Supporting the Learning Experience (Section 3)
Case study 3: Adding up for success in STEM: The Griffith College Core Maths Skills Initiative
The Core Maths Skills Initiative, delivered across Griffith College's STEM diplomas, was created to address capability gaps in students' maths skills and ensure they are well prepared for the rigors of their chosen studies. This strategic initiative has significantly improved pass rates across STEM programs at the college.
Tessa Daal, Health Science and Science Program Convenor, and Maria Aneiros, Engineering, IT and Mathematics Program Convenor, explain how the program equips students with the skills and knowledge required for academic success.
What challenge does the Core Maths Skills Initiative seek to address?
The Core Maths Skills Initiative, implemented across Griffith College's STEM programs, aims to address the challenge of students entering college with capability gaps in their maths skills, which are essential for success in their chosen disciplines. Core Maths Skills is a free, compulsory, unweighted unit that embeds a personalised approach to learning, while providing support and resources to help students develop these critical skills.
How did you identify this challenge?
The removal of prerequisite secondary school maths subjects for both domestic and international students seeking entry to Griffith’s STEM diplomas led to a situation where an increasing number of students would begin their studies only for their teachers to soon identify gaps in their maths capabilities. Teachers would attempt to support these students to develop core maths skills during chemistry and maths diploma courses, but there was insufficient time for students to fill in their knowledge gaps and learn the content of our curriculum. This resulted in students failing courses which in turned affected their GPA, courses’ pass rates and articulation into University.
While the prerequisites to study may have changed, the content of our curriculum has not. We responded by implementing the Core Maths Skills Initiative to ensure students receive the support and resources required to develop their foundational math skills.
It’s important to note that this is not only a challenge for Griffith College. All Australian institutions have experienced the same issue due to the removal of prerequisites and have responded similarly through the implementation of supplementary core maths skills programs.
What are the objectives of the program?
The program adopts a holistic approach by engaging multiple stakeholders at the college and employing a multifaceted strategy across the student lifecycle.
The programs objectives are to:
- Communicate the importance of basic math knowledge for students' chosen programs through consistent messaging in admission letters, marketing, and other materials.
- Assess students' math abilities prior to the commencement of their first trimester.
- Group students based on their math skill levels.
- Create a supportive learning and teaching environment for both staff and students.
Explain your approach?
The Core Maths Skills Initiative was originally provided to students as an optional unit, however, in 2017, when we reaccredited our programs, it was integrated into all STEM programs as a free, compulsory, unweighted unit. Students must pass the unit or be given credit for it to proceed to the next stage of their academic program. The modules students are required to undertake as part of their engagement with the program is dependent on the diploma they are enrolled in (for example, health sciences students are required to complete fewer modules than those in the engineering program). Success in this unit is critical, as it will impact their ability to progress in their program.
The program is delivered face-to-face on-campus by Griffith’s STEM teaching team, using the Maths Pathways platform – an online educational platform based in Melbourne, also used in Australian schools to support mathematics instruction. Using a modular approach, the platform assigns study materials tailored to students' proficiency levels, as determined by a diagnostic test taken a month before classes begin. Students complete four diagnostic tests, each evaluating their skills in a different mathematical domain. This individualised approach to learning allows adjustments to be made to the students’ learning journey, depending on their academic and program needs and requirements.
For example, if a student demonstrates mastery of three domains, but falls short in one, they are only required to complete the modules for the domain in which they lack proficiency. Those students who excel in all four diagnostic tests have the opportunity to undertake a final exam, evaluating their overall mathematical proficiency and mastery of the various domains. If the student obtains a grade above 70%, they are given a credit and not required to complete the unit. However, some students, choose to continue with the unit regardless of this exemption, as they recognise it provides a valuable opportunity to refresh and refine their mathematical skills.
How are classes in the Core Maths Skills unit structured and how do teachers navigate the highly individualised style of learning embedded in this unit?
Students attend two classes each week, during the first of which the teacher delivers the curriculum and works to support students in their learning. The Maths Pathways modules are then assigned to students to complete as homework. In the second class, students complete a weekly test, based upon the modules they have completed. If students do not complete the homework modules, they are unable to complete their weekly test, and cannot progress to the next stage of the unit or classify to take the final exam. This is a unit that requires students to be motivated and driven to succeed.
What positive outcomes have you seen as a result of this initiative?
From a pass rate perspective, in the Health Sciences diploma, we were presented a challenge from the unit Chemistry of Biological Systems 1. In week three, we introduce algebra. Obviously when the students were coming in with no experience or preparation, the pass rates were being negatively impacted, lingering around 37%, Since we’ve introduced the Core Math Skills units, the pass rates have significantly increased and are now sitting around 80-90%.
The unit has also had a positive impact on student moral and motivation. Previously, students were often ill-prepared to engage with the maths requirements in their chosen program and this didn’t just hurt their GPA but would also really demoralise them. Empowering these students to believe they can succeed is critical to their success.
What strategies have been implemented to ensure students have a clear understanding of the requirements for passing the unit, and to enhance the learning experience?
- Before each new student group commences, the unit undergoes a thorough analysis and evaluation, with the insights gained used directly to implement ongoing improvements.
- Professional development sessions and training for teachers are facilitated both before and during the trimester, ensuring that staff are fully informed about the requirements for students to succeed in these courses.
- A comprehensive plan is developed to document all steps, deadlines, and milestones, ensuring they can be effectively replicated each trimester.
- The requirements to pass this course are clearly communicated to students at the earliest stages of their engagement with the program. When a student expresses interest in study in a STEM program, they are informed about the unit requirements—a message that is reiterated in their letter of offer. These requirements are also signposted in many different places so students can’t miss them even if they did not read the course outline. Uniform and consistent information and messaging is provided across all college platforms, mitigating potential misunderstandings among both staff and students. Our method of communicating these requirements to students and staff has been revised and refined over time.
- Student maths capabilities are evaluated before study begins by providing access to the Maths Pathway software up to four weeks prior to the commencement of the trimester.
- A retention strategy has been implemented, which includes proactive communication with disengaged students during the third and sixth weeks of the trimester.
- Additional support is offered through the Griffith College Maths Club, which meets three times a week.
What recommendations would you give to a college considering adopting a similar approach?
- Form a working group of in-house experts to adapt and implement a new, holistic curriculum tailored to the needs of incoming cohorts. Incorporate life learning skills (learning how to learn) and the psychology of learning into the curriculum.
- Develop an intensive preparatory course for new students, to be completed before starting their STEM programs.
- For students enrolled in Core Maths Skills units, allocate additional time with teachers, and increase and enhance student support. We suggest raising class hours from 5 to 9 hours per week, spread across 4 days: 3 hours of math, 2 hours of learning strategies, and 2 hours of math exams.
- Limit the number of times students can enrol in the Core Maths Skills course to a maximum of two attempts, with the second attempt requiring special circumstances and Program Convenor approval. To help students appreciate the value of the course, a fee may be applied for retakes, unless there are extenuating circumstances.
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