This is one in a series of articles reporting on progress being made by the inaugural recipients of Longhorn Innovation Fund for Technology (LIFT) support.
For students who have ever felt discouraged in a calculus class and math faculty who want new tools to improve student learning and engagement, initial results from The QUEST Continues hold promise.
Based on a system created in the 1990s by the Physics Department at The University of Texas at Austin, the Quest Learning & Assessment System remains an innovative, web-based tool for instructors and students in math and science. The extensive knowledge bank holds over 60,000 questions and answers in biology, chemistry, computer science, math and physics. Pre-existing questions, created by some of the University’s top educators, are used by instructors to simplify the process of producing assignments and administering in-class quizzes and exams. Students from over 100 colleges and universities as well as hundreds of high schools across Texas, log in to the system to view and complete assignments, practice difficult skills and get instant feedback and explanations. To date, more than 300,000 instructors and students have used the system to help assess both knowledge and comprehension.
With The QUEST Continues, Lead PI, John Gilbert, Professor, Mathematics and his team—G. Shane Lewis, Senior Project Manager; Elizabeth Stepp, Lecturer, Mathematics; Heather Van Ligten, Research Associate, and Benni Goetz, Research Assistant, College of Natural Sciences—are taking Quest in a new direction by focusing on the development of custom-built math visualization tools for a pre- calculus class taught to first year students and students transitioning from high school. The emphasis is on expanding the capabilities of Quest as a learning tool to meet the needs of students with a variety of learning styles; the hope is that student retention and engagement will increase.
The impressive quantity of information available in Quest presented one of the first challenges addressed by the project team. There were over 4,000 pre-calculus problems in the Quest knowledge base, yet this wealth of content had not been fully validated or structured in an organized way. Under the project, Van Ligten collected this material into banks, making the problems and answers easier for instructors to use. As Gilbert noted, “Rather than teach from a standard textbook, an instructor can compile what they want into learning modules, and match the content they give their students with what they are teaching. In essence, it enables an instructor to create a customized e-Book for their students.” Additional benefits include being able to present multiple instances of a specific problem within each module, including variations and explanations, so that students gain lots of practice and receive immediate feedback as they interact with the system.
A spring 2010 pilot program combined existing question content with multi-media instructional materials. The team wanted to see if and how these enhancements make a difference to teaching and learning for M305G – Preparation for Calculus. This class typically enrolls more than 700 students during the fall and spring semesters, and while it is a review for some, many students take the class because they didn’t meet the pre-requisites to enter calculus directly. Experience and research suggested that this student demographic would benefit from a Boot Camp immersion approach made possible by using learning modules from Quest.
Stepp tackled the task of crafting videos for the M305G learning modules when she taught the class during the fall 2010 semester. She incorporated work products from the team into a wide range of material including challenges, drills, practice and homework assignments, test preparation, remediation and self-paced learning options. They made a difference in what happened in the classroom. Pre-assigned videos “allow the students to receive their lecture ahead of class,” Stepp said, and “I then had more time to explore problems and go deeper into the subject during class time.” This can be particularly beneficial because “the videos actually helped me knock out easier concepts on the front end so that I can explore more difficult ones in class.”
With this approach, assignments and learning were no longer restricted to the few hours students typically spend in class. Daily practice and drills using a variety of interactive media strengthened the student’s skills and forced them to build a “plan of attack” for increasingly complex problems. They began to know how and when to use newly gained competencies and to understand how different skills fit together and could be applied. While some students continue to learn best through the traditional lecture format, students in M305G are benefiting from instant feedback, increased opportunity to build skills through practice, and interactive visualizations. One student summed up her experience by saying “The Learning Modules were really helpful to me; even though it meant more time for pre-cal, it actually helped me out a lot. It prepares you to be ready for class or if you didn't understand something in class you could always go back to the Learning Modules and look at them again.”
Though still preliminary, data indicates that student retention and engagement have increased dramatically using the new multi-media modules, suggesting that learning is occurring in new ways. One interesting finding is that 4-5% of students are using hand-held devices to access and complete their assignments. Student feedback on engagement with the course content as a result of using Quest technology indicates it is meeting a real need. For visual learners, in particular, the graphics and animations bring concepts to life and ignite curiosity.
At a time when there is national concern about US students falling behind students in other countries in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math, The Quest Continues is using technology in an innovative way to aid and enhance teaching and learning in pre-calculus, an essential prerequisite to higher level mathematics. By directly addressing the unmet needs of a variety of learning styles, the project is helping bring math instruction to the web.
The remainder of the project will focus on continuing to develop and implement online learning modules for M305G and on assessing student learning, the drop out and failure rates in the class, and levels of student engagement. While two of the targets for the project appear modest – a 10% increasein the number of students who score 70% or better in the class, and a 10% decrease in the drop or failure rate – digitally adept learners already appear to be more engaged with the course content. By the end of the fall 2011 semester, the target is to have 75% or more of the students surveyed reporting increased engagement as a result of using the math visualization tools available in the online learning modules. Upon completion of the project, a final report will detail if these goals are reached.