New Study Aims to Find Solutions for Poor Math Performance at Community Colleges

Educational researchers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education are tackling a problem that has become a national issue: Why are students at community colleges across the country failing their developmental math courses? The rate of failure has become such an issue that many students are not able to finish a degree because of their poor math scores. In order to tackle this issue and investigate further, Curry researchers have combined forces with the Math Department at Valencia College in Orlando, to find answers and above all, solutions.

Over the next three years, researchers will study math scores of around 30,000 students and test several interventions on a smaller group, with the aim of improving students’ math scores. If the project is a success, it could ultimately lead to better math scores around the country.

Many students at community colleges across the country take developmental math for remediation purposes; they aren’t prepared for college level math and are required to get caught up. It’s estimated that between 50% and 80% of students who go to community college place into at least a semester of developmental math.

Those students often feel fearful, anxious and think they are not up to the task. But according to Chris Hulleman, Research Associate Professor at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) at UVA, it doesn’t have to be that way. “We all have a math brain, because we use math in our daily lives every day. Some students just need some help growing their math brain. It takes effort, but it’s possible. It’s all about motivation and perception.”

That’s why Hulleman and his team decided two years ago to test two so-called interventions at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida. That pilot project revolved around two big ideas. One, students must develop the confidence that they can do math.

“When you tell yourself over and over again you can’t do something, results will reflect that. But if you are willing to change the way you study, look at a problem a different way and develop the confidence you can do it, students will learn that skills can grow. In other words, your math brain can grow. This part of the intervention, called the Growth Mindset Intervention, aims to help students develop these skills,” says Hulleman.

Second, research has shown that when students have a clear idea WHY they have to learn math, scores go up.  “When students are interested in a subject, and don’t treat it as something they have to in order to get a degree, they perform better. Students often say: ‘Why do I need to take math? I’ll never use that in real life’. Fact of the matter is, almost all of us use math in our daily lives. Nurses use it to calculate the dosage of medication they give to their patients, just to give an example. Everybody has some connection to math, some a little more than others. If you find your connection, it does wonders for your motivation.” That part of the intervention is called the Utility Value Intervention. 

While both interventions have shown success in increasing student motivation and achievement separately, this is the first study where both interventions will be combined.

After running the pilot project for two years, findings were promising. The Growth Mindset Intervention boosted the performance of Hispanic students, while the Utility Value Intervention mostly benefited male students.

A newly awarded grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) takes the project to the next level. For the next three years, Hulleman and his team will study math scores in 60 classrooms at Valencia College, reaching over 1200 students each semester.

The research team is combining forces with the dean of the math department and two faculty members who will help run the project. Each semester, they will recruit 20 faculty members to deliver the interventions in their classrooms. “We will also involve the faculty members and students in helping us design and test interventions.  That’s a part of our feedback process to be sure what we’re doing makes sense in the classroom context,’’ says Hulleman.

In the third and last year of the study, the researchers will also focus on what teachers can do to help improve students’ math scores. Hulleman:  “We will focus on supportive faculty behaviors. One important factor is how teachers deliver feedback. We want them to focus on the process, not just students’ ability. In other words, focus on where students need improvement, not tell them what they are doing wrong.”

Hulleman hopes that the results of the interventions in the Florida setting will set the standard for how students at community colleges can improve their math scores across the country. “Helping students succeed in college is not only about exposing them to the right learning materials and activities. We also need to pay attention to the psychological aspects of learning. We hope our work can help provide more tools in the educational toolbox.” 

Hulleman emphasizes that not only students at community colleges struggle with math. According to the associate professor, many 4-year universities have selective admission and high tuition prices to filter out lower-performing students. “Community colleges specifically exist to provide opportunities to students who don’t have the academic or financial means to enter a 4-year schools. As a result, traditionally under-served and less-prepared students are disproportionately funneled into the community college system. However, this is also a problem at many 4-year institutions as well. We can see expanding our work to 4-year institutions in the future.”