On the problem of Beginning Algebra

Nov 12, 2008 by

Every year I teach at least one Beginning Algebra class. Every year I find myself frustrated by the variety of skill levels in the course, which range from students who do not know what 4 times 6 is, to students who are basically looking for a review of algebra. After two tests, I can make a list of students who will not pass the class and I will be correct for 95% of the students on the list. Why, then, do we continue to attempt to teach these students in the same way, when we know they are missing the fundamental skills that will make them successful? This is a problem I’ve struggled with for years.

If the educational world was an ideal place, free from bureaucracy (Financial Aid) and administrative issues (Transferability and Course Approvals), this is an example of how I’d do it.

Suppose that from 10-11am, four days a week, there are two sections of Beginning Algebra taught by Instructor A and Instructor B.

By the time students have taken the first two exams (Review of Arithmetic and Solving Equations), we know which students can make it and who is already in over their head.

At this point, each instructor splits their class into two groups: Ready to Succeed and Needs Remediation. Since the classes are offered at the same time on the same days, the students can transfer from one instructor to the other without altering their schedules.

Instructor A takes the Ready to Succeed group and continues teaching them Beginning Algebra. Instructor B takes the Needs Remediation group, and spends the rest of the semester on signed numbers, fractions, solving equations, and basics of some of what is to come in Beginning Algebra (basic exponent rules, factoring a GCF, finding solutions to a line, etc.).

What does this gain for us? The group that goes with Instructor A does not have to move at a snail’s pace in an attempt to accommodate students who stand almost no chance of being successful – the instructor can teach with more depth than they would otherwise be able to. The group that goes with Instructor B would likely have failed the class, but would not have filled in any of the gaps that might make them successful in the future. With this system, they would have a chance to work with an instructor and fill in some of those gaps at a pace where they can be successful.

Why can’t we do this? The biggest obstacle that I see is that the second group is transferred to a course with no name, no course number, no transferability, and technically less credit hours – which brings up numerous Financial Aid issues. Also, the Group B students might not be willing to continue to come to a class that “doesn’t count,” even if it is for their own good.

Oh, and how do we decide who gets to be Instructor A and who is Instructor B? For this I propose we arm wrestle.

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