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Math faculty and staff develop course to sharpen the skills of incoming students

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Over 20 educators from the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Mathematics came together to develop a new course designed to help secondary school students whose education was interrupted abruptly by COVID-19.

The new online, skills-based course, MTHEL 199, gives Waterloo’s incoming students extra practice in six branches of mathematics: inequalities and absolute values, radicals and rational expressions, trigonometry, exponential and logarithmic functions, polynomials, and introductory calculus. 

“We had teams of three people that worked on each of the six modules.  Each team included one faculty member from the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing (CEMC), one faculty member from the Math Undergraduate Group, and one member of the CEMC with recent secondary school teaching experience,” Ian VanderBurgh, director of the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing, says. “The teams firstly determined the main learning objectives that incoming math students need to be successful in their first year and then identified the right lessons that match up with these objectives.”

“A huge part of the teams’ time was then spent creating algorithmic assessments so that the students get different versions of the questions on each attempt.”

The assessment for each of the six modules consists of 20 questions and is automated using the Mobius system. To pass the course, students need to score at least 75 per cent on each of the six modules and achieve an overall average of 85 per cent.

Students got the option to do the course in September when they commence their studies at Waterloo or in August before regular classes begin. Of the Faculty of Mathematics’ roughly 2,800 incoming students, 2,600 opted to start the course in August, with 600 students completing the course within the first three weeks.

“Of the 2,600 students, there were approximately 1,800 of them who got 100 per cent on the first assessment, which undoubtedly means they did it once and went back and did over the ones they got wrong,” Shane Bauman, MTHEL 199 lead instructor and CEMC lecturer, says. “We’re happy to see that despite only requiring a sore of 75 per cent to pass a module, students are redoing questions that they get wrong as the point of the course is for them to prepare, learn and maybe fill in some gaps that happened because of how their grade 12 year transpired.”

The faculty also recruited 10 secondary school teachers to support the students as they go through the modules. The teachers monitor the course’s discussion boards and assist when students get stuck on something, or they’ve watched the videos and are still not sure about how a particular concept works.

There were roughly 1,500 engagements on the discussion boards within the first three weeks, with approximately 215 questions. The teachers have been replying to these questions within seven minutes on average.

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