Why I Enrolled in Developmental Math

Ashley Flood writes of enrolling in a developmental math course and convening a study group to help students who had failed before find success. 

November 30, 2022
A pencil and a piece of graph paper with numerous algebra problems written on it.
(r_mackay/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

When I became a student success coach at Northwood University, I did something unusual: I enrolled in a developmental mathematics class. Going to class, taking notes, studying, quizzes, exams—I did it all. I cultivated a strong relationship with the professor, engaged with the material daily and spoke with students about their experiences. I was so immersed in this course that I began dreaming about factoring trinomials and the order of operations.

My main motivation for taking this class was to help students. Students enrolled in remedial courses may already lack confidence in their academic abilities, and failing a non-credit-bearing class during their first semester at college is a sure way to rock any confidence they may otherwise have gained, leading to an enhanced sense of impostor syndrome and possible attrition. Additionally, the failing of developmental classes is a universal issue in higher education, affecting completion rates and student swirl.

I spent considerable time researching different strategies that could help the students—my classmates—succeed. After plenty of research on effective study habits and teaching strategies, I settled on a strategy that was proven to deepen student understanding while raising self-esteem of once discouraged students: study groups.

At the beginning of the semester, I organized a study group that met twice a week, sometimes more when exams came around. These study groups turned out to be a valuable resource for students who had failed the class on their first attempt during the previous semester. Through collaboration, the students were able to work through problems and gain an understanding of foundational concepts. Though this was an incredible breakthrough for them in and of itself, perhaps an even bigger opportunity was the chance to build their confidence in math by teaching their peers and leading them to the correct solutions. This practice of teaching and growing together in a secure environment free from judgment was the most powerful thing that I could have led them to do.

Throughout the semester, I watched the students thrive. Their confidence grew with each review period. We learned together. We celebrated victories together. We analyzed downfalls and made improvement plans together. Our study groups became the highlight of my week as I developed a personal and unique relationship with each of these students that was different than those they had had with other staff or faculty members at the university. I could honestly say that I knew what they were going through, because I walked with them every step of the way.

Through cooperation and persistence, we interacted with math in a way that none of the students had done before. We recognized that their prior experiences with math had not been positive and talked about why a lack of interest and confidence, as well as illusions of competence, may have contributed to these negative experiences. We changed study habits—for example, studying soon after class rather than later in the week, when we might struggle to remember—introduced learning strategies and, most importantly, we changed mind-sets. Instead of dreading math, the students seemed to enjoy coming to our study groups and learning collaboratively with each other. They became familiar with how a study group worked and the benefits of forming one, and hopefully they will be more inclined to do this in the future for classes with which they struggle.

With cooperative study groups yielding similar, if not higher, student grades when compared to an instructor-led math lab to support students in developmental math classes, it is no surprise that our study group experienced success. Out of 11 students who regularly attended—at least once every two weeks—all 11 had failed this class during their initial attempt the semester prior. However, with the help of the skills that they learned in study group, 10 out of the 11 students passed the course on their second attempt, with a C-minus being the group’s average passing grade. Although retaking the class could have helped the students retain the information because it would have been their second time seeing the material, multiple students testified that their participation in the study group was the biggest contributor to their success.

Making investments in student support beyond basic tutoring—such as assisting students with time and task management, help-seeking strategies, and study skills—can create well-rounded students. If we, as higher education administrators and educators alike, can teach students how to study effectively rather than simply telling them that they should, we will see students persevere and become more independent, leading to higher persistence and retention rates across the board, as well as a higher level of student satisfaction. Because this collaborative study group yielded such positive results, I am pleased to offer the following suggestions to educators and administrators who are interested in implementing study groups into their practice.

  1. Collaborate with faculty. Create a strong relationship with the department faculty by providing open communication regarding the direction the study group is headed. Ask the faculty members what they suggest and mold study sessions to be accessible for the students while also keeping faculty input in mind. A working partnership such as this can help to ensure an open flow of ideas and suggestions that will benefit all students by ensuring all critical material is covered during the study group.
  2. Hire math mentors or tutors. If faculty members are unavailable to lead the groups, hiring peer math mentors or tutors who are familiar with the course material could help ensure that the study group runs smoothly and that students have the ability to ask questions and get clarification on the material as they work through it together. During our groups, we always had a tutor who was available for us to ask questions to ensure that we were on the right track.
  3. Acknowledge past experiences during the first session and emphasize the importance of having a growth mind-set. Many students have had a negative relationship with math. It is necessary to talk about this as a group so that everyone can have a chance to start on a clean slate with an open mind during study group.
  4. Tell students about the resources available to them. Something that I noticed was that the students with whom I was working were not familiar with the resources available to them. For example, there were entire study guides and practice questions available on the homework software that the students had no idea existed. These extra resources made a difference for us when preparing for quizzes and exams.
  5. Test knowledge with practice quizzes and exams. The practice and repetition of mathematical concepts helps students study, and one of the most powerful tools for cementing these concepts into our long-term memory is recalling. Because of this, testing oneself with practice quizzes and exams is an effective way to assess what is known and what still needs to be solidified.
  6. Provide leadership opportunities. Ensure all students in the group have a chance to lead and teach to help them develop their leadership, as well as their math confidence.
  7. Provide incentives. Work with faculty to incentivize students to make math a priority by awarding extra-credit points based on the group’s average exam scores. For example, if the group’s average grade is an A, they could all be awarded four extra-credit points, with lower grades being awarded fewer points. This may help students encourage each other and build a sense of community.

These strategies helped our study group find a sense of community and have overall success in the class. It is my hope that these insights and experiences will shed light on a new way of looking at math study groups, helping to ensure the success of students regardless of what their past experiences with math may have looked like.

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We must be better at supporting the students in front of whom we place extra hurdles. Otherwise, we will continue to see the same negative correlation between remedial math courses and student persistence.

And just in case you were wondering, I got an A.

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Ashley Flood previously served as a student success coach at Northwood University and is now the manager of student success coaching at Purdue University Global.

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