Lessons Learned

Theory Vs. Reality


During the first LINC project, one of our internal goals for course colloquium activities was to have our scholars’ test scores on par with national standards. Our emphasis was on high quality student performance – as the HBCU-UP program emphasizes. Students who are better prepared for STEM disciplines (ACT scores as an indicator) achieved scores at or above national-average levels.  Others, with a less robust background, saw their test scores initially improve, and then reach a plateau that was below our expectations.

However, to increase the number of students in STEM disciplines, we had to improve the matriculation of the under-prepared freshmen entering Langston.  The staff for the gate-keeping colloquiums sought to find the underlying cause of under-performance, and a solution that would at least improve the situation. They conducted post-test interviews with students, and reviewed questions missed on the test. The in-depth analyses confirmed what was suspected.  Word problems containing multiple concepts were the culprit.  It also revealed things that needed improving if students were to improve their ability to work problems correctly.

Problems observed  included:

1. Lack of retention of core concepts. Utilizing an instant response technology, students who obtained a 90% score on questions asked during lecture scored 60% on the same questions two weeks later.

2. Many students used “pattern-matching” to solve problems. To solve a problem they would find a similar problem that already has a “worked equation”. They plugged variables in the “worked equation”, sometimes at random, until they reach the desired answer.

3. Many students could not even articulate the steps to follow in solving problems they had worked. Students had to be guided to an understanding of the intention of the problem; they had no idea what the problem was asking them to solve. In these cases neither the process nor the learning concept was considered.

4. Faculty discovered that, with guidance, students could improve test scores tremendously.

Similar phenomena are supported by Project Kaleidoscope’s Report on Reports 2002 and in Improving Undergraduate Instruction in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: Report on a Workshop (2003), and Evaluating and Improving Undergraduate Teaching in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (2002). It is also referenced in M. S. Donovan and J. D. Bransford’s book How students learn: Mathematics in the Classroom.

Students who had overcome the learning barriers cited above articulated what they believed contributed to their initial difficulties. They believed the problem started in high school, and here is how they described it.  1) “Too many multiple choice questions”; 2) “Too many “Plug & play techniques, pattern matching, work-arounds, and short cuts taught”; 3) “Did not know to look at the problem in pieces, looked at the whole pie rather than each slice”, 4) “Word problems were too simple”; and 5) “Prior teachers graded word problems with a key that focused only on the answers, not the process.”

Prior teachings have a big impact on the students’ ability to adapt to learning concepts, as stated in the Donovan & Bransford’s book.  In addition, many will abandon most methods in favor of “pattern matching” if it leads to a quick answer.

However, nothing works unless students understand the method and are diligent in utilizing the prescribed processes.

Tablet PCs and other technologies utilized in teaching our STEM classes formed the idea of merging their applications with thought-leadership protocols in teaching and learning, coupled with our years of teaching experience.

Solution arising from Lessons Learned

CPR-L was therefore developed, aimed at correcting some of the problems noted. Specific exercises needed to be incorporated into the process in order to impact retention of information, understanding of course concepts, maintaining the integrity of the problem-solving process and exorcising bad learning habits. We needed to validate that students did indeed understand core concepts critical to finding solutions to problems, and we needed to be able to pinpoint where the breakdown occurred when students got “stuck” and failed to solve the problem correctly.  Too, we needed to employ the best opportunity for retention and learning – conceptual understanding, numerous repetitions of the material, and “learning by teaching.”

CPRL Objectives

Objectives of  the CPRL program include: 1) improve the grades of students who participate in the process (compared to baseline performance); 2) demonstrate improvement in students’ capability to apply core course concepts to solve problems, as measured by adherence to course rubrics; 3) improve students’ capability in articulating core course concepts (as measured by competency performance recordings), and 4) utilize students’ experiences and demonstrated capabilities to impact the broader LU STEM community and beyond (as measured by the posting of CPR-L recordings in The Digital Village and presentations nationwide.

For further information, contact Dr. John K. Coleman by completing the form below.
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