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Priming the Pump: Transforming the Structure of a Department

Most American university and college mathematics departments serve a major role in their institutions, as a significant number of first-year students take courses in these departments to meet part of their general education requirements. In many institutions, these courses are primarily taught by graduate teaching assistants or adjunct faculty; most tenured or tenure-track faculty have limited involvement or interest in these courses. As a result, an inherently unstable and somewhat marginalized instructional workforce is charged with the heavy responsibility of being the first point of contact with students—who are frequently underprepared—as they adapt to college expectations in courses where they are generally reluctant participants. Not surprisingly, outcomes are often unsatisfactory. This article reports on how and why the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Kent State University changed its approach to staffing introductory mathematics classes, and on the resulting transformation of student outcomes and the structure of the department.

Disparate Perceptions of a Department

Until recently, adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants taught most sections of our basic mathematics courses below the level of calculus. For many years, we have had around twenty-five tenured or tenure-track faculty, but at times we have employed more than sixty adjunct faculty, many of whom only taught our courses for a semester or two. High enrollments in introductory classes and heavy reliance on adjunct faculty to teach them can lead to disparate perceptions of a department. At Kent State, tenured and tenure-track mathematics faculty have always prided themselves on their scholarly accomplishments and on the quality of the programs they offer for undergraduate and graduate majors.

However, other departments can easily develop a different perspective, especially when their day-to-day interactions with mathematics are about the general education or remedial courses in which their majors may struggle. In addition, administrators’ perceptions can be influenced by national assessments of efficiency and quality, such as the Delaware Report. Some versions of this report explicitly state that the primary role of university mathematics departments is to teach service courses, the courses least valued by the tenured and tenure-track faculty. Enrollment data support that view. For example, in recent fall semesters there have been over 10,000 registrations for courses offered by the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Kent State University on the Kent campus. However, fewer than a quarter of these have been in graduate courses or in undergraduate courses at or above the level of calculus.

Perceptions are also shaped by outcomes. Historically, student success and persistence rates were distressingly low. Other departments tended to view introductory mathematics courses as obstacles for their students to overcome, rather than as opportunities for them to enrich their academic development.

Student dissatisfaction was high, and concerns were repeatedly voiced in the student newspaper. One notorious article from several years ago shone a spotlight on the grade distribution in a high-enrollment algebra course designed to prepare students for college algebra. Approximately 25 percent of the students received a grade of A, B, or C; 25 percent a D; 25 percent an F; and the remaining 25 percent withdrew from the course. These data are appalling, but the perspective becomes even bleaker when national data on success rates in subsequent mathematics courses are factored in. They show that students do not reliably pass a mathematics course unless they earn a grade of A or B in the immediate prerequisite course. As a consequence, it is unlikely that more than a quarter of the students who originally enrolled in this preparatory course would have gone on to pass a college algebra course, which for many would be a gatekeeper for eventual graduation.

Mathematics—A Pump Not a Filter

This sad state of affairs at Kent State was by no means unusual in American universities and colleges. Concerned faculty had for some time been developing “reformed” curricula and instructional paradigms in an attempt to improve outcomes. There was a migration away from traditional lecturing toward more student-centered approaches. This went hand in hand with a deliberate effort to emphasize conceptual understanding rather than procedural facility. Discovery learning, collaboration, and problem solving in realistic contexts became much more common in the mathematics classroom. The reform movements were supported by federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), which publicized the importance of improving attainment in mathematics, even at the level of basic numeracy, as a basis for the successful development of an internationally competitive knowledge- based economy. The slogan of the day was: “Mathematics—a pump, not a filter!”

Our instructional framework, however, was a barrier to priming the pump. Many of the adjunct faculty in our pool had very traditional attitudes about how to teach mathematics and little motivation to revisit those attitudes, even though student outcomes were far from satisfactory. Most were quite limited in what they were qualified to teach. They were poorly paid, received minimal benefits, and could not rely on year-round employment. Their workload was constantly rising as the state reduced its support for higher education, forcing a progressive increase in class sizes from around twenty to around forty, or even higher. To make ends meet, most adjunct faculty needed to find other employment, and they sometimes taught at several local institutions. Their focus was by necessity short term, and their commitment to the discipline was limited, as was their openness to professional development, for which we had no funding.

All of these issues contributed to a serendipitous crisis: in fall 2000 and fall 2001, we were unable to find enough qualified adjunct faculty to teach our courses. The administration rose to the challenge and approved the hiring of several full-time non-tenure-track faculty (full-time NTTF), who enjoyed full benefits and taught thirty credit hours annually. After a short period, the number of such faculty stabilized in the high teens. Initial appointments were selected from the best part-time instructors we had available. As full-time faculty they taught much more than they had been able to before, and their new status made it possible for their teaching to become their primary professional focus. Not surprisingly, since we had generally replaced our weakest instructors with some of our strongest instructors, there was an immediate improvement in our students’ success rates.

