VMATYC 25th Annual Conference: Day 1

Last weekend I attended the 25th Annual Conference of The Virginia Mathematical Association of Two Year Colleges (VMATYC), Virginia's chapter of the American Mathematical Association of Two Year Colleges (AMATYC). This was the first educational conference I have been to since I started teaching developmental math two and half years ago, so it was a very exciting event for me. What follows is my account of the seminars I attended at the VMATYC and what I learned from the experience. I've tried my best to summarize the events I attended from my notes, but please contact me if there are any inaccuracies.

I missed the early sessions on Friday due to class, but made it in time for the seminar I was most interested in: The Developmental Math Redesign Team (DMRT) Progress Report.

DMRT Progress Report

Virginia's Community College System (VCCS) has been in the process of “redesigning” the developmental math program for about two years now, and is now in the process of implementing some major changes to the way developmental math is handled at the community college level. The report was presented by Dr. Susan Wood, Dr. Donna Jovanovich, and Jane Serbousek.

Dr. Susan Wood began the discussion with a broad overview of the DMRT program. The DMRT began in 2009 with the publication of The Turning Point: Developmental Education in Virginia's Community Colleges, which highlighted some of the problems facing developmental math students. This document set forward the goal for the developmental education redesign, which is specifically targeted at increasing the number of students that go on to complete degree programs. The Turning Point also initiated the Developmental Mathematics Redesign Team. The following year, the DMRT published The Critical Point: Redesign Developmental Mathematics Education in Virginia's Community College System, which outlines the proposed changes to the developmental education program. Next, a curriculum committee began work on a new developmental mathematics curriculum, which is available here. These changes are slated for implementation in Fall 2011. Dr. Wood also made the point that these changes fit into a larger framework of the student experience, a cycle of “Placement/Diagnostic Instruments --> Content --> Structure --> Instructional Delivery --> Professional Development --> Student Support Services Assessment --> Placement/Diagnostic Instruments”.

Next, Jane Serbousek followed with more detail about the proposed DMRT changes. The content of the developmental math courses has been revised to better reflect what is needed to be successful in college. The content has also been reorganized from three five-unit courses, to a series of nine one-unit “modules”. The modules are competency based, and are intended to use a grading system of ABCF instead of SRU (Satisfactory, Reenroll, Unsatisfactory) which is currently employed. She noted that the question of “what constitutes mastery?”, is a difficult one. The intention of this modular framework is that students should only take the modules that are needed, as determined by the placement test, and work to improve their mastery of that topic before moving forward. This also allows for greater differentiation between students. For example, Liberal Arts students would have different developmental math requirements than students in STEM programs.

Part three of the presentation was led by Dr. Donna Jovanovich and discussed the goals of developmental math redesign. The three goals of the DMRT are (1) to reduce the need for developmental education, (2) reduce time to complete developmental education, and (3) to increase number of developmental education students graduating or transferring. Each of these goals has a related measure of success. For example, “reduced need for developmental education” can be measured by placement test scores and “reduced time to complete developmental education” can be measured by student success in developmental classes. One interesting statistic that Dr. Jovanovich mentioned was the following: only 1/3 of developmental math students that don't pass reenroll in the course the following semester, of those, only 1/3 pass the second time, but those that do pass through the developmental program successfully have a 80% of graduating or transferring. So while success rates for the courses are grim, there are long term payoffs for the students who do succeed.

Dr. Wood returned at the end of the session for some closing remarks. The steps for the DMRT program are to have the curriculum approved by the Dean's course committee and to find out how the modularization of developmental math will affect enrollment services and financial aid.

For more information, see the VCCS Developmental Education home page.

VCCS Reengineering Initiative

The second event I attended was a presentation from VCCS Chancellor, Dr. Glenn DuBois. The Chancellor began with an overview of the goals for the Reengineering Initiative, many of which are spelled out in the Achieve 2015 publication. The goals are to improve access, affordability, student success, workforce and resources. He noted that the VCCS is experiencing an increased number of students that register for classes, and increased number of these students are unprepared, a decrease amount of public funding, along with a call for more public accountability and more college graduates. Currently, about 50% of high school graduates require developmental education and only 25% of them go on to graduate in four years. He made the case that there is bipartisan support for improving the quality of education, using President Obama and Virgina Governor McDonnell as two examples. President Obama has stated that he wants to see 5 million more graduates in the US, while Governor McDonnell has stated that he wants to see 100,000 more graduates in the state of Virginia. This is the heart of the Reengineering Initiative: improving student success with sustainable and scalable solutions. Some of the funding for the Reengineering Initiative has been made possible by Federal funding, as well as the Lumina & Gates foundations.

