A significant redesign of two foundational mathematics courses at the University of Georgia has led to remarkable gains in student success, including an increase from 65% to 85% of students who pass precalculus.
While the DFW (grade of D, grade of F or Withdrawal) rate for students taking precalculus averages 27% nationally, according to the Mathematical Association of America, the DFW rate at UGA has dropped from 35% six years ago to approximately 15% last fall. Similarly, the DFW rate for students taking calculus has dropped from 29% to 21%.
“Increasing the number of students who succeed in passing these math classes opens the door for them to pursue majors and careers in the sciences, business and engineering,” said Rahul Shrivastav, vice president for instruction. “This talent development supports the state of Georgia’s industry and employment needs.”
In 2018, 40% of the student body at UGA had declared a major in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, up 20% since 2013.
“About 300 more students are passing precalculus and about another 150 are passing calculus every year,” said Jason Cantarella, professor and associate head of mathematics. About 1,700 students take precalculus and roughly the same number enroll in calculus every year at UGA. “Now 450 more students who pass precalculus or calculus can pursue STEM majors, get into Terry business school, or do not have to repeat a class,” he added.
What’s new about the classes?
Kelly Black, precalculus coordinator who has been involved in the transformation of the classes, expanded on Cantarella’s thoughts. “We want to be a pathway to student success,” he said. “We want to help students meet their goals and dreams.”
Cantarella is quick to credit the increase in funding the department received three years ago as part of the Small Class Size Initiative that reduced class size to 19 or fewer students in each section (previously the average class size was 38).
With smaller classes in place, Cantarella said math faculty participated in the Active Learning Summer Institute to redesign the way the classes are taught from a lecture format to a student-centered active learning format. The revised courses have three main parts: pre-class video assignments, pre-class problem sets and in-class group work.
The math faculty have also created workbooks and other materials for these classes and train graduate students to teach the classes in a more active way.
“When students come to class, they’re going to be active and work on problems,” said Jennifer Royal, calculus coordinator. “Before they come to class, they get an introduction to the concept on videos. Since they’re going to be working through the problems together, students feel more motivated to work to understand the concepts before they get to class because they don’t want to let their teams down.”
“We’re a research department in a research university but we take our teaching mission very seriously,” added Cantarella. “These courses are an important part of our mission.”