SDSU is at the forefront of utilizing active learning in introductory mathematics courses.

A National Science Foundation grant
supports a new approach for STEM degree hopefuls.

“There is clear and growing evidence that we can improve math learning and retention for all students through active learning that promotes cognitive engagement.”

Challenging introductory mathematics courses are the most common roadblock to earning undergraduate degrees in the STEM fields. In an effort to help students get past this roadblock, San Diego State University and 11 other universities across the nation announced they will scale up the adoption of “active learning” skills for undergraduate pre-calculus and calculus instruction.

Active learning, explained SDSU mathematician Chris Rasmussen, refers to a broad range of instructional approaches that provide students with opportunities to engage in the learning process with meaningful mathematical activities. Active learning also improves skills such as communication and teamwork, which are highly valued by employers.

“There is clear and growing evidence that we can improve math learning and retention for all students through active learning that promotes cognitive engagement,” he said.  

Three SDSU faculty involved

Over the past year, SDSU has worked with the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to better understand how math departments can increase and sustain the use of active learning in introductory mathematics courses. Co-principal investigators Rasmussen, Mike O’Sullivan and Janet Bowers in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at SDSU are leading this initiative.

Eight other institutions will join the effort to further study and develop practical models applicable to virtually any institution. Those additional partners include: California State University, East Bay; California State University, Fullerton; Kennesaw State University; Loyola University; Morgan State University; Ohio State University; the University of Maryland; the University of Oklahoma; and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is supporting the project, known as SEMINAL: Student Engagement in Mathematics through an Institutional Network for Active Learning, with a $3 million, five-year grant. The initiative will place particular emphasis on helping underrepresented minority students succeed in introductory math courses that are the foundation of STEM fields.

Research-based effort

Far too many students hoping to pursue careers in STEM fields get tripped up by introductory math courses right from the start, explained Howard Gobstein, executive vice president of the APLU and one of the principal investigators of the NSF-funded initiative. 

“With a persistent shortage of skilled workers in STEM fields and unequal access to all students, we have a tremendous opportunity to broaden participation and address the biggest hurdle for students’ success,” he said.  “We are thrilled to scale an approach that we know works to help more students realize their dreams in STEM fields.”

Research has shown that introductory math courses provide the cornerstone for success in STEM majors and fields, and active learning has proven highly effective in helping more students succeed in such core courses. For example, the largest study of undergraduate STEM education literature to date—a meta-analysis of 225 studies published by the National Academies in 2014—found that undergraduate students in classes using active learning methods had higher course grades by half a letter grade, and students in classes with traditional lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail.

“In response, the presidents of the professional societies in the mathematical sciences have called for the incorporation of these practices into all mathematics courses,” said David M. Bressoud, director of the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences. “But most faculty are not conversant with how to do this effectively, and most departments do not know how to foster the changes that need to be made. SDSU, APLU and their partnering universities through SEMINAL are demonstrating how departments can enable and support these innovations.”

By Jill Esterbrooks
January 25, 2018