Source: The Star Press, February 10, 2013

MUNCIE — Paul Jones, a 39-year-old gas station clerk, stacked square, wooden alphabet blocks in his remedial math class at Ivy Tech Community College on Thursday afternoon.

Don’t laugh. The same blocks that children use as construction toys are part of the reason for a dramatic increase in the number of Ivy Tech students passing “Math 118, Concepts in Math,” without which they can’t earn a degree.

The vast majority of students entering Ivy Tech are adults who hold a job. And 70 percent of them test into one of the remedial math classes, such as “Math 080, Mathematic Principles with Algebra,” a non-credit course.

“Anything to bring them down off the edge,” associate professor Rob Jeffs said of his props, which also include soup cans. “Let them play with stuff instead of just sitting there. The problem is when you get into the abstract. We are starting out at an intuitive level and trying to build on it. If I’d have put ‘y = mx + b’ on the board, I’d have lost half of them to start with.”

So the students started out on this particular day by stacking blocks ( “That’s not in the book,” Jeffs said) to learn about linear equations.

Then the students took a written quiz. The first question was: “There are two floors in the initial building. The workers can build three floors each week. When will the building have 15 more floors than the initial building?”

Jones comes up with the correct answer by dividing 15 by 3. Other students stack blocks in their heads or on paper to find the answer. (There aren’t enough blocks for each student to create a stack of 17 blocks, which he or she would have to do to get the answer; plus, the answer to the next question would require a stack of more than 50 blocks).

Jeffs also uses the blocks to demonstrate the “rise” and “run” on a stairway. “Rise over run, that’s called the slope,” he says.

Finally, he goes to the dry-erase board and draws a vertical line intersected by a horizontal line and talks about a quadrant or a graph. Then he discusses “floors,” “floors per week,” “number of weeks” and “starting point,” before writing “y = mx + b” on the board.

‘Keeps my attention’

But it’s more than just teaching methods that is driving up the math success rate at Ivy Tech. In the past, students would take M 080 one semester and M 118 the next semester. Now, they take the two courses concurrently, or in the same semester.

Some colleges call the remedial classes in the concurrent model a “workshop,” a “laboratory” or a “supplemental offering.”

“We do the same sections, we use the same book and we use the same software,” Jeffs said of M 080 and M 118. “They don’t have to buy two books. They use the one book. That saves them $200. The only difference is my approach. In 118, you get a person standing at the front of the room teaching like they would any 100-level college class across the state.”

Jones, who was recently robbed at gunpoint at the gas station where he works, said after Jeffs’ class, “I understand things here. This makes so much more sense than a lecture.” He added, “By the time I’m done with her lecture, I don’t understand it any more,” referring to his teacher in his 118 class.

Another student, Bryan Owens, 19, New Castle, said, “This class is more exciting. He lectures but he also jokes and does activities to get you involved. He can keep my attention.”

Besides Jones and Owens, there were only eight other students in the class (the maximum allowed is 15). The 10 students sat in groups at different tables. Sometimes, a group would become so engrossed in a problem that it would ignore Jeffs as he lectured. In addition to Jeffs, there is also a tutor present in the classroom for one-on-one instruction. After the class, Michael Heard headed to a lab for more tutoring. “When I get frustrated, I head to the lab,” he said.

Ronald Sloan, vice chancellor for academic affairs for Ivy Tech’s East Central Region, calls the concurrent model “the first little light I’ve seen since I’ve been in this business (more than 30 years).”

Ivy Tech launched the new model, which it borrowed from Austin Peay State University and from the Community College of Baltimore County, last semester. The model is also being used by Ivy Tech for remedial English students.

60 percent success

In the past, maybe half of the Ivy Tech students taking a remedial math class would pass. Of those, perhaps 15 percent never even signed up for M 118, for whatever reason. And of those who did take M 118, the college felt lucky if half of them passed.

“That’s somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of those who originally enrolled in remedial math would pass M 118,” Sloan said. “Now, it’s almost 60 percent. That’s big. A lot of our students would get into remedial and most of them would never emerge out of that remedial world. If they’re stuck in remedial math and yet they want to be whatever they want to be, a social worker or a teacher, they’re just not going to get there.They get discouraged and drop out. It’s a terrible thing.”

Sloan attributes the success of the new approach to several factors.

If you take a remedial class one semester and M 118 the next semester, there is more time to forget what you learned in remediation.

Second, students in the remedial class bond with each other. “In the past, they might not know anyone in the next class,” Sloan said. Now, most remedial math students take the 118 course together. “They help each other.”

Third, the students are getting special attention and coaching from teachers such as Jeffs at the same time they are taking M 118.

Fourth, the remedial students take M 118 with fellow remedial students, but non-remedial students also are in the class. The latter help the former.

In addition, the college doesn’t have to worry about M 080 students failing to sign up for M 118 because they are taking the two classes at the same time.

While students don’t earn college credit for remedial classes (any college course that begins with a “0,” such as M 080, is not credit-bearing) they still have to pay for them. “It uses up your financial aid,” Sloan said, “and you only get so much financial aid. This new approach is making a huge difference. That’s big, because we want to make sure more of our students succeed, get degrees and get good jobs.”

Source: The Star Press, February 10, 2013

I emailed the article to my math 118 instructor. I really like him a lot-and his class is fun. He has me laughing. But I’m a visual learner who thinks no one is too old for children’s building blocks.