Remedial math; the reconstruction

Category:  News
Wednesday, September 19th, 2018 at 5:33 PM

When the remedial math class restructuring was introduced to Edinboro University’s campus, it was revolutionary: students would work at their own pace instead of having to go at breakneck speed through seven years of math materials. And if they were not able to complete the course in one semester, they could pick up exactly where they left off in the next semester. 

With high numbers of students placing into remedial math (at one point the number of incoming freshmen needing to take remedial math was at 46 percent) rethinking the way that math was being taught seemed like the only solution. 

Now, some years later, remedial math is going through another restructuring based around a new system: ALEKS. 

According to McGraw Hill Education, ALEKS, which stands for Assessment Learning in Knowledge Spaces, is an artificially intelligent assessment and learning system. It uses adaptive technology to gauge where a student is at their understanding of a topic and then instructs them on their weakest points. In addition to being used as a classroom aide, ALEKS can also be used as a placement tool. 

“In the Summer of 2017, we started using ALEKS placement for new freshmen, instead of Accuplacer,” said Dr. Anne Quinn, chair of the math and computer science department at Edinboro.  

“The test is longer, and students get a more detailed idea of what they got right and wrong. If they place lower than they hope, such as into remedial math, they can use ALEKS to study over the summer before they enter college,” Quinn continued. 

After testing the program in its placement testing capacities for about a year, the university decided to go further and adopt the program in the teaching of the remedial math class. 

“ALEKS is really popular, (and) used at a lot of universities. HAWKS, on the other hand, is not as commonly used,” said Dr. Melanie Baker, one of two professors teaching remedial math this semester. “So, as an effort to try something new, we decided to go ahead and switch over to ALEKS. But you know it was also because we wanted to try and stay consistent with the (placement) exam, now that we are using ALEKS instead of Accuplacer.” 

She continued: “Part of that process is that we give students access to the course over the summer. So, since they are practicing on that software already, we were hoping that it would kind of ease that transition.” 

If students do not score well on the initial placement exam — which is taken un-proctered, they have a chance to retake the exam five more times, according to the academic success testing center webpage. Attempts two through five are proctored. In addition, for retakes six months after students have been given access to the class, it requires a $25 fee. The exam takes on average 90 minutes to complete and adapts questions according to the students answers. 

Software was not the only change made to the remedial math testing process; the math and computer sciences department also made the decision to do away with “MATH 020,” the first semester of remedial math and prerequisite requirement for students needing to take MATH 104 (Finite Math). It was dropped this fall. 

“We found that most students placed into MATH 104 by their high school math transcript anyway, and increased admission standards suggested this would continue,” said Quinn. 

According to Quinn, students’ high school transcripts are evaluated, and those who earned a “B” or higher in high school “Algebra II” are allowed to place into “MATH 104.”  

That means that students in non-STEM or STEM affiliated majors, such as art, journalism or history, don’t need to take the placement exam — rather they are able to begin their math sequence immediately upon beginning their freshman year if they so desire. 

Students who are in a STEM, or STEM related fields, must still take the placement exam to place into the math class required for their major, according to Quinn.

“We were rewriting a math course that was designed for everyone — whether you’re a math major or an art major. So, it kind of put us in a tough position where we had to keep the standard high enough that we were prepping those STEM students, but it was kind of overkill for our art majors. So, we are trying to design something a little different now,” said Baker.

This change means that most students who are taking the class are enrolled in STEM or STEM affiliated majors. It also means that class sizes are smaller. 

“I mean our remedial numbers have been drastically reduced, a part of that is because the majority of students in the class where headed towards “MATH 104” and we dropped the prerequisite for that class, so because of that, and because students are retesting, the numbers as well are down. We had like 20 sections of remedial and now we have four,” Baker said. 

Two sections of the class are taught by Baker, and the two sections that Baker teaches are composed of first semester freshmen. The other two sections, taught by Dr. Corinne Schaffer, are composed of students who started the HAWKS system and are in the process of completing it. 

The transition has not been without bumps however. “Something that has surprised me is the difficulty students have transitioning to the online platform; usually you think of the younger generation being much more ‘mobile’ and tech savvy, but doing math on paper versus doing math on a computer has been a big transition.” 

Smaller class sizes are welcome to the professors teaching the class. 

“What’s really cool right now, and I hope it stays this way, is that I only have 15 kids in each section, and oh my gosh it’s so much better. In the old model we not only had a lot of sections, but also a lot of students per section. I mean, I was looking at 35-40 students per section but now it’s only 15. So now I can periodically check in and individualize my instruction to students,” Baker said. 

Baker continued: “Compared to a lecture-based class, I definitely get to know my students better. In the beginning it was a little discouraging because the student feedback said, ‘oh the computers are teaching us’.  As a teacher that hurts, you know? Because you put so much time and effort into it and it’s like they are not seeing that effort, you know? But I think that at the end of the semester, the students who have genuinely put effort in and went through it feel that there is more of a connection than in a regular classroom.

“I mean, in a regular classroom it is not unusual for me to go through a whole semester and there be a fourth of my class that never visits my office, never asks a question one-on-one, even before or after class other than handing in a paper, and never really talk. Whereas whether you like it or not, I’m going to come sit next to you and ask you how it’s going and it kind of forces some students to kind of come out of their shell and interact a little bit more.”

Shayma Musa can be reached at

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