than similar students in face-to-face courses, according to studies in Washington state and Virginia by the Community College Research Center at Columbia.

. . .  listen to the sobering conclusion of the Virginia study: “Regardless of their initial level of preparation … students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses. In addition, students who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and students who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution.”

“Succeeding in online classes requires an extraordinary degree of organization, self-discipline, motivation, and time-management skill,” writes Jenkins. In particular, MOOCs work best for students with a record of success in traditional learning environments.  “In other words, not community-college students.”

Furthermore, the most successful MOOCs have been high-level math and computation classes, not entry-level courses.

. . . California’s plan (or to be fair, one senator’s plan) is basically to dump hundreds of thousands of the state’s least-prepared and least-motivated students into a learning environment that requires the greatest amount of preparation and motivation, where they will take courses that may or may not be effective in that format.

“Students will fail and drop out at astronomical rates,” predicts Jenkins.

Not surprisingly, faculty leaders in all three tiers of California’s higher education system strongly oppose outsourcing courses to online providers.

Early dropouts are older, less prepared

Twenty-eight percent of first-time students at five community colleges didn’t return for the second semester, concludes a 2005-06 study by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia. Most never attended college again.

Early dropouts are older  and less prepared academically than students who came back for another semester, according to Characteristics of Early Community College Dropouts. Early dropouts failed or withdrew from more than 60 percent of their courses and did especially poorly in remedial course.

Math, English aren’t only ‘obstacle courses’

Introductory math and English courses are gatekeepers at community colleges: Many students don’t make it through. But via other introductory courses are “obstacle courses” that can block completion, according to a new study by Matthew Zeidenberg, Davis Jenkins and Marc Scott if Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia.

. . .  if colleges want to increase students’ chances of earning a credential, they will need to pay attention to student performance in a broader set of courses beyond simply college math and English. They should also rethink college remediation or developmental instruction, which tends to focus on math and English and not on other obstacle courses.

“Obstacle courses” include:  College Success Skills, Introduction to Computer Applications and Concepts, History of Western Civilization I , Introduction to Business, Principles of Accounting I and Beginning Spanish I.

A student’s overall grade point average — not the grade in any particular course — was the best predictor of success or failure.

Persevering — and passing

Eliana Osborn has a hard-working, competent, front-row student who’s taking the English class for the fifth time, she writes on The Two-Year Track.

 She’s learned from her many failures and seems to be doing things right on Attempt 5. I respect that. I’m not cutting her any breaks, but she doesn’t need them. She’s learned about herself and how to be a good student. I asked her why she keeps coming and trying after so many disappointing semesters.

“I have to do this,” she told me with steely eyes. “I don’t have a choice. I have to get an education for my family.”

Teaching on the U.S.-Mexico border, she has many low-income students who speak English as a second language. “As I read their papers and learn about their lives, I am impressed again and again by their perseverance,” Osborn writes.

Colleges crunch data to guide students

Colleges are crunching using “Big Data” to counsel students, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The new breed of software can predict how well students will do before they even set foot in the classroom. It recommends courses, Netflix-style, based on students’ academic records.

Data diggers hope to improve an education system in which professors often fly blind. That’s a particular problem in introductory-level courses, says Carol A. Twigg, president of the National Center for Academic Transformation. “The typical class, the professor rattles on in front of the class,” she says. “They give a midterm exam. Half the kids fail. Half the kids drop out. And they have no idea what’s going on with their students.”

The software can warn counselors and instructors that a student is falling behind. Some colleges also use it to recommend courses and warn students away from courses they’re likely to fail. Some find that just a bit creepy. “I for one welcome our new robot guidance counselors,” jokes Instapundit, channeling the Simpsons’ TV commentator, Kent Brockman.

At Rio Salado, a community college with about 70,000 students, 43,000 of them online, (Adam) Lange got excited about the behavioral data they leave behind: the vast wake of clicks captured by software that runs Web courses. Records of when they logged in, opened a syllabus, turned in homework—all just sitting there. Could you mine the data to model patterns of students who succeeded in the past? Use the analysis to identify current ones likely to fail? And then help them? Many educators are now asking similar questions.

Mr. Lange and his colleagues had found that by the eighth day of class, they could predict, with 70-percent accuracy, whether a student would score a C or better. Mr. Lange built a system, rolled out in 2009, that sent professors frequently updated alerts about how well each student was predicted to do, based on course performance and online behavior.

But when the college began “sharing grade predictions with students last summer, hoping to encourage those lagging behind to step up,” the experiment flopped.  Because of course changes, some predictions were inaccurate. The system is being redesigned for the fall term.

Tough love (but it’s really frustration)

Siobhan Curious, who teaches at Quebec’s version of community college, was having a lousy day even before a failing student walked in to make it worse.

Kalia had failed the same class in the autumn because she didn’t come to class. After skipping the first two weeks of her second try, she came to the office to ask if she had a chance to pass the course.  This time, she said, she’d come to class and do the work.

She came to the next class, but didn’t buy the books or do the homework.  She started skipping class again. Her average was 10 points below a passing grade. After cutting class for three weeks, she came in to ask Curious for help with her essay.

“Kalia,” I snapped.  ”As I instructed you and everyone, you should bring the essay to class with you on Monday and we’ll work on it some more and you can ask questions.  We have spent THREE WEEKS working on this latest essay in class, and you haven’t been in class for that work.  So you failed.  I’m not going to give you private tutoring on everything we’ve done because you couldn’t be bothered to come learn what you needed to learn during class time.  We talked at the beginning of the semester about what you needed to do to pass this course.  You haven’t done it.  You’re welcome to do this rewrite and do your grammar test and see what happens.  But I’m not going to re-teach everything I’ve taught for an audience of one.”

Kalia went quietly away.

There are all sorts of arguments for why Kalia needs tough love, for why, no matter how harsh my response may seem, it’s really for her own good.  She needs to take responsibility for her learning and fulfill requirements and deal with whatever’s preventing her from doing the most basic things she needs to  do, or she needs to get out of school and come back when she can handle it.  Coddling her is not going to help her.  And so forth.

But none of these reasons are my reasons. . . .  I snapped at her because I was exhausted and she was pissing me off.

Another post includes an e-mail conversation with an absentee who repeatedly fails to understand the assignment.