Computerized tutor helps students pass college-level math

Educators say immediate feedback in crucial to math lessons.

Erika Northcutt, 18, has not had a math class since she was a junior in high school, more than two years ago. The freshman at the University of Memphis was anxious enough about college calculus that she considered changing her major.

Nearly three weeks into the semester, her calculus homework scores are averaging 98 percent. She’s confident she can pass and plans to register for calculus 2.

“I think I can get an A, actually,” she says, relief shining in her eyes.

The secret is a computerized math tutorial system, MyMathLab by Pearson, which the university adopted in 2008.

It allows Northcutt and 39 other students in John Haddock’s 11:15 a.m. elementary calculus to dissect the problems, step by step.

If they get a step wrong, a prompt tells them they are off course. If that doesn’t help, they can click the “help me solve” button and the solution appears on the screen.

“The secret is immediate feedback. Because they’re not getting stuck, they’ll be able to do more problems,” Haddock says.

He figures his calculus students are doing two and a half times as many problems as they do in a lecture-based class.

Attendance is up, and class withdrawals are down. Those factors, combined with the reward of getting better grades, is changing who gets into science, technology, engineering, and math careers from the university.

Four years of university data show 65.2 percent of African-American students are passing the tutorial-based math classes, compared with 39.9 percent in traditional math courses.

In elementary calculus, 22.4 percent of African-American students drop out of traditional lecture classes. MyMathLab drops the number to 6.8 percent.

Haddock remembers when calculus classes were predominately white and male.

“No more,” he says.

“American students very often are not coming in to college with a strong background in math,” said Tom Nenon, vice provost for assessment and institutional research at the university. “Part of what we are trying to do is increase student success.”

Students pay about $140 for a login and online calculus textbook.

Haddock loads up the assignment bay before each lecture, specifying how many hours the queue will be open and how many tries students get at a problem before they lose points.

As the semester advances, he will reduce the number of attempts allowed.

“Part of the deal now is to get them acclimated and off to a good start,” he says.

He can quickly see how many problems students have completed, including how many they got correct.

Tests are given on the tutorial. Haddock never has to grade assignments.

But teaching is still complicated, he says, because he has to introduce the concepts, load diverse problems in the portal, and catch students who are bogging down.

Of the 12 problems assigned on Jan. 26, Northcutt didn’t have to click “help me solve” once.

“I was dreading calculus until I experienced this,” she says.

Copyright (c) 2012, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.). Visit The Commercial Appeal online at Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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