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Sunday, April 02, 2023

The UW System Math Initiative — created following nationwide research showing remedial classes can hinder students’ progress to graduation — is implementing methods such as co-requisite classes and more major-specific math courses.

UW System initiative finds ways to improve how students learn entry-level math

Nineteen percent of the UW System’s fall 2017 incoming freshman class were required to take remedial math courses. Broken down by race and ethnicity, African-American, Hispanic or American-Indian students had the highest percentages of required remedial math classes, according to a System report

The UW Board of Regents began requiring remedial classes in English and math in 1988 for students with lower scores on college placement exams. While the Board initially meant for this requirement to make college easier, research shows remedial courses can actually slow down or stop a student’s path to graduation. 

Several studies also point to the conclusion that relying solely on placement tests — which are used at many UW System schools, including UW-Madison — to determine which students need remedial classes can result recommendations for students who don’t need them. 

Following nationwide research on this subject, the UW System began a math initiative in 2017, Wisconsin Public Radio reported. 

The initiative has five priorities, according to its website

  • increase first-year enrollment in a math course
  • reduce the amount of students placed in remedial math courses
  • improve student success in remedial math courses
  • improve student success in their first non-remedial math course
  • ensure that these math courses transfer between UW System campuses. 

The project has kept up momentum, receiving a $2.3 million grant in 2018 from Ascendium Education Group, a student loan guarantor and servicer formerly known as the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates. 

Strategies developed through the UW System Math Initiative are already at work in Wisconsin classrooms.

Shubhangi Stalder, a professor at UW-Milwaukee at Waukesha, is trying out a type of math class that combines a remedial course and the first college-level math course into 90-minute class periods, WPR reported. These combined classes are known as “co-requisites.”

The co-requisite classes, which the university first offered last year, help prevent students from forgetting what they learned in the semester break between a remedial course and the class that comes next, Stalder said. 

“When you do co-requisites, you’re doing prerequisite material, and then right away you do whatever comes right after,” Stalder told WPR. “So, there is no way they forgot it.”

Students interviewed by WPR who took the co-requisite class at UW-Milwaukee at Waukesha cited positives, such as completing two math classes in one semester, as well as negatives, such as the two-in-one structure being confusing. 

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Early data says students who take co-requisite classes are more likely — 82 percent versus 34 percent — to pass their required math courses than if remedial and general classes are taken separately, UW System Math Initiative Project Director Alice Pulvermacher said in an interview with WPR. 

The initiative also is looking to expand “alternative math pathways,” which is when a university recommends entry-level math classes based on students’ majors instead of everyone enrolling in the same default algebra course. 

UW-Milwaukee is pivoting to place more students in quantitative reasoning classes, which have more of a statistical and analytic focus. Professor Kevin McLeod told WPR more students pass the quantitative reasoning courses than the algebra ones. 

The UW System Math Initiative’s 2020 plans include examining the new strategies’ early data, especially for underrepresented students, and expand the co-requisite courses to other campuses, according to WPR. 

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