Transforming Developmental Math Brings Student Success

By Ellen Ullman

A look at how Wallace Community College transformed its developmental math program.

For data on how to improve completion rates, going straight to the source — students — can be a smart move.

In 2008, as part of a mandated quality enhancement plan (QEP), Wallace Community College (WCC) in Alabama surveyed students about their top concerns. The college learned that math was the biggest deterrent to graduation.

“We knew that students were getting frustrated over math and leaving school,” says Tony Holland, dean of instructional affairs. “We had to correct that.”

In addition to making changes through the QEP process, the college launched an instructional improvement plan and hired a director to focus on developmental education. WCC also constructed a new building dedicated to developmental studies and filled it with computers so that students could use ALEKS, an adaptive software program.

“The research showed that students who accelerate through developmental math greatly enhance the chances of earning a credential,” Holland says. “ALEKS is self-paced, gets them through quickly and works on mastery of concepts.”

Transforming teaching and learning in developmental courses

Using ALEKS changed the entire dynamic of the classrooms, which were reconfigured with circular tables so that students could help each other. Students were more engaged because they were working on math instead of listening to a lecture or watching someone else do the problems. Teachers became facilitators, working one-on-one with students who required additional assistance.

WCC also hired an academic coach who focused on developmental studies. The coach reached out to the most at-risk students (highest absences, lowest test scores); many of those students had previously been contacted by instructors, to no avail. In the 2013–14 school year, the coach counseled 482 students, and 153 successfully completed a developmental education course. The next academic year, the coach counseled 785, and 301 completed their course — a success rate that increased from 32 percent to 38 percent, year over year.

All of these changes transformed student–faculty relationships, which Holland believes made a big difference. “We couldn’t close any achievement gaps until we addressed the issue of students knowing we cared,” he says.

Improving instruction for everyone

In 2012, WCC launched a campuswide initiative called I-CAN (Improvement, Constant and Never-ending), a faculty-driven effort to create an active learning environment in the 10 courses in general academics with the highest enrollment. The strategies include providing professional development focused on innovative classroom practices; limiting lectures to 20 minutes before doing an activity, such as an in-class writing assignment or group discussion; and posting lectures online.

As I-CAN progressed, the college saw increased faculty collaboration and accountability. “I-CAN built a leadership mentality throughout the organization; we moved from I-CAN to we can,” Holland says.

From the fall of 2011 to the fall of 2014, success rates increased by 26.4 percent in the top 10 general academics courses. During this same period, the socioeconomic student-achievement gap completely closed in the developmental courses.

Success at WCC

Between fall of 2011–12 and fall 2014–15, completion rates for developmental math at WCC increased from 16 percent to 35 percent. Over the two-year period, the success rate for Math 100, the first course in the developmental sequence and one of the I-CAN courses, increased by 50 percent.

“With QEP plus I-CAN, we’ve built a lot of momentum,” Holland says. “We evaluate everything with data so we can see what’s working and make changes.

“We are truly providing equal opportunities for all students,” Holland continues. “By addressing instruction, student support services also improved. Now we have a culture throughout the college of caring and accountability.”

Ellen Ullman

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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