UNLV uses online program to tackle students’ lack of math skills

Students who scored poorly on the ACT are referred to remedial math courses.

Ashley Garcia scribbles away in her spiral-bound notebook, slowly filling it with numbers, functions and equations.

It’s early on a lazy summer morning, but instead of sleeping in like many of her classmates who graduated last month from Coronado High School, Garcia is hard at work studying in a windowless computer lab at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV).

Garcia is cramming because she doesn’t want to become a statistic.

This fall, a third of the incoming freshmen class — about 1,000 students, including Garcia — will enter UNLV unprepared to take a college-level math course.

If past performance is any indication, these students are more likely to take out additional loans to pay for remedial coursework that ultimately won’t count toward their degree requirements. These remedial students also are less likely to graduate college in six years.

The stakes are high, Garcia realizes.

So instead of relaxing away the summer before college, Garcia enrolled in UNLV’s Expect Success Summer Bridge Program. It’s a new and free pilot program that aims to help students place out of remedial math courses through tutoring and technology.

“I’m not a math person, so I don’t want to do more math than I need to,” said Garcia, who hopes to major in communications. “If I had to take remedial math, I would be wasting two semesters of college. If I pass this, it’ll free me up to study what I want.”

The goal of the Summer Bridge program is to give students a refresher course in math, filling in the missing holes in their education from second grade math on up.

“Math is a big foundational goal for college,” said Ann McDonough, dean of UNLV’s Academic Success Center, which is sponsoring the $60,000 program. “We’re hoping this type of bridge will give students the confidence they need for college math.”

The program relies heavily on Knewton, an online course that helps students get up to speed on college-level math. It’s a course that’s seen success at Arizona State University and is being used at large public universities such as Penn State and Washington State.

Knewton allows the students enrolled in the bridge program to work at their own pace, learning elementary math concepts such as fractions and decimals to more complex algebra and geometry concepts.

A crew of 14 tutors rotates through three classrooms, teaching tricky concepts in group and individual settings.

The tutors also teach organizational, note-taking and time-management skills to incoming freshmen to prepare them for college life as well as lead new students through tours of the library and other campus resources.

Nearly 150 students are enrolled in the inaugural Summer Bridge program, which offers three-hour classes for five weeks between July 9 and Aug. 10, said Daniel Forgues, director of learning support at the Academic Success Center.

Most UNLV students work summer jobs to finance their education, so it became paramount to offer multiple tutoring sessions throughout the day: mornings, afternoons and evenings, Forgues said.

“We want to be flexible,” he said. “We’ll make this program work for (students).”

Students were referred to the Summer Bridge program by how well they performed on standardized college entrance exams, either the ACT or SAT.

Students who scored below a 22 on the 36-point ACT or below a 520 on the 800-point math section of the SAT were automatically referred to the program by UNLV’s Academic Success Center, which offers a variety of supplemental instruction and tutoring sessions throughout the year to help undergraduate students succeed in college.

It’s important to note these remedial students were rightfully admitted to UNLV, said David Forgues, director of learning support at the Academic Success Center. They fulfilled all of the admissions requirements set forth by the university, earning passing grades and test scores, he said.

“We believe they are prepared for success,” Forgues said. “But everyone needs a little bit of help in math, whether it’s tutoring or supplemental instruction. We’re trying to frontload that (over the summer).”

Some students who find themselves in remedial math may not have taken a math course during their senior year of high school, forgetting key concepts, Forgues said.

Some students just have a mental block when it comes to learning math, he added. Perhaps the math curriculum in the K-12 system just isn’t rigorous enough, he surmised.

But most of all, American society condones students who fall behind in their math studies, Forgues argued.

“We have a societal problem where we allow kids to be bad at math,” he said. “We’d be horrified if someone couldn’t read. But we accept kids who can’t do math.

The trend isn’t new. For several years, about a third of the freshman class at UNLV has needed remedial courses in math, school officials said.

“We want to be part of the solution,” Forgues said. “We think this (Summer Bridge program) is the help our students need, and we’re pretty darn sure this is going to work.”

At the end of the program, Summer Bridge students will be able to take UNLV’s math placement exam, a 90-minute, multiple-choice exam used to assess students’ math abilities and place them in an appropriate course. (Passing scores on standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT are also accepted.)

Once students pass this placement exam, they may opt out of Math 095 and 096, which are the equivalent of high school-level Algebra I and II courses. These courses cost $600 each at UNLV, so placing out of them represents a significant cost saving for remedial students, Forgues said.

Some students are in the Summer Bridge program to score higher on the math placement exam to bypass easier college-level math courses. These higher-achieving students may be able to learn just enough during the summer to bump them into an introductory calculus course in college, saving them money in the long run, Forgues added.

Eventually, Forgues said he hoped the program would expand to all 1,000 students in need of math remediation. There are plans to offer remedial English courses in the future, he added.

However, scaling up this pilot program is likely to cost the cash-strapped university more money, Forgues said. UNLV is looking for grant money or additional state funding to ramp up its remediation efforts.

Charging some tuition for the summer bridge program also may be discussed, Forgues said.

Regardless of the cost, it’s a worthwhile investment for Nevada colleges and universities, which face a growing and costly problem of serving remedial students, he said. Under a new higher education funding formula that rewards colleges based on the number of students it graduates, getting remedial students caught up has become a priority.

Other Las Vegas Valley institutions, such as the College of Southern Nevada, also are working with UNLV and the Clark County School District to offer summer programs to reach remedial students, Forgues said.

“This is a societal problem,” he said. “We all have to work together.”

That’s good news for Garcia, who hopes to become a journalist. If she passes her math placement exam, she just needs to take Math 120 to fulfill her math requirement.

“I’m pretty happy they gave me this opportunity,” she said. “It keeps my mind going.”

(c)2012 the Las Vegas Sun (Las Vegas, Nev.). Visit the Las Vegas Sun (Las Vegas, Nev.) at www.lasvegassun.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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