In order to improve the 25% success rate of developmental education, the Reengineering Initiative is implementing major changes to the developmental math program. First is the opening of different paths for different students. Second is a revised business model which replaces a “test in/test out” philosophy with a diagnostics and short modules intended to improve mastery. To accomplish these goals, the Virginia Community Colleges are moving in a direction of more shared services, in areas such as Financial Aid and distance learning. The VCCS is also looking for ways to help local high schools better prepare students for college, such as making the placement test available to high school students and developing transition courses.

Best Practices in a Changing Developmental Education Classroom

The last event of the first day was a keynote presentation from textbook author Elayn Martin-Gay. Elayn's first major point was about the importance of “ownership” for both teachers and students, and how language can affect the feeling of “ownership”. For example, instead students' grades being “given”, they should be “earned”. She seemed very positive about the Reengineering Initiative, saying that it was “good to be doing something, even if it's wrong, [so that] you can tweak it and continue”.

She then proceeded into more classroom oriented practices, saying that it was important to monitor student performance and catch students “at the dip”. If a drop in performance can be corrected early, this can prevent the student from getting too far behind. She also talked about the importance of students keeping notes in a “journal”. This encourages good study skills, giving students a source to go to when it comes time for the exam. She suggested that teachers should “learn the beauty of a little bit of silence”. Teachers should not always jump right into a solution to a problem, but that waiting a extra three seconds longer will dramatically increase the number of student responses. She also said that teachers should “raise the bar and expect more from students”, and that “they will rise to meet it”. She recommended that disciplinary problems occurring in the classroom should be taken care of immediately, to maximize time for learning later.

After these classroom practices, she moved into some of the larger social issues affecting developmental education. She noted that the supply of college degrees has gone down, while the demand for experts has gone up. She jokingly called the first year of college “grade 13”, noting that many college freshmen have yet to decide on a long term plan. She cited seven current issues affected new college students: lack of organization, confidence, study skills, attendance, motivation, work ethic, and reading skills. She argued that reading is often the biggest barrier to earning a college degree.

As some ways of addressing these issues, she presented a number of graphs relating college experience with employment and income. She said that she often presents these graphs at the start of the semester as a means of encouragement. She has students covert the statistics from annual income to an hourly wage so that they can more closely relate with the figures. She also included some ideas for asking “deeper” questions in math classes. One of the examples was “Write a linear equation that has 4 as the solution”. The trivial solution to this is “x=4”, then we can build off this to find others “2x=8” and “2x-3 = 5”. She says that students will typically solve these equations step by step each time, by the time she asks students to solve something like “-2(2x-3)/1000 = -10/1000” they start to look for an easier method – realizing deeper properties about equality in the process.

One of the things Elayn said that resonated strongly with me was that “students would rather be in charge of their own failure than take a chance on [asking the teacher]”. As math teachers, the general feeling of the audience was that study skills are not our focus, but as Elayn pointed out, those study skills can have a powerful influence on student success. By providing students with the skills necessary to “learn math”, those students can in turn take charge of their learning experience.

Next time: VMATYC Day 2

Stay tuned as I collect my notes from Day 2. Day 2 events include: “Online Developmental Math on the Brink: Discussion Panel”, “Developmental Mathematics SIG Roundtable”, and “The Mathematical Mysteries of Music”.

#MathChat Recommended Reading

This week's topic on #mathchat was "What books would you recommend for mathematics and/or teachers, why?". I offered several suggestions in Thursday's chat, but wanted to go back and explain in more detail "why". I've also added a few to help round out the selection. These books are listed in approximate order of "increasing density", with the more casual titles at the top and the more math intensive titles near the bottom. Of course, this ordering is my own subjective opinion and should be taken with a grain of salt.

Disclaimer: The author bears no connection to any of the publications listed here, nor was the author compensated for these reviews in any way.

Lewis Carroll - "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", "Through the Looking-Glass"

Recommended for: all ages, casual readers

Charles Dodgson, perhaps better known by his pen-name "Lewis Carroll", authored a number of children's books including the aforementioned titles. What makes these books so special, is that Dodgson was also a mathematician and embedded numerous mathematical references in these works. Most people might be familiar with the many film adaptations of these works, but I'd highly recommend reading the originals with an eye towards the logical riddles and mathematical puzzles hidden in these classics. You can find these books online at Project Gutenburg. For little a taste of the mathematics involved, you might start here.

