By: | Lynchburg News and Advance
Published: February 03, 2012
Chad Melton, 20, hunches over his desk, working a pre-algebra equation in a Central Virginia Community College computer lab.
His brow furrows, and he raises his hand to summon the professor.
“I’m stuck here,” he says.
In high school, Melton relied on calculators to do the heavy lifting in math classes. At CVCC, he failed a math placement test (calculators were not allowed) and was forced to enroll in a remedial course before he could take pre-calculus, a requirement for business majors.
Melton, like nearly 300 other CVCC students this semester, will not earn his degree unless he masters the concepts that have eluded him since high school.
Across the country, community colleges are grappling with high numbers of incoming students who lack basic skills in math and English. To address this problem, Virginia’s community college system revamped its developmental education program as part of a statewide effort to improve retention and graduation rates for at-risk students.
In January, each of the state’s 23 community colleges launched a new math program that has drawn national attention for its innovation. The state will roll out the version for remedial English next year.
Four weeks into the semester, it’s too early for CVCC to determine the impact of the overhaul. However, CVCC President John Capps is optimistic the math program will make students more successful.
“We were not meeting the needs of our students before,” Capp said, adding, “It’s been a massive effort to redesign these courses.”
CVCC long has required incoming students to take placement tests in math and English to gauge whether they are ready for college-level work. Those who underperform must take developmental classes.
This year, the college introduced changes to the curriculum and delivery of these developmental classes designed to improve student learning. The school also revamped the placement test to better determine students’ weaknesses.
Under the old model, only 25 percent of students who placed into development math or English programs ended up graduating or transferring to another institution. The rest typically dropped out due to academic, financial or other difficulties.
Math was the biggest problem area, said Cindy Wallin, a CVCC math professor and assistant dean.
“They would get captured in a black hole and couldn’t get out,” said Wallin, who spent the last two years getting CVCC’s math program off the ground.
This year’s changes are designed to improve these success rates, Capps said.
Statewide, the change has been in the works since 2008, when the Virginia Community College System published a report calling for an overhaul of developmental education programs. The state outlined three goals: increase graduation rates, reduce the length of time students spend in remedial classes and, in the long term, reduce the need for developmental education, Capps said.
The revision of developmental math reflects a 180-degree change that trades the traditional lecture hall for computer-based learning.
Instead of lumping students of different abilities together for a lecture-based class, the new approach divides the curriculum into 10 units and allows students to complete only those units in which they are weak.
Students learn the material from online lectures published by Pearson Education, an international education and technology company. A professor and assistant instructor is assigned to a class of 20 students, who use class time to work independently on material ranging from basic arithmetic to Algebra 2. The teachers monitor progress and provide one-on-one help.
“The ultimate goal is to give students the skills they need to get out of developmental math faster through targeted instruction,” said Wallin. “If they don’t get out of development math, they’re not going to get out of college. That’s the bottom line.”
Students enrolled in remedial math classes run the gamut from recent high school grads to older students who haven’t flexed their math muscles in years.
Professors said reducing calculator dependence is a common challenge at CVCC. Both the diagnostic test and remedial math classes ban the use of calculators, forcing students to work through the basic concepts using brainpower alone.
CVCC math professor Alison More said the new format has been effective so far.
“I think it’s harder for them to just skim by,” More said. “It’s easier for them to get individual help.”
Still, More has concerns the self-paced course could hinder students who are less motivated or slower to grasp the material.
“Some of them are just kind of toddling along and not doing it at the pace they should be,” said More, adding there’s still time to catch up.
Elisha Rowe, 24, of Appomattox, is re-learning algebra this semester so she can take the pre-calculus course she needs to apply to nursing school. She took time off between high school and college to have a baby, and is rusty on her math skills.
“I haven’t had a math class for five years,” Rowe said.
Rowe, who took developmental math under the old model last semester, prefers the new approach because the instruction targets your weaknesses.
“It helps you work at your own pace …” Rowe said. “You don’t have to sit there and listen to a lecture if you don’t need it.”
Kendra Scott, 22, placed into remedial math after taking time off from college to heal from an illness. When Scott graduates from CVCC, she plans to transfer into the engineering program at the University of Virginia.
Though the remedial math means Scott must take extra credits to complete her degree, she appreciates the chance to bolster her math skills before entering more difficult classes.
“I knew I needed it when I go to calculus and stuff. I wanted to remember the process,” said Scott, who also prefers the online approach.
“I’d rather not have a lecture because sometimes you’re tuning in and out,” Scott said. “This way, I feel like I’m working the whole time.”
CVCC math professor Rebecca Honeycutt said she is cautiously optimistic the changes will help bridge the learning gap between high school and college.
She said an advantage of the computer-based lecture is “unlike a teacher, it can be rewound.” Not having to lecture also frees Honeycutt up for more one-on-one help with students.
“I think it has some promise,” Honeycutt said of the new format. “I think they’ve been making some progress already.
“But there’s no guarantee no matter how you look at it … If they persist, they can still be successful.”