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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Stairway to success: Conquering the challenges of mathematics

By addressing math phobia and math anxiety, offering supplemental instruction, participating in the First Year Experience Program and restructuring courses, New Mexico State University's Department of Mathematical Sciences is taking a multi-pronged approach to help students achieve success.

challenges of students who suffer from math anxiety or math phobia are not addressed, there is a higher probability those students will miss classes, said Ross Staffeldt, head of the department. If the students fall too far behind, they may get so discouraged they withdraw from the university, he added. By tracking student attendance and the reasons for absences, the university may be able to intervene and keep students in school. If the reason for excessive absences is traceable to math anxiety or math phobia, assistance can be given to these students to help them overcome their nervousness or fear of math. This is especially important in a discipline where learning is cumulative and new concepts build on previous concepts.

The department also is using supplemental instruction to help students boost classroom performance. Staffeldt said many students are voluntarily enrolling in the supplemental courses.

"Maybe the people who chose to enroll in supplemental instruction did so to help ensure that they would solidify the grade they thought they would get or maybe even get a higher grade than expected," Staffeldt said.

He added that more work needed to be done, however, to increase the number of students enrolled in these classes.

"We don't get enough people in there. The idea is to step aside and talk to the students about how you work to learn the material. What kinds of work habits do they need to develop? For students to succeed at mathematics, they need skills for this particular mode of working and thinking. It's our job to try to help them develop these skills."

The Math Success Center is another resource to help students develop these skills.

"When students walk through the door of the Math Success Center, they're taking a giant leap toward success, simply by asking for help," said Alyne Fulte, the center's director. "As professionals, we need to ask them, 'How can I help you today? What can I do today to help make your life a little bit better?' When we deal with what's troubling them today, they will feel more comfortable the next time they come to the Center. The more comfortable they are, the more self-confident they will be and this will lead to their success in mathematics."

Besides addressing the needs of currently enrolled students, the department also is reaching out to students getting ready to enroll in college for the first time. Fulte recently served on a large committee of faculty, staff and students who examined NMSU practices and policies as the university prepares to implement the "First-Year Experience Program," a large-scale, cross-cutting effort to help incoming freshmen of all ages more easily make the transition into college life. She said helping students make schedules, form study groups and learn study skills needs to be built into math classes and supplemental work. For some students, this is their first time away from home. Others may not know what it takes to be academically successful because they had no role models to show them the way.

Finally, in an effort to properly place students in classes, based on their previous academic records, and to provide a course sequence that serves a variety of student needs, three new math courses will be offered at New Mexico State University, starting with the fall 2006 semester. Math courses 120, 121 and 190 will replace the current offerings of Math 115, 185 and 180.

Changes in the course offerings will allow students who would normally struggle with Math 115, Intermediate Algebra, to take Math 120, also Intermediate Algebra, but designed to address math difficulties by emphasizing modeling and problem solving in an activity-based, supportive environment. Math 120, a prerequisite to statistics courses, is geared to assist students who need help in math by building better mathematical and communication skills while developing a sense of community in the classroom.

Students who normally would fare well in Math 115 would enroll in Math 121, College Algebra, a general education course more difficult than Math 115. Math 121 is designed for students with a wide range of interests and will better address the needs of non-technical majors. Engaging students in more projects and activities will deepen their understanding of the role of mathematics in society and their lives. Math 121 will serve as the prerequisite to three other courses: Math 142G, Calculus for the Biological and Management Sciences I, Math 190, Pre-Calculus, and Math 230, Matrices and Linear Programming.

The third new course, Math 190, Pre-Calculus, will blend Math 180, Trigonometry, and the current Math 185, College Algebra. Mostly science and engineering majors will enroll in Math 190, a requirement before taking Math 191, Calculus I.

These changes, made after an extensive effort by the math faculty to improve student performance, did not come about overnight. In fall 2005, professors Linda Zimmerman and Gregory Allison implemented a more student-focused, activities-based approach to intermediate algebra. In spring 2006, Amal Mostafa headed the introduction of new methods of assessment of student learning in trigonometry, including the technique of paired testing in which a student is coupled with a randomly selected partner and they work through a test together. Also, a committee of tenure track and college track faculty, namely Patricia Baggett, Alyne Fulte, Joe Lakey, Amal Mostafa, David Pengelley, Barbara Sallach, James Slack, Ted Stanford (Chair) and Linda Zimmerman, formed teams to develop the curriculum for the new courses, incorporating the experiences of Zimmerman, Allison and Mostafa with nationally recognized mathematical principles and methods of instruction.

"Our students are not just learning math," Fulte added. "They're also learning logic that will help them in their chemistry, biology or engineering classes. So it's not just, 'Here's the quadratic formula. Know it.' It's much more than that. It's learning how to manipulate things, learning how to think. When we encourage our students to reflect on their own learning, they'll have ownership of that. If we can get the students involved, they'll have developed responsibility for their learning and gain confidence in their ability to handle the responsibility."

Bob Nosbisch
May 22, 2006