Walter Johnson opens the door to the Mathematics Learning Laboratory with the look of a young student showing his parents his report card with all As. 

Lab director Heather Land shows a student the software program used for his fall semester math course.
Johnson, director of the pre-calculus program, is eager to show off the more than 200 computer stations and showcase the software and options available to students through the lab. 

The lab has become the backbone of a Pre-Calculus program that has helped push the success rate of students enrolling in MA 102 to 78 percent from 34 percent since restructuring began in 2006.

"This lab is a major factor in improving our success rates and, more important, improving student learning," Johnson says. "That's really been our focus all along. If you increase math competency, hopefully the passing rates will follow. Fortunately, they have. And they've followed while we've maintained rigor in the course. That makes it feel like your students really have accomplished something."

UAB will be sending a required Fifth-Year Interim Report to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools early in 2011, and a major part of the report will be the Quality Enhancement Program (QEP) Impact Report. It will detail the success the university has achieved with the QEP it proposed as part of its reaccreditation in 2005. 

The performance of pre-calculus math students will be a component of that report, highlighting the success rate and math instructors' ability to support student learning through computer-assisted instruction. 

Johnson says the improvement did not happen overnight. The restructuring process is regularly scrutinized and adjusted to make the program stronger. 

Marilyn Kurata, Ph.D., director of Core Curriculum Enhancement, says math department Chair Rudi Weikard, Ph.D., and his staff have been instrumental in the restructuring success. 

"It's been very, very impressive what they have accomplished," Kurata says. "The math department has worked hard to help ensure that our students will have the basic skills they need to go on to more advanced courses. Even though there have been 30 to 40 percent improvements, they're not resting on that. They look at their feedback, and they're constantly tweaking."

Keys to success

Johnson says three elements have enhanced learning: the instruction software, the monitoring system developed by faculty and Information Technology staff and the tutoring available after class hours.

Pre-calculus classes meet three times each week for 50 minutes. The first class meeting is a workbook-based, interactive classroom lecture and/or group-learning experience. Students meet with their instructor in the math lab for the second class and work in the math lab on their own or with math department tutors for the third. 

The computers use interactive software. Students can view examples and solutions for problems they are trying to solve, e-mail their professor with questions and view the textbook online. 

Johnson says these teaching aids make the instructor more effective and engage the students in more hands-on study. 

"To me, this is better than the old way of doing things because it's dynamic learning," Johnson says. "If a student is stuck, the program can give them a nudge in the right direction. It beats sitting in your dorm room for an hour in complete frustration not knowing what to do. This is manna from Heaven, from a student and instructor perspectives."

Another aspect in which the software helps is that there is no variance in content from instructor to instructor. 

"We have more control now because no matter who is teaching a course - even if we have to hire adjunct instructors because we've got an overload of students - there's a discipline imposed on the instructor," Johnson says. "We have much less variability now in passing rates from section to section. They have to teach each course a standard way; they have to use the homework problems we're providing for them; they have to use the schedules that we give them. That has kept us from getting wild fluctuations in passing rates. 

"Every instructor gives the same types of tests and quizzes," he says. "And the rules are laid out for faculty and students in terms of what it takes to pass the course. It's much better from that perspective."

Monitoring progress

The math department also developed software that gives the instructor and advisors the ability to monitor student progress daily. The monitoring software shows the current course grade, homework grades, quiz grades - even the number of classes that have been attended or missed. 

The grade database is housed on math department servers and is updated every hour. 

"This is a leading-edge capability," Johnson says. "We have advisors who monitor their students' progress. UAB Athletics gives us a list of athletes at the beginning of each semesters and we give a set of academic advisors in the athletic department database access. They can sit down every day if they want to and get an up-to-date record of who's coming to class, doing their homework and making the grade from the beginning of the semester. This is a great advance over the time-delayed way things used to be."

Any advisor who wants access to their students' records can e-mail Johnson at at the beginning of the semester. 

"This provides a great tool for our instructors and advisors and enables them to see when they need to talk to students and help them," Johnson says. "And the students can see their own progress clearly. There's no question in their mind about what's happening and where they stand in the course."

Tutors also a key factor

The math department has pushed the lab into the forefront for all of its students. Instructors hold office hours in the lab so they are more accessible to students. 

The lab, located on the second floor of Heritage Hall, is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each Friday during the semester. The facility is staffed with mathematics graduate student tutors during this time. The lead tutor for the lab also is a full-time employee. Students can go to the lab anytime during the day and receive help. 

Because of the success of the pre-calculus and non-credit basic algebra course, the lab has expanded through the restructuring. It supports numerous math courses, including college-level algebra, pre-calculus trigonometry, pre-calculus algebra and trig combined, business calculus, finite mathematics, statistics and calculus courses. 

All of the courses are showing improvement in their success rate, and it's a trend Johnson hopes will continue. 

"It's got to plateau at some point," he says. "But we've seen gradual, steady improvement, and that is very gratifying."