Montana State University

Spring 2017

Share this article

Mountains and Minds

A new formula for success June 06, 2017 by Michael Becker • Published 06/06/17

Science fiction has been saying for years that when aliens finally show up, the only means we’ll have to communicate with them will be math.

Indeed, apart from being reputed as the universal language, mathematics has been called the “music of reason,” a “sensuous logic” and “the most beautiful and most powerful creation of the human spirit.”

But math has another reputation, too, for spurring heart rates and raising anxiety at the thought of being confronted with x’s and y’s and strange symbols and an equals sign with an unkind blank spot next to it.

A universal language, maybe, but not everyone speaks it.

Yet every student at Montana State University must face some math, whether it’s an engineer taking the full menu of calculus or a student who needs just one quantitative reasoning class.

With students of so many skill levels and degree paths converging on MSU’s Department of Mathematical Sciences’ courses, success had been, for years, hard to come by. Math classes historically had high fail rates—a statistic with real effect since students needing lots of math for their degrees might find their dreams imperiled by an early failure.

That’s why, four years ago, the math department started something new: a program that provided enough tutors, training and support to make sure MSU’s math students—and teachers—could succeed across the board.
In this case, the program was a group of people: the Student Success Coordinators.

At age 31, Nathan Erickson came to MSU as a freshman seeking a civil engineering degree. He had spent most of his 20s as a builder, and he saw engineering as his path to the “smarter end” of the construction industry.

Erickson’s old ACT test scores said he could start his college career taking Calculus I, but he was cautious about his math ability, not having been in a math classroom for more than a decade. He opted to start with MSU’s Pre-Calculus class instead.

The math did not come easily to him. Even with the Pre-Calculus start, the Bellingham, Washington, native barely made it through the next course in the series, Calc I. By Calc II, he was “extremely overwhelmed.”

“I ended up dropping that course my third semester back in school and was literally on the verge of wondering if I could continue my program,” he said. “I thought I might be in over my head.”

It was at that point Erickson sought out Corinne Casolara.

Casolara is the student success coordinator for Calculus II. That means that, in addition to teaching, she coordinates all the sections of the class, writing content for the instructors, providing note outlines, making instructional videos and helping the 350 to 600 or so students who move through Calculus II each semester cope with setbacks like family emergencies or test conflicts.

“I’m paid to care about Calc II. That’s my job,” she said.

Erickson enrolled in Casolara’s section of the class and met with her weekly, taking to heart her conviction that spending more time with the material was a solid gold means to get it down. The one-on-one attention, he said, helped him understand concepts he wasn’t getting out of the lectures and a few sample problems on the whiteboard.

Erickson, now 35, is in his final semester at MSU and graduated this May. Some of the credit for that, he said, belongs to Casolara and, by extension, the Student Success Coordinator Program.

“She really went out of her way to help me and make sure I could succeed,” he said. “I was really able to get a good grasp on that level of mathematics, and it’s helped out my whole engineering career at MSU.”

Casolara is one of the original student success coordinators, or SSCs, hired in the summer of 2013 to do something about the math department’s fail rates—the percentage of students finishing a course with a D, F or W (withdrawal) grade. Those rates had been as high as 30 or 40 percent in some classes. MSU wanted improvement.

That summer, four coordinators were hired using special funding from the university’s Strategic Investment Proposal program, which provides money to proposals at MSU that have been vetted through a competitive review process. Their positions weren’t yet permanent, and their mission was only broadly defined.

“There was no real structure to what we were supposed to do, other than to ‘make this course better,’” Casolara said.

So the first year was a lot of “flying by the seat of our pants,” she said. The SSCs brainstormed ways to help the students, developing online homework, crafting common lecture guides and holding weekly study groups. They tried targeting the students identified as struggling, then offered help to any student who wanted it. They studied prerequisites, developing strategies to make sure students wound up in the classes they needed to be in.

But it wasn’t just about helping the students, said Veronica Baker, another of the original SSC hires who focuses on Calculus I. The SSCs were also there to help the teachers.

