Tamra Mason
Tamra Mason

Mathematics lecturer Tamra Mason is part of a group that is building a safety net for students facing the uncertain depths and hidden obstacles of mathematics. 

"Sometimes we find the problem is things students should know but don't, like how to add fractions," Mason says.  "If they have a critical gap in some area of knowledge, students sometimes don't realize that until they are already in trouble." 

From the day she was hired at UNM last year, Mason worked with a Math Working group that was given the charge of finding a way to help students learn what needed before they failed a math course and dropped out of school.

Math, as it is taught now at UNM is a sink or swim proposition.  Intermediate Algebra or Math 120 is one of the first courses incoming freshmen hit. There are 60 students in every class. There are 23 sections of the class scattered across various days and times to accommodate the 1400 students taking the course. It's a sea of trouble for the students and the faculty. Of students who take course, 54.6 percent fail.

This fall 200 of those students are in a pilot program that Mason hopes will bring them into calmer waters. In this course there are no lectures. Instead, the students are expected to show up each week at a specific time to a Math Learning Lab where computers are pre-loaded with the course curriculum. Times are staggered so only a few students will be in the learning lab at any particular time.

Each student takes an initial online assessment of skills, and is given a specific course of individual study designed to fill in knowledge gaps and move the students through the three modules that comprise the course. For some students it's easy sailing. Mason has said some students will complete the first section of study next week.

For others it's a long hard slog, but they will be able to learn at their own pace, something that doesn't happen in a normal class. If students can't manage to complete all the sections of study this fall, they can take an incomplete and finish the course next semester or over the intersession. There are always faculty members, grad students or peer instructors in the pod to help students over difficult parts of the curriculum. Instructors can monitor students' online progress and step in to help if the student seems stalled over a particular problem.

Mason and the faculty in the working group spent last fall searching for ways to teach math that focused on the needs of the individual student. This method has worked at other universities and the group thought it had a good chance of working here. They made their recommendations about the new method, which is called a Math Learning Lab or MaLL, last December.

In January, Robert Frank was appointed president of UNM and endorsed the recommendation immediately. Frank had been provost at Kent State in Ohio and had already implemented a similar change there.  He was pleased with the results. 

"The MaLL allows more student success in the first math course, providing a rehearsal in critical math skills, says Frank.  "We know this approach is effective and can move more students toward graduation."

The president, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Mark Peceny and other administrators, were able to gather the resources needed to build the MaLL. So over the next several months a portion of Centennial Library will be remodeled to become a much larger and better equipped permanent lab for more sections of math study. That will allow a major expansion of the new teaching technique.

The changes come just in time because math courses are a major problem for many students. Once students pass Math 120 or Intermediate Algebra, they face Math 121, College Algebra where the current failure rate is 43.1 percent. Students who make it through Math 121 and want to enter science or engineering fields face trigonometry in Math 123 where the failure rate is 50.9 percent, then Pre-calculus in Math 150 where the failure rate is 63.6 percent.

Mason says one of the benefits of the new system is that students can't be anonymous. Faculty members and graduate teaching assistants will know quickly who is in trouble, and what is causing them problems.  She says that will allow for early intervention so students don't get discouraged and give up.

Students who don't make enough progress to keep up during their scheduled hours in the computer pod can come in on Fridays and at least one weekend day to give themselves more time to learn what they need to. They can also do the online problems from home, but will have to come to the computer pod to take the end of module tests, and they have to keep detailed notebooks so faculty and teaching assistants can follow the way they go about solving problems. Mason says the procedure is as important as the answers.

The change is geared toward one thing. Keep students in school. Don't let them drop out when they hit a big obstacle. Get them the help they need and move them toward graduation. Frank has been charged by the Board of Regents with increasing UNM's graduation numbers so he is out to make sure everyone at UNM from University administrators to freshmen is capable of doing the math.

Media contact: Karen Wentworth (505) 277-5627; email: kwent2@unm.edu