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Study determines classes with highest failure rates

Published: Thursday, December 6, 2012

Updated: Thursday, December 6, 2012 00:12


A study conducted by the Office of the Provost each semester helps departments pinpoint which classes have the highest failing and withdrawal rates each semester and has led to some changes in course structures.

The results of the study help them determine which courses are taught — and by whom — in upcoming semesters. When a course has been identified by a department as having received a high failing rate, action taken has included revising the prerequisites or putting in a new instructor.

The study, which began in January 2011, is conducted at the end of each semester, and the data is distributed to the College of Deans and the various departments.

Paul Dosal, vice provost for student success, said courses that see higher failing rates are the “gatekeeper courses” — the required courses that are usually high in enrollment and need to be taken in a student’s first year at the university.

“If we find a class with a large percentage of people who are not passing, we need to empower them to figure out why,” Dosal said.

Dosal said he was not surprised to find D, F and W grades in gatekeeper courses such as college algebra, but was surprised with the higher rates in some upper-level courses.

“How I’d put it is that the data seems to show that our performance is fairly common nationally,” Dosal said. “The higher rates are in the departments that you would expect them in, such as the maths and sciences.”

While no specific majors or departments have been identified as having higher failing rates, Dosal said math and science courses required for pre-medicine degrees see higher rates of failures and withdrawals. A possible explanation, he said, is whether or not a student completes a math course during his or her senior year of high school.

When the math department was contacted about rates, it put together a pilot study of college algebra courses to determine how to improve student grades. It led to a redesign of the course and the addition of the SMART Lab, a computer lab area on the second floor of the Library, to the curriculum.

At USF from 2007 to 2010, the average failure rate for college algebra was 35 percent, according to the pilot study summary of the college algebra course created by Fran Hopf, instructional specialist for the mathematics department.

“We were looking at how the resources enhanced or did not enhance students’ learning experience,” Hopf said.

In spring 2011, a traditional version of college algebra and a redesigned version of college algebra were taught. The traditional version includes two large lecture classes and two discussion classes with a teaching assistant (TA) each week.

The redesigned course includes a lecture hall discussion class once a week. The remaining three hours of the course are met by completing assignments in the SMART Lab, where students work using the software system MyLabPlus.

“This model for learning actually flips the traditional model so you have less time in the classroom and more time in personal study, and it does more for the student,” Hopf said. “It gives them more time to learn where they are at, so it’s kind of like an individualized approach.”

According to the pilot study, spring 2011 had 534 students enrolled in the traditional version of the course, and 162 of these students received a D, F or W grade in the course — 30.3 percent of total enrollment. The redesigned version enrolled 187 students, and 40 of those students received a D, F or W grade in the course — 21.4 percent of total enrollment.

The study was repeated in the fall semester of 2011, with two classes using the redesigned version of the course. In the traditional version of the course, 23.1 percent received a D, F or W grade, while in the redesigned version,

14.6 percent failed or withdrew.

While in the SMART Lab, students have access to resources such as tutorials and videos, as well as tutors, teaching assistants and professors.

Mackenzie Perry, a freshman majoring in public health, said she doesn’t like how the new course is structured.

“Math has never been a subject that’s easy for me to learn, so it takes a lot of one-on-one (instruction) for me,” Perry said. “Just having the teacher read over the notes once a week didn’t really help at all. It’s kind of up to you to get help after that.”

Perry said the SMART Lab is helpful at times, but it should not be required when the software could instead be installed on a student’s personal laptop and completed at home.

“I’ve had to work more for the grade that I received, and so I’m doing OK, but I don’t know how the overall class of college algebra is doing,” Perry said. “I don’t feel the class of college algebra is doing that well because I don’t think a lot of people put in the effort.”

An online survey to look at student reception about the required hours in the SMART Lab was conducted in spring 2012. It found that most students had positive feedback and thought their attitudes toward math had improved.

According to the study, “though the students initially protested the required lab hours, they recognized that it helped prevent them from procrastinating.”

Hopf said this setup allows students to take control of their study habits and the redesigned format may be used for future finite math courses.

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