Charles Seife - "Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception"

Recommend for: teens and older, casual readers, who don't think math is relevant to daily life

This book focuses on what I consider to be a important topic in the current socio-political climate. Ordinary people are repeated bombarded by "deceptive mathematics". Whether the source is trying to sell a product or push a political agenda, the inclusion of numeric figures or fancy graphs can go a long way to make a claim look more legitimate than it really is. Proofiness spells out some of the common warning signs of deceitful mathematics, so that the reader can be more aware of these practices. While somewhat lighter on the mathematical content that more advanced readers might expect, I think this book sheds some much needed light on an important social issue and was an enjoyable read. If you like this, you may also like How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff

Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna - Logicomix

Recommended for: casual readers, comic book fans

Technically this is a graphic novel instead of your typical book, but that doesn't mean it doesn't cover some important mathematics! Logicomix presents Betrand Russell as the antagonist in a series of historical events that took place in the early 20th century, culminating with Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. which shook the very foundation of mathematics. Logicomix makes superheroes out of mathematicians in an epic story, while exposing the reader to some amazing mathematics. Ties in nicely with Gödel, Escher, Bach below.

David Richardson - "Euler's Gem"

Recommend for: casual readers curious about topology

I was looking for a casual introduction to topology and found this little "gem". This is the book that I wish I read while studying topology in college! It covers everything from the basic principles of topology to the recently solved Poincaré Conjecture. Don't let all this mathematics scare you away from this title! The book is still written in a very approachable manner. It chronicles the life history of Leonard Euler, presenting the development of the field of topology in context that even the casual reader can enjoy.

Douglass Hofstadter - "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid"

Recommended for: semi-casual readers with diverse interests

When someone asks me for "a good math book", this is my go-to recommendation. This book has a little of something for everyone. Math, music, art, language, computers, biology, and psychology are woven seamlessly into a humorous and playful narrative, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll. It goes deep into mathematical concepts where appropriate, and uses visual material and metaphor to bring complex concepts down to Earth. I listed it as "semi-casual" due to the depth of mathematics involved, but a casual reader can skip some of the more math intensive parts and still get a nice overview of the general principles.

Jean-Pierre Changeux and Alain Connes - "Conversations on Mind, Matter, and Mathematics"

Recommended for: semi-casual readers, with interest in philosophy

This book spans several conversations between a Mathematician and a Neurologist on the Nature of Mathematics. One of the central questions is if mathematical ideas have an existence of their own, or if they exist only within the neurology of the human brain. Both sides present some fascinating support for their side of the argument. The material can be a little dense at times, making reference to advanced research as if it were common knowledge, and might not be appropriate for more casual readers. However, a reader willing to dig in to these arguments will reveal two very fascinating perspectives on the philosophy of mathematics.

James Gleick - "Chaos: Making a New Science"

Recommended for: semi-casual readers, preferably with some Calculus experience

Chaos takes the reader on a historical journey through the emergence of Chaos Theory as a mathematical field. An amazing journey through the work of numerous mathematicians in different fields, who came upon systems exhibiting "sensitive dependence on initial conditions". This book serves as an introduction to both Chaos Theory and non-linear dynamics, while shedding light on the process behind the development of this field. Some experience with differential equations would be beneficial to the reader, but more casual readers can get by with assistance of wonderful visual aids. A nice complement to A New Kind of Science below.

Roger Penrose - "The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics"

Recommended for: more advanced readers with interests in physics and artificial intelligence

Roger Penrose is a well established mathematical physicist, and The Emperor's New Mind offers an accurate and well written overview of quantum physics. However, what makes this book interesting is that Penrose takes this physics and mathematics to mount an attack on what Artificial Intelligence researchers describe as "strong AI". Penrose makes the case that Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem implies that cognitive psychology's information processing model is inherently flawed -- that the human mind can not be realistically modeled by a computer. Whether you agree with Penrose's conclusions or not, his argument is insightful and is something that needs to be addressed as the field of cognitive psychology moves forward.

Stephen Wolfram - "A New Kind of Science"

Recommended for: more advanced readers with interest in computer science

Don't let its size intimidate you. If you made it through the titles above, than you should be ready to make headway into this giant tome. The central theme of A New Kind of Science is that complex phenomena can emerge from simple systems of rules. This is different from Chaos Theory (described above), in that this complexity can emerge regardless of initial conditions. A New Kind of Science takes the stance that we can learn a great deal about mathematics through experimentation, and makes the case that perhaps the vast complexity of the universe around us can be explained by a few simple rules.