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Prof. Adefemi SunmonuThree goals an institution of higher learning must embrace to survive are: attract competent students, retain most of the students, and graduate them on time. Realization of these goals differentiates highly rated and successful institutions from poor performing and low rated institutions. Institutions that build their mission around these goals and strive to achieve them consistently attract better prepared and better paying students who later become big donor alumni.

In this article, I will endeavor to examine the role of Mathematics Learning Centers (MLCs) in assisting institutions in their never ending quest to attract, retain and graduate their students.  Most science, technology and engineering disciplines require a good working knowledge of Mathematics beyond algebra. Unfortunately a high percentage of students start College deficient in basic College algebra.

Research has shown that poor performance in basic mathematical skills hamper the progress of students in reaching their college educational goals.  In fact, about 50 percent of students don’t pass college algebra with a grade of C or above, as noted in Saxe [15], “Common Vision,” from the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). The report called Americans’ struggle with math “the most significant barrier” to finishing a degree in both STEM and non-STEM fields. The first college Mathematics course students take can make or break their confidence.  Students, who find their entry level Mathematic course challenging may abandon their dream major, spend many precious semesters taking irrelevant course or drop out altogether. 

 Since a high percentage of entering and continuing students need assistance to achieve their goals, it is the duty of the institution to strategically plan assistance into their operations.  Seidman [3] stated his retention equation as “Retention = Early ID + Early Intervention + Intensive and continuous intervention”. Part of intervention is providing effective tutorial services for students.

 

Is Mathematics Learning Center Necessary?

In order for institutions of higher learning to keep its students and take them up to proficiency level, Colleges have devised various solutions. One solution is to introduce remedial courses in basic algebra and trigonometry which students must take and pass before taking credit bearing courses. An adverse effect of this approach is that it delays students’ progress towards graduation while increasing the cost of their education. Another method is to provide pre-registration workshops to strengthen students’ weaknesses in algebra or trigonometry as needed. Such workshops could accompany courses students are registered for or be separate.

In all these scenarios, experience shows that students benefit greatly from peer tutoring, hence the need for MLC. It is impractical to expect professors teaching gateway mathematics courses to devote adequate time to individual students having difficulty in their classes. Peer tutoring fills the gap for the professor and for the student. Students can spend as much time as needed at the MLC working with a peer-tutor to understand a difficult concept. Students are also more comfortable asking another student questions than asking a professor. Other benefits of peer tutoring for students include:

  • Improved self confidence
  • Improved self-esteem, as they become more successful students
  • Improved academic achievement
  • Improved attitude towards the subject matter and school in general
  • Improved personal and social development
  • Greater persistence in completing tasks and courses
  • Better use of appropriate and efficient learning and study strategies
  • Provides an opportunity for individualized instruction

 

Peer tutors also benefit from the center. Some obvious benefits include:

  • Frequent review of previously learned material helps with learning new material in more advanced courses.
  • Encourages higher level thinking
  • Improves subject specific knowledge and facilitates deeper understanding of subject matter
  • Improves general knowledge
  • Develops confidence in learning ability
  • Improves motivation for studying
  • Improves knowledge of learning, studying and test-taking techniques
  • Builds self-esteem and creates a sense of pride in helping others
  • Develops communication skills
  • Provides experiences that may help with later employment or career goals
  • Develops empathy for others
  • Improves attitudes towards subject area
  • Increases general knowledge
  • Develops a sense of responsibility

 

Additionally, peer tutors are more likely to take more advanced mathematics courses than students not participating in the tutoring program. By the setup of MLC, peer tutors are always fresh in their understanding of Mathematical concepts. As a result, most peer tutors complete their degree and graduate on schedule. Peer tutors are also positive role models to other students. All these along with the moderate stipend peer tutors receive are great motivations for students.

The institution benefits from the creation and maintenance of MLCs in many ways:

  • Promotes deeper learning of material which in turn enables professors and the institution to set higher goals for student learning
  • Improves student retention of material and hence the retention of students
  • Reduces drop out and failure rates among students which in turn improves retention and graduation rate
  • Provides a cost effective means of providing individualized instruction to students who need it

Swail [16] noted that: Resources play a huge part in the ability of a campus to provide support services necessary to engage and save students. Institutions known to graduate over 90% of their students on time are known to devote substantial resources to student support services like the MLC.  Though these institutions certainly get the best and brightest students, they also provide outstanding resources to ensure that students have all necessary tools to make their way through the labyrinth of higher education. These institutions assign tutors to students rather than forcing students to seek them out. They have smaller class sizes and labs, and provide extensive and often proactive supplementary support services.

 

Composition of a Mathematics Learning Center

A Mathematics Learning Center (MLC) is a center where students go to get help on various Mathematics course offered at the University. The center is made up of the director, a coordinator, front desk workers and student tutors. The director is generally a Mathematics professor familiar with courses taught at the Mathematics department. He serves as the liaison between the center, the Mathematics department professors, and the college administration. He is responsible for securing funding needed to operate the center effectively. He also works with professors in the Mathematics department to ensure that assignments and materials presented in classes are available to the center.

The director provides guidance and training materials to ensure standards are maintained at the center.

The coordinator helps the director in coordinating staff schedules and training in the center. The coordinator, working with the director, ensures that tutors have requisite training in the course(s) they tutor. The coordinator also helps to ensure timely and accurate payments of stipends to the center’s staffs.

Front-desk workers serve as secretaries for the center. They welcome students to the center, assign students to appropriate tutors and ensure that tutors get all they need to effectively tutor assigned students. Additionally, front-desk workers collect survey questions from students after tutoring. These surveys are used to measure students’ satisfaction with the services rendered at the center.

The tutors are students with at least a B average overall and A in the courses they tutor. Each tutor is recommended by a Mathematics professor to the director. The director interviews each tutor to verify grades, social attitude and suitability as tutors. Tutors may not work more than 20 hours per week. In addition to grade requirements, each tutor is required to demonstrate proficiency in the subject they tutor by completing carefully selected exercises from the textbook or from professors of the subject they are to tutor. In addition, new tutors are required to attend some classroom sessions of the course they intend to tutor.

Each staff of the center must attend two workshops organized by the director. These workshops are generally scheduled at the beginning of the semester and at the midterm. Issues discussed in such workshops include policies of the center and training on how to address student related questions.

Conclusion:

This article presents Mathematics Learning Centers as one of the tools higher institutions need to address attrition and failure rate in their student population. While having a dedicated MLC is not a magic pill to cure students’ failure in Mathematics, the lack of such a center is certain to exacerbate students’ frustration, and failure to achieve their educational goals. Creating a Mathematics learning center is a win-win-win solution for the students, the tutors and the institution.

Acknowledgements:

The author is grateful to York College for providing the facilities and sponsoring of students tutors. I also benefitted greatly from being a part of York College’s Tutorial Services taskforce lead by Professor Steven Tyson and the author.

 

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