Gas station without pumps

2013 September 9

MOOC failures in remedial math

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 07:10
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By now, probably everyone interested in the MOOC debate has read one or more articles about San Jose State’s experiment with Udacity last Spring.  The best article I’ve found about why San Jose State terminated the pilot is from the San Jose Mercury News: MOOC mashup: San Jose State University — Udacity experiment with online-only courses fizzles. That article explains that the experiment was stopped for the same reason that clinical trials are often stopped—there was clear evidence that the new treatment was worse than the standard one:

In the Udacity Remedial/Developmental Math course there was a disappointing 29 percent pass rate compared to an 80 percent pass rate in the regular face-to-face SJSU course. Only 12 percent of non-SJSU students in the Udacity version of the course passed, including students from Oakland Military Institute, the college-prep charter school.

Likewise, in the online College Algebra course, only 44 percent of San Jose students achieved the required C pass rate compared to a 74 percent C pass rate in the face-to-face version. Here again, only 12 percent of non-SJSU students in the online version achieved a C.

Finally, in the statistics class, which Udacity expected to produce far superior results, only 51 percent of students achieved a C pass rate, in stark contrast to the 74 percent C pass rate students accomplished in the face-to-face version of the same course.

I’ve been planning to post this for almost 2 months now, but I didn’t have much to add to the Mercury News article.  Today I was reading another blog post on Daniel Collins’s Angry Math blog, Reasons Remedial is Rough, which explains some of the reasons why the failure rate in remedial math classes is so high. Unless MOOCs can address some of these problems, they will not be able to reduce the failure rate.

  1. Lack of math skills from high school. Many students simply don’t have the requisite skills from high school, or really junior high school (algebra), or in many cases even elementary school (times tables, long division, estimations, converting decimals to percent, etc.). It’s hard to make up many years of deficit in a single semester.
  2. Lack of language skills from high school. What’s dawned on me in the last year or so, in the context of applied word problems, is that many students may actually be worse at English than they are at the basic math. Grammar is not taught any more, so students can’t parse a sentence in detail, can’t identify the noun or verb in a sentence, and so forth. This cripples learning the structure of any new language, algebra included.
  3. Lack of logic skills from high school. Basically, no one is taught basic logic anymore, so students can’t parse If/Then, And, Or, Not statements, which form critical parts of our mathematical presentations and procedures.
  4. Lack of study skills or discipline. Almost none of my students do any of the expected homework from our textbook. (On the one hand, I don’t collect or award points for homework, so you might say this is unsurprising; but my judgement is that the amount of practice students need to do greatly exceeds the amount of time I could possibly have to mark or assess it.)
  5. Lack of time to study. Certainly most of our community college students are holding full-time jobs, or caring for children, or supporting parents or other family members. The financial aid system actually requires a full-time course load for benefits; combine that with a full-time job—really, the equivalent of two 40-hour jobs at once—and you get a very, very challenging situation. (Side note: In our lowest-level arithmetic classes, I find that work hours are positively correlated with success, but not so in algebra or other classes.)
  6. Learning disabilities like dyslexia and dyscalculia. All I can do is speculate as to what proportion of remedial students would exhibit such problems if we could institute comprehensive screening. But I suspect it’s quite high. When students are routinely mixing or dropping written symbols, then disaster results. Unlike other languages, concise math syntax has no redundancies to enable the “you know what I meant” safety net.
  7. Emotional problems or contempt for the class. I put this last, because it’s probably the least common item in my list—but common enough that it usually shows up in one or two students in any remedial classroom; and a single such student can irrevocably damage the learning environment for the whole class. Some students who actually know some algebra start the course thinking that it’s beneath them, and become regularly combative over anything I ask them to do, sabotaging their own learning and that of others. It’s pretty self-destructive, and the pass rate for “know-it-all” students like these seems to be about 50/50.

Dan does give the caveat that these are personal observations from teaching remedial math, not large studies by a sociologist.

Of these problems, MOOCs only address the last one (disruptive students), since there is no classroom for them to disrupt—though MOOCs that rely on forums can be easily have the environment destroyed by a couple of trolls, so they don’t even solve this problem.

I think that the key observation is that “It’s hard to make up many years of deficit in a single semester. “ The whole premise of remedial math education is flawed—we are spending enormous amounts on trying to rescue students damaged by poor prior education, with a very low success rate.  It would be far better (and probably cheaper) not to damage the students in the first place.

Of course, it is easy to say “first do no harm”, but that is hard to achieve in practice.  It is very rare for a teacher or school to deliberately harm a student, but many are coming out of the system harmed anyway.

The purist ideological positions that people staked out during the math wars are probably contributing to the harm—students do not benefit from pure drill-and-kill nor from discover-all-of-math-by-yourself (to use the pejorative descriptions of the two extreme positions).

