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Collaborative Learning and Online Assessments Enhance Developmental Math at Ohio University-Chillicothe

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While in his previous role as associate dean, Lafreniere became concerned about the number of students who were repeating developmental mathematics courses two or three times in an effort to move on to college algebra. He had started using technology in his classroom in the late 90s, and even back then he saw its potential to make his classroom more efficient so he could spend more time helping students understand concepts. He used it for purposes such as sharing his notes with his students, but what he really wanted was a tool that could assess his math students' problem solving process and give them feedback.

Evaluating an Online Instructional Tool

Around 2009, Lafreniere began looking for a tool to accomplish that goal. One of them was WebAssign, an online instructional system that combines digital learning content with instant assessment. "I eyed WebAssign because it had the ability to take advantage of some of the powerful packages on the mathematics and engineering scene, which were Maple and Mathematica," he said in a phone interview. "Those were real draws because I knew the power behind those products that they were tapping into."

As part of the product evaluation process, Lafreniere was able to compare WebAssign and other tools side-by-side in his classroom on a trial basis. "I had the opportunity to bear witness to students and their engagement, their excitement or frustration when working with these different tools," he said. "It was rather interesting to see, in some cases, students taking a developmental sequence in two different formats at the same time. Usually you're comparing apples to oranges so to speak with different students, but we actually had students experiencing both."

Lafreniere evaluated the tools based on their academic value as well as cost, including textbook costs for students. The students had a real affinity for WebAssign, Lafreniere said, and as a professor, he liked its features, such as question authoring, pooling and randomization; customization and support for third-party tools for video, simulations and online calculators; as well as freedom to choose between publishers. The university had already adopted a textbook and wanted a tool that could support it. He also saw the potential of WebAssign and Enhanced WebAssign to let students convey their mathematical thoughts beyond click and point by using digital ink. "It really has a lot of tools that are highly graphical in nature," he said.

Responsive Teaching, Collaborative Learning and Online Assessment

Lafreniere lets the students work through the material at their own pace in WebAssign, but the majority of them choose to move through the coursework together. Because the tool lets Lafreniere monitor how well each student is mastering the material, he can pace his course accordingly, going back to reteach concepts students are struggling with. "You can see an evolution in students becoming more and more open, knowing that they can come to a classroom where they're actually going to get a chance to ask questions about the difficulties they're facing, versus a typical lecture where I'm moving on whether you understand it or not," said Lafreniere. Over time, he has collected data about the number of times a typical student needs to work through a type of problem before he or she masters the concept, and he provides students with those benchmarks. If they're still struggling with a concept after that number of attempts, it's a flag that they need assistance.

Sometimes it's Lafreniere providing that assistance, and sometimes it's a fellow student. The system generates a unique set of problems for each student, while ensuring that they are based on the same mathematical concept. That randomization means students can work collaboratively, helping each other understand the mathematical procedure without copying each others' work. "It allows the students literally to sit next to each other, as well as online, and talk about a problem that they're trying to solve from a conceptual and procedural fluency standpoint, versus peering over [someone’s] shoulder and just taking an answer and submitting it," said Lafreniere.

Since implementing WebAssign, Lafreniere has also revamped his approach to assessment and switched to proctored exams through a testing center. Each exam is available during a two-week window, so students can write select a time that is convenient for them and when they feel best prepared to tackle the challenge. Because the exams take advantage of WebAssign's randomization feature, there is no risk of students cheating by sharing answers. It also means students can take each exam up to three times, with different problems each time. Lafreniere gives about eight exams throughout the course, so using the proctored approach means eight hours more classroom time for teaching and learning during the semester.

Effects on Developmental Math Outcomes

Since implementing this new approach to developmental math classes, Lafreniere has seen an increase in the rate of students passing the course and progressing to college algebra. "It was really impressive how students — when given the right direction to work on concepts, to build their procedural fluency — can learn the material and not have to revisit it time and time again," said Lafreniere. The college algebra instructors noticed a change in the students coming from the developmental math classes, too. "Other faculty were finding them contributing and well prepared for their classes," said Lafreniere. "That was a telling sign that things were going right."

Based on the success of Lafreniere's developmental math classes, the university has rolled out the new approach to all of its developmental math classes, so there are now about seven or eight faculty members using the new approach.

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