Making Mathematics More Accessible to Non-Math Majors

Algoma University

Canada

Type

University

Students

130 per year

Started in

2020

Location

Canada



With the main campus located in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Algoma University is a public Canadian university that offers more than 40 undergraduate programs. Known for being teaching-focused and student-centered, Alogma offers three and four year bachelor’s programs that are catered to a wide range of disciplines including biology, business, computer science and engineering.

Dr. Edna James has been teaching at the university for the past 18 years and currently holds the position of Mathematics Professor within the Math & Computer Science department. As a professor, Edna has overseen and taught a number of courses including: Discrete mathematics, Probability, Linear Algebra, and Partial Differential Equations. Most of the Edna’s students are computer science and biology students, with some engineering students added into the mix. Her students were not taking her classes because they liked or enjoyed math but rather because it was a prerequisite for their respective majors.




Challenge

It was not so much a challenge as much as a vision that Edna had for her class that would eventually lead to her trying out Bolster Academy in her classes.

“I kind of had this hazy fantasy. I wished I could give my students another try when it came to their assessment. I wished that when I did give them another try, they would do better. I wished they could learn from their mistakes and none of this was happening in my classes.”

With poor attendance rates, dismal grades, academic integrity issues as well as just a general growing hatred towards the subject, Edna’s students were really not having the best of times in her classes.

“It was very negative and from my point of view, I was very saddened by it. I wanted my students to succeed. I know how to take my subject and break it into bite-sized pieces and make it into a sequence.”

But to Edna’s disappointment and frustration, the students just wouldn’t engage as they were finding it really difficult to stay motivated. And while there was a small group of students who did the work and reaped the benefits of it, the majority of the class were struggling.

“But I don’t want just some of them to succeed. I want all of them to succeed. I want everybody to get to a certain level of mathematical ability. Maybe they won’t love math in the end but at least they should have some mastery of the fundamentals that they can take with them and utilize in their future. And you know, in the end, I just didn’t have the tool to work with them in the way I wanted to”

Edna wanted a tool that would encourage students to learn from their mistakes. The way her class was set up, the feedback she was providing her students was too little, too late. By the time Edna got back to her students with feedback for a specific quiz or test, her students were already too busy trying to understand the new topic that was just introduced in class.

“My fastest turnaround time when it came to feedback was about a week. And that’s not fast enough. And also it’s not personalized feedback. And it’s not a conversation. Feedback ideally is a conversation, but in this case you are not having a conversation. The student is saying here’s my attempt and as a teacher, I’m just saying well here’s my correction of it. There is no back and forth”

Edna wanted a tool that could facilitate that conversation and create a feedback loop for her students which would enable her students to learn from the feedback and attempt a test again.


Solution

With the help of Bolster Academy, Edna started to digitise the whole process with the goal of tightening her feedback loop. Edna’s first move was to utilize Bolster Academy’s database of interactive theory pages and exercise sets as a base to create a digital learning resource for her students that was tailored to her specific teaching requirements.

“I had a myriad of question styles to choose from. My current favourites are the drag-n-drop, open-free and file-upload. But, I could make games, including crossword puzzles and “hotspot” questions. I want to try those soon. I just finished designing an exercise containing a randomized histogram to guide students with mean and the variance computations”

By digitizing the primary learning resource of her classes, Edna was now able to provide the students with an interactive self-study tool that would grade their practice work, give them hints on how to improve their work and praise them when they got something right. After creating the material, since everything else was automated, students were able to get real-time feedback for their work without having to rely on Edna.

On the testing side of things, Edna was no longer concerned with academic integrity since all the questions could be randomized. This meant that every student had a different version of the same test with different variables.

“Now, I can write fifty different quizzes for fifty different students, complete with detailed solutions. I can even let them attempt a completely new version of the quiz with the click of a button”


Result

Nearing the end of her second semester using Bolster Academy, Edna is finding that her students are becoming less and less dependent on her when it comes to covering the basic concepts in a module.

“I could not have taught the three courses I did last semester without Bolster Academy. It would have been impossible. My introductory calculus class basically taught themselves using the tool. I mainly just gave assignments on the tool and for the rest, I let them do their own thing on the tool. And they did very well”

Edna also started noticing her students’ attitudes towards mathematics were changing.

“They were having fun. They were no longer stressed about messing up because they can practice randomly generated problems as much as they want. I no longer face the conundrum of having to penalize students for the very mistakes I used to only dream they would learn from. Now with the click of a button, Bolster Academy allows me to let my students retake quizzes and solve problems repeatedly until they get them right - a feat not humanly possible when I had to grade all their work by hand”

In general, the grades of her students were getting better as well, since they were provided with more opportunities to test their skill set while also being provided more timely feedback so they know exactly what they have to improve.

“This year, unlike previous years, I have been overcome with the remarkably positive responses I have received from my students throughout the semester. It is completely uncharacteristic for non-math majors to say they wish all their teachers were more like me or to use the words ‘math’ and ‘fun’ in the same sentence.”

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