Math teachers need to use enough drill in the early years that students can have “automaticity”—a terrible eduspeak word that means that they are fluent with basic arithmetic and don’t have to think about it.  This is point 1 above—students need to develop the prerequisite skills to the point where they don’t need to think about them any more, and can work on the higher level thinking skills.

But math teachers need to teach more than just skill drills.  Students who can do routine algorithms when told to can still struggle mightily when trying to figure out which algorithm to apply. And it isn’t just the math teachers responsible for teaching this. As described in both points 2 and 3 above: students need to be able to read and comprehend fairly sophisticated English in order to do algebra.  The discarding of grammar from most English instruction in the US means that many students have only vague ideas about how sentences are constructed and interpreted, and so can’t translate what they read into the precise concepts needed for doing math.

Points 4 and 5, the lack of study skills and the lack of time, go hand in hand.  Students with little time and no idea how to use that little time efficiently are going to struggle to learn anything unfamiliar.  Having a regularly scheduled study group of students of roughly the same ability can help with time management—it is easier to block out time for a regularly scheduled meeting than to handle multiple priorities and make sure that studying comes to the top of the list sufficiently often.  The social pressure from a group of fellow students who are seriously trying to learn can also make a big difference in how much time is spent studying and how effective that studying time is.  This may be one of the biggest advantages that in-person classes have over MOOCs.

Learning disabilities and attitude problems are always going to be difficult to handle, and may require one-on-one attention, not just remedial classes.

In summary, I think that elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools need to look carefully at their programs—especially if a large fraction of their graduates are requiring remedial math in college.  Do the elementary students and middle school students have sufficient facility with arithmetic and fractions to be able to use those skills freely when taking secondary school math?  Do they have enough grammar to be able to pick apart a sentence and translate it precisely into mathematical terms?  Have they practiced doing so?  Secondary schools need to be sure that they are remediating the flaws of their feeder schools, and not just kicking the can down the road to the colleges.

The sooner problems are fixed, the smaller the fixes needed.  MOOCs do not seem to be a rational attempt to fix the real problems.



  1. Students aren’t just the problem. I know that my school system (considered the ‘best’ public school in our area) allowed 4th graders to start using calculators. Really? How is a kid going to learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide if you give them a calculator to do it for them? I had to pry the thing out of my daughters hands at 6th grade. I’m glad I did since she lost a lot of the speed and accuracy that 2 years of Kumon help me build with her after school. Now we are homeschooling I seriously limit the use of the calculator for complex problems and graphing checks.

    Comment by Nita — 2013 September 9 @ 07:27 | Reply

    • I don’t think that Collins was saying that students are the problem, nor did I intend that. The problem is that the students he teaches have not been properly taught previously, and he can’t undo the damage in just one semester, though the course description expects it of him. Too much reliance on calculators can cause students to develop difficulty thinking about numbers. Too little use of calculators can make them unable to use a calculator quickly and accurately when they do need one. The right balance may be different for different kids.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 September 9 @ 16:53 | Reply

  2. The language problem is huge. I regularly deal with CS majors (not remedial students) who do not have the reading skill to decode their textbooks. It isn’t just lack of grammar – it is also a lack of vocabulary. I suspect that the biggest culprit is not lack of explicit grammar instruction (though that would help) but lack of *practice*, over a lifetime, in reading books with more complexity than a teen novel or comic book.

    Comment by Bonnie — 2013 September 9 @ 10:13 | Reply

    • I’ve not taught freshmen in a long time, so I’m not familiar with their reading levels. The high school students I know have a very wide range of reading abilities, from dyslexics who can barely read anything to students who’ve been reading college-level texts and more complicated hardware and software reference manuals for years. The diagnosed dyslexics have reading problems that can’t be fixed just with grammar and vocabulary lessons, I suspect.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 September 9 @ 16:49 | Reply

  3. What has me going in this is why someone would even consider that a remedial math MOOC would work? On-line courses require self motivational study habits and a desire to learn. Remedial math students, on average, are not high on either one. I teach a remedial on-line math course at a local technical college. I get a pretty high completion rate with a pretty high grade average because the programs the students are in lead directly to well paying jobs in the near future. The students have a motivation. Those that do not do well do so for the same issue over and over, they will not sit down and do the on-line homework and quizzes. When the only motivation is a grade and the future includes more math to be less than successful at that motivation is not enough.

    Comment by Garth — 2013 September 10 @ 06:50 | Reply

  4. […] MOOC failures in remedial math […]

    Pingback by MathTwitterBlogosphere, mission 1 | Gas station without pumps — 2013 October 6 @ 19:19 | Reply

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