Solving the Remedial Math Problem

By Reyna Gobel

Program offers a new model to get students up to speed on college-level concepts.

Remedial math is one of the biggest obstacles for many community college students. In 2011, only 53 percent of students at Nash Community College, in North Carolina, who had to take the remedial courses passed. But in the past three years, there has been a shift. Dina Pitt, math chairwoman at the college, has worked to increase that number by more than 150 percent. A new program called Math Tank may serve as a model for other programs across the country.

“Our previous approach — sitting in a classroom and listening to an instructor talk, followed by doing homework on their own — was failing them,” Pitt says. “Students who were too intimidated by math to ask questions were watching their academic success face ‘death by lecture.’ ”

Pitt attributes the turnaround at the college to the determination of the staff and the delivery of instruction.

Course components

Pitt and William Carver, Nash president, developed the plan, in which students receive instruction and homework help in a lab environment equipped with computer software and staffed with teachers.

There are four modules, five hours each, which can be completed over 16 weeks. Students follow a two-day schedule per module, attending class for two and a half hours per day. The first day is spent in the classroom with peers and an instructor and includes 20- to 30-minute collaborative sessions, computer-assisted instruction and workbook practice.

“The goal of breaking the class into smaller components is [that] everyone gets personal time with the instructor,” Pitt says. “We want to take the intimidation out of math class.”

The second day is spent in a computer lab equipped with computers for students and faculty, 70-inch LCD display screens and other high-tech tools. Students review their assignments from the previous day using the MyLabsPlus software, by Pearson. This lab is the Math Tank.

The results

Pitt says the fear of math is gone, and students meet the requirements for new majors and next-level courses. In an environment that doesn’t put instructors at the front of the class, students are comfortable asking questions and getting the help they need. Homework is done in class, and students are left alone to figure out the answers to problems without the help of an instructor. Adult students are also making the grade, and local employers are even allowing students some flexibility while they take the course.

The future of the program is growth in higher-level math classes. Before Math Tank, there wasn’t a need for two calculus classes during the same session.

Tips for remedial math programs

Pitt offers the following ideas to colleges that would like to start the same or similar program:

  • Find private donors. Nash’s president worked to find funding support for Math Tank.
  • Test separately. Students have positive experiences when testing in quiet spaces, such as the college’s Math Assessment Center.
  • Get instructors involved. Full-time instructors contributed to successful team teaching because they were involved in planning. “When I took trips to learn from other colleges, I’d have a meeting with math faculty afterwards. Everyone is involved equally in Math Tank planning and decision-making,” Pitt says. All full-time math instructors take turns teaching in the Math Tank.
  • Involve IT personnel. The program relies on campus IT staff to help update Nash systems so the MyLabsPlus software could be used.

How is your college helping students pass math courses? Tell us in the Comments.


Reyna Gobel

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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