“We have a lot of different teachers with different teaching backgrounds,” Baker said. “It’s about being able to pool the resources together and get similar experiences in the classrooms.”

That commonly takes the form of weekly meetings with instructors, where SSCs go over upcoming lessons and point out areas where students have historically struggled. They then offer the instructors advice on how to teach through those tricky points effectively.

Individual instructors might be able to come up with ideas to help their own classes, Baker said, but having the SSCs makes it possible for good ideas and techniques to benefit all the students, not just the 30 or 40 in one section. That means a more consistent education, no matter which instructor a student gets.

Each strategy the SSCs try is studied to measure its effectiveness. “I have so much data,” Casolara said. “So much.”

The result? After about a year, failure rates improved pretty much across the board. In Calculus I, success rates went from an average of 57 percent over the four years before the SSCs to 77 percent. In Calculus II, success rates went from 68 percent to 75 percent over the same period.

And so four additional coordinators were hired for Calculus III, Pre-Calculus, Survey of Calculus and Contemporary Mathematics. And then, in the spring of 2014, the department and college, seeing the success, provided the funding to make the SSC positions permanent, thanks to more strategic investment funds, as well as money awarded for increasing graduation and retention rates and allocations from the Office of the Provost.

Nineteen-year-old Travis Fisher came to MSU from a small school in Riverton, Wyoming, entering the university as a chemical engineering major. He started his math cycle with Calc II, brimming with confidence in his math skills.

“The first test, it was a real slap in the face,” Fisher said, recalling his D grade. “I wasn’t used to getting grades like that.”

Fisher, who has since switched majors to microbiology, said he had heard about the math help available on campus but never thought he’d use it because “I thought I was going to do so great.”

Working with the SSCs and attending extra study sessions turned him around, and he wound up with an A-minus in the course.
“Those resources restored my sense of confidence,” he said.

Adjustments like the one Fisher had to make between high school and college math are the very type of situation the SSCs were intended to help with, said Elizabeth Burroughs, head of MSU’s math department.

“We wanted to make sure that students putting in the effort and who want to succeed got the resources they needed,” she said.

Burroughs acknowledges that there has been a sense of math as a gatekeeper to intelligence or college success. After all, her department touches every student at MSU and teaches 10 percent of all credit hours on campus.

“It’s like math becomes a proxy for being smart,” she said. “If you can prove to me you can do your times tables really quickly or throw around your x’s and y’s in algebra, then I’ll give you a glimpse of this beautiful discipline.”

That is the old view, she said.

“There’s a real awareness in the entire math community that it shouldn’t be a gatekeeper,” she said. “Instead, it lays a foundation.”

Further, Burroughs’ research and experience has shown that students learn better from what is called a “productive struggle,” the mental exercise needed for someone to truly break through and absorb a concept. For math, and other disciplines too, that struggle takes place in an interdependent system of teachers, students and classrooms.

“We have learned that effective teaching of math is about meeting the student where they are and moving them forward,” she said.

That’s why the SSCs are so important, she said. Their work has increased math success rates, sure, but their real success is visible in more than just grades. It’s visible in the number of students enrolled in the more advanced upper-level math courses. Those advanced courses don’t grow just because the student population grows, Burroughs said.

“They’ve increased because we have more students on campus who want to take a lot of math classes,” she said.

Baker agreed. She said, for example, that in the four years of the SSC program, fail rates for her course, Calculus I, have improved by about 18 percent.

“In a regular year we’ll have over 1,000 calculus students, and we’re having 200 more pass the class than would have otherwise,” she said.

Casolara added that it has been nice to see the success rates improve without sacrificing the quality of the coursework, but she said that it’s also really about supporting the students who say, “I don’t know if I can do this.”

“In my position, I’ve worked with students who have widely varying perspectives on math,” Casolara said. “Some say that math has always been their favorite subject while others have struggled in the past and worry that they might not be able to succeed.

“My goal, and that of the Department of Mathematical Sciences, is to support every student as best we can. I’ve had students who look at me and say ‘I got an 84 on the exam and I have never gotten a grade that good in math.’ That kind of progress and achievement is inspiring and incredibly satisfying.” ■