Improvements in Student Success

Over the years, success rates—ABC rates—in beginning mathematics courses at Kent State have continued to improve. Most recently, about 70 percent of all students (80 percent of new first-year students) were successful in their first remedial course of the academic year, even though remedial courses are now taught in a large emporium setting rather than in small classes. At college level in recent fall semesters, the ABC rates have averaged about 65 percent in college algebra courses, and have been higher in alternative courses satisfying the general education requirement. While these rates still leave much room for improvement, they are, overall, much better than in the not-so-distant past. Hopefully, this development will help to change attitudes toward mathematics as a discipline, and the pump will start to do its job.

Although there were immediate improvements in student success, the continued and sustained rise is the result of other very positive changes brought about by the introduction of a significant number of full-time NTTF. In the 1990s, we had a handful of full-time NTTF who were charged with overseeing the beginning courses, but who were quite marginalized within the department. Now, the full-time NTTF constitute a significant proportion of the full-time faculty, and they are well integrated into the department. They form a dedicated workforce whose primary responsibility is to teach remedial and lower-division mathematics courses, a responsibility that is now recognized and valued as an important part of our mission. Along with this instructional responsibility, these faculty have embraced a commitment to the discipline, an enthusiasm for professional development, and an eagerness to engage in curricular development, including developing nontraditional courses and instructional paradigms designed to engage students, improve outcomes, and meet the needs of the future. Four of our full-time NTTF now have doctorates in mathematics, four have doctorates in mathematics education, and two more are actively pursuing an education doctorate: they have taken the initiative to improve their understanding of how and what to teach.

Many regularly attend professional conferences, and several are active participants in state-funded grant activities that aim to improve learning outcomes in the K–12 system as well as in higher education, and to bridge the gaps between the systems. Most actively support student-centered approaches to mathematics instruction. Their mathematical background and their depth of understanding is sufficiently strong that they can confidently discard the “sage on the stage” crutch in favor of meaningful dialogue to engage with their students. All this has worked in favor of our students. Their grades have improved, but more importantly they are now learning mathematics in ways that will help sustain their understanding well into the future.

The department has benefitted greatly from the integration of the full-time NTTF into its administrative structure. These faculty are now important participants in all departmental committees, except the graduate studies committee, providing a vital perspective that was missing before. Many of them work hard to generate proposals to keep the beginning mathematics curriculum current and relevant, and to inform tenured and tenure-track faculty of developments in this area that could affect the major’s programs. Several of these instructors also continue to act as course coordinators for multi-section courses, helping to maintain consistent standards from one section to another, mentoring inexperienced instructors, including new graduate teaching assistants, and serving as a principal point of contact for students who are unable to resolve issues with their instructors. In short, the full-time NTTF serve not only as instructors, but also as proponents for the basic mathematics courses. They promote curricular cohesion and help maintain the strong foundation that is essential for our instructional mission.

The administration has recognized the success of the introduction of full-time NTTF, who were originally concentrated in mathematics and English, and has extended their role across the university. These faculty are now well integrated into the life and mission of the university, with representation on most major committees, including the faculty senate. Recent contract changes have introduced a formal promotion process and different professional tracks to accommodate the diverse needs of various areas in the university. Such structures provide career pathways and help cement commitment to the disciplines and the institution. They provide a framework within which professional development is valued and rewarded, but our students are the ultimate beneficiaries.

A Further Step

Encouraged by the positive changes since the creation of a significant population of full-time NTTF, we have recently embarked on a further step in the professionalization of our instructor pool. About two years ago, we completed a transition to a framework where almost all of our part-time instructors are graduate students. The rare exceptions are key people who serve as liaisons with tutoring services across campus. With this change, almost all of our instructors are either full-time faculty or students actively pursuing a graduate degree. They are all fully committed to the discipline, which ultimately benefits the students they teach. This arrangement also allows us to enhance our graduate programs by supporting many more deserving students than was possible in the past, providing a clear route from partial support as part-time instructors to full support on an assistantship. All of these graduate students work closely with the full-time NTTF, who serve as very effective mentors to guide the students as they develop their teaching expertise.

The introduction of full-time NTTF on a large scale was initially a temporary response to a staffing crisis. However, the challenge was also an opportunity. Over time this group of faculty has become an important part of a healthier ecosystem within the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Kent State University, which now has fewer silos and functions more as an interactive community of committed professionals. Instructors of basic courses are considerably more invested in the discipline and in their professional development, and they are significantly better prepared to teach well and to promote continuous improvement in curricular and instructional paradigms. As a result, student success has increased markedly, and there is now much greater attention paid to excellence of instruction at all levels, including enhanced support for developing good and effective teaching by graduate students. The pump has been primed.


Andrew Tonge is chair of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Kent State University.

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