By Mark Gunderman, CVTC Communications Specialist
Chippewa Valley Technical College (CVTC) math instructor Jim Bockenfeld started the class with a discussion about texting and driving, something that might already have been a part of some students’ lives.
The discussion went on to involve how long it takes a driver facing an emergency situation to stop a car, the various factors involved, and how a delay in recognizing an emergency can be costly. Answering these questions was going to take mathematical reasoning.
Along the way, the students solved not only math problems, but real-life problems they may encounter, and had classroom interactions that are rare in traditional math classes.
Welcome to an innovative new way to teach math developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. This academic year, CVTC implemented the program, becoming only the third college in the state to do so and the first in the nation to implement the program in its entirety without incremental transitions.
Math in a Real-Life Context
“All of the problems are in context,” said math instructor Ruth Carlson in describing the fundamental difference in teaching the Carnegie method. “We read about a situation and answer questions about it. Students can bring their life experiences to the situations.”
The situations involve current topics or common life situations, such as health care, politics, sports playoffs, cell phone plans – the possibilities are endless.
In a traditional math class, an instructor lectures on methods to solve a particular type of equation or problem. Assignments involve a set of problems to do, and often a few “word problems” that seek to apply the lesson. Little discussion is involved.
“Traditional math is formula-based, then looks for a way to apply the formula to real life,” said Margo Keys, CVTC vice president of student services. “Carnegie starts with a real life situation and applies a formula to it. Carnegie starts with the relevance.”
In a Carnegie classroom, students interact with input on relevant factors, and work together toward a solution. In assignments, answers are not just numbers or solved equations, but are given in the form of sentences, paragraphs and explanations.
“We are integrating their reading, writing and interpersonal skills,” Bockenfeld said.
“We want students to realize that they already know a lot,” Carlson said. “You don’t have to be a math whiz to be an effective member of the group.”
The Carnegie method is not, however, a simplification of math. The competencies that students must demonstrate haven’t changed, Bockenfeld emphasized.
“Part of the learning process is a productive struggle,” he said. “We’re not just teaching math concepts, but teaching thought processes as well.”
The Goal: Increasing Student Success
Increasing student success is the goal of the Carnegie approach, according to Keys. Some 40% 0f CVTC’s incoming students were being required to take a “developmental math” class before the enrolling in the math class needed for their program, which delayed progress toward graduation.
“It was a real access barrier,” Keys said.
“The Carnegie courses are designed for the students to get the college level math with the developmental math,” Carlson said.
Carnegie Math has two elements, Quantway, which deals with quantitative analysis, and Statway, which is the statistics curriculum. CVTC adopted both at once so the entire staff would be trained in the methods, which made this year one of transition for both students and instructors.
“It’s very different than it was 10 years ago when I last had a math class,” said Courtney Rauch, 28, of Eau Claire. “But it makes sense. It’s a nice way to apply it to everyday life. I’m actually finding it easier.
“I love it, because with the old way it was a limited style and only a certain number of students would get it,” said Yang Xiong, a 2008 Eau Claire Memorial graduate. “I think this method best accommodates the majority of the class. We can connect math to current events.”
But Hannah Shankey, a 2015 Black River Falls High School graduate, likes the familiarity of the old way.
“All through high school and elementary school they teach you how to do it,” she said. “You get to college and you expect it to be the same, but it switches. Not only is the math new, but the teaching style is new.”
The Carnegie Foundation’s first study of the new teaching method’s results suggests that CVTC should expect more students completing college math. The results, announced April 5, show that Carnegie Math students since 2011 have double and sometimes triple the success rates completing college math, and do so in half the time compared with students in traditional courses. The study also found Carnegie Math students transferred from two to four-year colleges at a higher rate.
“Carnegie is a leader in national math reform and while other math curriculum products exist, Carnegie had the best track record and the five-year study results confirm their methods are working,” Keys said