The Best of Intentions.

I just came back from meeting a group of  students who will begin their first semester here next week.  There were eleven of them, most looking eager, some not so much.  I can’t help but wonder if they’ll all be here in May.  I’ve learned to be doubtful about this, but I’m trying hard not to predict the outcome.

On the first day of class I will ask them what’s the percentage of their commitment to staying in the class.  Last semester all but one of  said they were 100% committed. The one other said she was 95% committed. At the end of the semester, 9 out of 14 finished the course, as well as the entire semester.  So what happened to the other 5? Lots of things, mostly having to do with  complicated lives in one way or another.  This isn’t to say that the others had smooth sailing through the semester.

When I reflect on why some navigated well and others not, I look at some of the differences between the two groups.  One difference was their  maturity or the degree to which there was recognition of the ups and downs in life.  The successful students knew there would be obstacles, but planned for them in advance.

Another difference was the level of commitment to a clearly defined goal.  Those students who knew why they were here, no matter the reason, hung in.  Some students actually developed clearer goals during the semester and this helped them  turn things around.

The  two groups also differed in their ability to learn from both successes and “failures”.  Success taught some students that hard work and their own skills paid off and that failure wasn’t permanent and could be remidied with hard work and support.  In essence, the nine students who made it through their semester had challenges, both personally and academically, but knew and   learned how, in spite of the challenges,  to say on course.

Intention isn’t always enough.  I think this will be one of first lessons we talk about after all students most likely will tell me that their 100% committed.

It’s How You Think About Math



I just read an article in the  May 2011 issue of  Journal of Developmental Education It’s written by Barbara Bonham and Hunter Boylan, two major authorities in developmental education, and is entitled Developmental Mathematics: Challenges, Promising Practices, and Recent Initiatives (2011).  They talked about the importance not only of the cognitive skills needed to do well in math, but the affective skills needed as well. 


What is meant by affective skills?  Essentially affective skills include how one thinks about math. Do I believe, for instance, that I will be successful in math?  Many of our students believe the opposite.  Likely, this belief has been learned through past experience.  This negative perception influences a student’s motivation, persistence, success as well as the kind of tasks he/she chooses. 


In educational psychology, this is known as self-efficacy or people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce a certain outcome and to exercise influence over the events that affect their lives (Bandura, 1994). 


In simple terms,positive self-efficacy is the belief that we have the ability to do well in in the tasks we perform and that we have an impact in our lives. 


In thinking about math, in particular, many students don’t have feelings of positive  self-efficacy.  They doubt their ability to be successful and think that they really can’t do anything to change this.  This belief is often learned through their  past experiences with math including what they’ve heard from teachers, parents, media as well as their past failures in math.


So…what can be done to help students increase a student’s self-efficacy in math?  How can we help students believe in their ability to “do math”?  This is the million dollar question.


One thing that could and does help is to set up the learning environment such that students experience success as soon as possible.  This might mean giving quizzes more frequently, allowing students to progress in a self-paced way, or by contextualizing math so that it makes more sense to students   


Providing opportunities for success in math, no matter how it’s done, will likely increase a student’s motivation, persistence, grades, and overall attitude. In the end, changing the way a student thinks about math can really make a difference.


Bandura, A. (1997).  Self-efficacy:The exercise of self-control, NY:W.H. Freeman and Company

Returning to Math

I asked my work study assistant, Lisa, to write her thoughts about returning to school after a long break and, in particular, how she is doing in her math classes.  I asked her to focus on math because it can be such a stumbling block for all students, especially those who have been away from it  for a long time.

Her thoughts are below.  She also talks about her attitude towards  the label “non-traditional” as a description of students who are “older” than the traditional age student.

Thanks, Lisa!

I’ve been out of the school system for approximately 22 yrs.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to further my education; it was due to the fact that I was a single mother. Raising my son was my number one priority during those 22 years, and I didn’t want to “take away” from my son the benefits of having his mother there for him, when he needed me the most.

 Upon re-entering the school environment, I found things to be a lot different than I remember them to be. To begin with, I was labeled as a “non-traditional” student, which I personally find to be another of society’s forms of “labeling.” With today’s society having to “label” individuals, I find it unnecessary and unneeded.  With all the issues in society, “labeling” an individual, for whatever reason, not only adds to them, and also gives reason for the younger generations to feed into society’s negative concepts.

After my initial shock of being “labeled”, and after filling out the necessary forms and information to pay for my tuition and books,   I did my placement assessment as required by the college.  It was then that I learned that I had placed substantially low in my math placement test score. This was very surprising to me, as math was my best subject in high school. Not to mention that in the 22 years that I had held a job in a supervisory position, I had continually used math in my job requirements. So, per the requirements of the college, I enrolled in a self-paced math module, so that I could relearn the math that apparently I had forgotten over the years. Anxiously, I began attending the class where with some great assistance from my teacher, I refreshed my knowledge of the math that I haven’t been using throughout the years.


  Thanks to the patience and guidance of the teacher, the math that I had forgotten so long ago, continuously came flooding back with great understanding.  I still struggle with some math problems and concepts, but I am regaining the understanding of it. With the assistance of several supports here at the college including math tutoring, the TRIO program, and extra help from my teacher, I know that I’ll succeed and eventually have the full understanding of the required math for the college so that I may complete my degree. I would sincerely like to thank Peggy Williams for her outstanding assistance and extra help in the understanding of the concepts of math.

 Sometimes it is hard for society, the community, and even the college to understand that the people who wait numerous years to continue their education aren’t lazy individuals. They’re people that have different priorities in life to deal with at the time- whether it is raising children, lack of money to pay for college or even health. Whatever the reasons may be, “non-traditional” students may need the extra assistance to regain any or all information, including math, which they may have forgotten or “lost” over those years. It doesn’t matter the age of an individual when entering college, what matters is the goals that they have set for themselves in order to be a productive member of society.  





A few days ago I interviewed a young Berkshire Community College student, Tiffany,  who had just completed her first semester.  She came here,  and like many others,  started out in   basic arithmetic.  Most students barely get through that level in their first semester.  Tiffany worked her way through this level as well as beginning and intermediate algebra.

The interview picks up where she is talking about how she managed to be so successful.

Take a listen.

An Inspiring Story: A Berkshire Community College student tells about her experience in math.

We are on the right track

Attached is an article, “Remediation Worries and Successes”  from Inside Higher Ed. about why there is such a high need for developmental education or what they call remedial education.  Within the last forty decades the demand for developmental education hasn’t changed however  the focus of attention has shifted from developmental English to developmental math.

What to do?  This is the million dollar question  One interesting suggestion outlined in the article discusses the need to get real about assessing how we are doing.  It’s not enough to say 50% of students passed  the class.  We also need to know was the 50% pass rate  those students who didn’t withdraw. What happens to those who do pass the class? Do they go on? Do they succeed?  If they don’t stay in the class, when do they leave?  Answers to these deeper questions will help guide us in to develop more informed interventions.

One possible strategy that the article mentions is using a modular approach to teaching math.  This is a teaching method that Berkshire Community College has been using for many years. The modular, self-paced approach breaks various areas of math into segments.  Students then enroll in one or more of these segments or modules and work at thier own pace, taking proficiency tests along the way.      The success rates in these self-paced modules has traditionally been lower that in the conventional lecture classes.  More recently we have seen the numbers turn around due in large part to the hiring of a Coordinator of Developmental Math, Chantal Rhind.

So, the jury is still out on what is the best approach take when teaching developmental math.  Done well and with the right students, the self-paced math classes might be a very good option.

For full-text article see link below: