How can a mathematics department please its client disciplines? This department finds a solution in establishing a web of responsible persons to establish goals for students and instructors, course leaders, committees, and faculty liaisons, for placement of students into courses and for the content of those courses.
Background and Purpose
It's one thing to say that effective departmental relations with the rest of the institution depend upon good communications, it's quite another to determine who should be talking to whom and what they should be discussing. This article illustrates how common assessment issues form a natural structure for such a dialogue one that can actually produce results.
Oakland University is a comprehensive state university located on the northern edge of the Detroit metropolitan area. Its total enrollment is approximately 13,500, 20% of which is graduate and primarily at the master's level. Most students commute, many are financing their education through part-time employment, and pre-professional programs are the most popular. The average ACT score of matriculating students is in the low 20s.
The Department of Mathematical Sciences has 26 tenure track faculty positions. A mixture of part-time instructors and graduate teaching assistants brings the total instructional staff to a total of 35 full-time equivalents. The department accounts for over 10% of the institution's total credit delivery. The bulk of these credits are at the freshmen and sophomore level in courses required for major standing in the various professional schools or elected to satisfy the university's general education requirements. Average course success rates (measured in terms of the percentage of students enrolled in a course who complete the course with a grade of 2.0 or higher) have varied widely over the last 15 years, from a high of 70% down to 33%. By the end of the 1980's, these low rates had led to very negative perceptions of the department's instructional efforts. There was general departmental consensus that these perceptions threatened institutional support for the department's priority aspirations in the areas of research and emerging industrial collaborations. An effective response was clearly necessary. The one developed had two phases: the first took place solely within the department and the second, which continues to the present, involved the department and major units of the university.
To improve its instructional image (and hopefully its instructional effectiveness) the department developed a unified policy for the delivery of courses at the freshman and sophomore levels. This policy included a general statement of departmental goals and objectives for all of the courses, detailed policies specific to each course, and a process for continuing course development with responsibilities allocated between teaching faculty and the department's curriculum committee.
For example, the general policy set the goal of "an academically sound curriculum in which most conscientious students could expect to be successful." It committed to "provide the skills and understandings necessary for later courses," to insure "consistent course policies in all sections of a course during a given semester," and "as consistent with other course goals, to adopt changes likely to increase the number of students being successful in each class."
Specific course policies would be described in Student and Instructor Information Sheets distributed at the beginning of each course. Issues such as prerequisites, grading, calculator usage, syllabus, and suggestions for successful study habits were addressed in the Student Information sheets. The Instruction Information sheets addressed issues such as typical student clientele, template processes for common test construction, current course issues, and student success rates in the course for the preceding eight semesters. The initial approval of these sheets would be made by the department. Future revisions in these sheets would be at the initiative of the designated faculty Course Leader with the approval by the department's committee on undergraduate programs, who would seek departmental approval for major course changes.
Further details are given in Flashman's panel article , but for this account, the key fact is that with the adoption of this policy, typical major assessment elements were in place. The department had fully considered, debated, and decided what it was trying to do, how it would try to do it, how it would measure how well it was doing, and how it would make changes that could assist in doing it better.
Since the unified policy was approved, there has been and continues to be a series of interactions with the rest of the university in the context of this general policy. The department found these to be a natural consequence of the implementation demands and communication needs of the new policy.
Three interaction examples are discussed in the next section. What is illustrative about these examples is not so much the items under consideration or the actual participants, but the manner in which the implementation of a specific assessment mechanism naturally leads to a process for effective interaction with the rest of the institution.
Use of Findings
Interaction 1. Calculus Reform and Relations with other Science Departments
The first example concerns the issue of calculus reform; the external units were the School of Computer Science and Engineering along with natural science departments in the College of Arts and Sciences. The policy impetus for this interaction was the initial departmental approval of the information sheets for the mainstream calculus course. Here's what happened.
The department's undergraduate committee decided this was the time to grasp the nettle of calculus reform and determine a departmental reaction to the various national efforts underway. The Chair wrote to the Dean of Computer Science and Engineering and to his counterparts in the natural sciences informing them of this effort and requesting faculty in their units to be identified as liaisons for consultative purposes. These colleagues were initially interviewed by the department committee concerning the state of the current course and later invited to review texts under consideration and drafts of the materials to be submitted for departmental approval. The process resulted in the departmental approval of new materials for the calculus sequence. A university forum was held for the science liaisons and other interested colleagues to describe the coming course changes. All of this was widely publicized across the university and covered in the student newspaper.
The department's currency with, and willingness to actively consider, issues of national curricular change was demonstrated. Its concern for the views of its major clients in the sciences was emphasized. A positive precedent for external consultation was established (which was later to be reinforced as described in the third example that follows). Subsequently, there was little surprise and general support at the most recent departmental meeting when the current Chair announced his intention to ask that 1) a permanent engineering faculty liaison be appointed and 2) a rotating (nonvoting) seat be created on the undergraduate committee for the chief academic advisors from the various professional schools.
Interaction 2. Student Support and Relations with the Division of Student Affairs
The second example concerns the issue of support for student work outside of class; the external unit was the Academic Skills Center in the Division of Student Affairs. While there had been a number of positive faculty interactions with the Center prior to the policy, the policy context for this interaction was the initial departmental approval of the student information sheets which addressed issues such as homework, office hours, and other help outside of class. Here's what happened.
Some of the support services offered by the Academic Skills Center include free peer tutoring, supplemental instruction, and luncheon seminars on various study skills. Many of these are routinely promoted in the student information sheets. In addition, departmental faculty participate in the Center's training sessions for supplemental instruction, hold review briefings for tutors, and lead study skills seminars. It has also become a common practice for many faculty to allocate some of their office hours directly to the Center, meeting with walk-in students at the Center itself. The thank you notes for this departmental commitment to student success reached all the way up to university's president.
There has also been an economic component to this active departmental support of another unit's efforts. The vast majority of the tutors hired and Supplemental Instruction sessions offered by the Center are for the direct support of courses in the mathematical sciences. Indeed, the dollars spent far exceed those which the department could possibly allocate from its College budget.
Interaction 3. Placement, Course Content, and Relations with the School of Business Administration
The third and final example concerns the issues of student placement and course content; the external unit was the School of Business Administration. The impetus for this effort was a task force appointed by the dean of that school to review and make recommendations concerning the two course sequence in mathematics, Linear Programming/Elementary Functions and Calculus for the Social Sciences, required in the pre-major program in business. Since in its policy governing these courses, the department had already committed itself to the goal of increasing the number of students successful in such courses and had also assigned responsibilities and processes for considering and instituting course improvements, it was well positioned to respond positively to this external initiative. Here's (some of) what happened.
The task force included mathematical sciences faculty among its membership, met for a full academic year, commissioned a number of studies, and issued its recommendations. During the academic year which followed the filing of its final report, the department developed formal responses to all of the task forces recommendations, assisted by a number of formal studies and pilot projects supported by joint funding from the deans of Business Administration, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Vice President of Student Affairs. Faculty liaisons from the department and the school were appointed to oversee this process. For the purposes of this article, the focus will be upon two specific items which illustrate well the assessment issues of careful information gathering, data-based decision making, and resulting change. As described at the beginning of this example, the two issues are student placement and course content.
The task force had recommended that the department review its method of student placement, given the low success rates in the two courses required of its pre-majors (which typically ranged in the low 50% range.) To assist in the formulation of its response, the department's undergraduate committee accepted the invitation of the business school's liaison to conduct, with another colleague trained in industrial/organizational psychology, a formal validation study of the department's existing placement test. The committee also undertook a survey of other departments' placement practices throughout the state. As a result of this external study and its own survey, the department determined to change its placement process. The existing test had been based upon a version distributed by the MAA more than ten years ago which the department had never updated. The statistical results from the validation study revealed low correlation between test scores and later results in some courses. It also identified many test questions as invalid since their unit scores deviated strongly from total test scores or otherwise failed to differentiate among students taking the test. The implementation of a placement system based upon ACT scores for all beginning courses outside the mainstream calculus sequence begins in this current academic year. For the mainstream calculus course, a process of revising the current test is underway with continuing advice and consultation of the business faculty who conducted the original study.
In the area of course content, the task force had conducted a careful survey of course topics used in advanced business courses, surveyed the content of corresponding courses across the state, interviewed instructors of the courses, and developed a statement written by a working group of business faculty describing their goals for the course in a business major's curriculum. In formulating their response, the department's undergraduate committee asked the course leaders of these two courses to draft new syllabi and commissioned a question by question analysis of the departmental final examinations in these courses. Through a series of revisions and consultations between the committee and the working group, new syllabi for both courses were finally approved and implemented. The final result was a 20% reduction in the topic coverage for each course.
In the years since these studies were completed, both the department and the school have continued to appoint faculty liaisons who meet monthly to discuss the implementation of these and other changes that resulted from the process, as well as developing other means for potential course improvements. Their current efforts were recently the subject for a major article in the university's newspaper.
The actual adoption of a specific assessment policy by a real department and its subsequent implementation by real people in a real university set in motion an entire chain of interactions whose ramifications would have been difficult to predict. In addition to the constructive context which the department's policy provided for its relations with the rest of the university, there were four lessons learned from the initial round of interactions. They appear to be particularly relevant for any department contemplating such a process and can be summarized as follows.
 Roberts, A.W., Ed. Calculus: The Dynamics of
Change, MAA Notes, Number 39, The Mathematical
Association of America, Washington, DC, 1996.