When All Else Fails: Student failure rates in required courses continue to skyrocket
It’s 6 a.m. and sophomore Mamata Tamang is barely making her way out of bed to start the day. The 20-year-old gets ready by putting on her makeup and eating breakfast hastily to make her way out the door by 7 a.m. Tamang jumps on the bus and transfers twice in order to reach her Math 141 class at Whatcom Community College. On some mornings, the long commute results in Tamang showing up late to her class and missing out on material.
Tamang makes this trip four times a week in order to fulfill the math credit she needs to apply for the education major. After failing Math 114 twice at Western, taking the outside math course and paying extra money from loans is her most viable option.
“I’ve already had so many bad experiences here [at Western] that I rather spend my money somewhere that I understand it better so that’s why I’m taking [math] there,” Tamang said.
During the quarters she was enrolled in Math 114 at Western, Tamang sought out additional help at the Tutoring Center. In one of her visits, a tutor told Tamang she was not smart enough to figure out the concepts. She never returned to the Tutoring Center again after her inhospitable encounter.
Sophomore Ashley Manawa is currently enrolled in Math 112 for her fourth time within her college career at Western. After being taught by a variety of instructors -- some more passionate about the subject than others -- she is finally on track to pass the class and progressing further into entering the engineering major.
If Manawa didn’t have to retake Math 112 four times, she would be projected to graduate within five years like she originally planned. Now, her advisor estimates her current graduation time to be prolonged for another year.
“I have to finish Math 114 before I can finish the math sequence for my major. I just need to get past 114 but until then, I’m just really stuck at this waiting point and it’s frustrating. I don’t really have another option,” Manawa said.
However, Tamang and Manawa are not alone in their continuous struggle within the Math requirement classes at Western.
An analysis of data and failure rates from the past 10 years shows that Western’s most failed classes are Math 112, Math 114, and Philosophy 102. The number of students unsuccessfully passing these classes have only grown exponentially.
According to data provided by the Registrars office, the failure rate for Philosophy 102, the most failed general education requirement (GUR) course at Western, has risen from 11.2 percent in 2009 to 16.6 percent in 2016. For Math 112, the failure rate has more than doubled from 6.7 percent to 15.9 percent.
The Math 118 failure rate has risen from 5 percent to 12.6 percent, and the Math 114 failure rate has risen from 6.4 percent to 11.2 percent, though it has more than triple the students of Math 118.
All of these courses fall under the category of Quantitative and Symbolic Reasoning (QSR) which needs to be fulfilled by an accumulation of 90 credits in order to graduate.
The increasing failure rates in these courses at Western costs students money and time to graduate within four years. Tjalling Ypma, chair of the Math Department, is perplexed about the situation.
“The courses haven’t changed, and the instructors are really experienced, and yet we’ve seen a steady decline in student success rates,” Ypma said. “We don’t know what to ascribe that to, but that’s part of the reason why we want to reexamine those courses and how we teach them.”
Sophomore Daniel Hagger took Math 112 during the winter quarter, and is currently enrolled in Math 114. Like Tamang and Manawa, Hagger blames the instructors, who are often graduate students, for their lack of retention for the material.
“It is a little frustrating because part of what I believe you should be paying for at an institution, is institution-level teaching, an instructor really knowing how to teach it and having that art of how to instill it into the student,” Hagger said.
Hagger feels Western does not live up to the high standards it holds its math students to. He spends more time learning independently outside of class on websites like Khan Academy and YouTube, and in the Tutoring Center, than in the class itself.
“If you’re going to train an athlete, and you’re expecting them to run a quarter mile in a certain amount of time, you need to be able to train them to do that, not just say ‘you need to figure out how to do it on your own,’” Hagger said.
The total annual visits at the Tutoring Center, based on student sign-ins, has risen from 19,458 in 2009 to 40,353 in 2016.
Barbara Quick, assistant director of the Tutoring Center, said this increase in students seeking help has led to understaffing.
“All of our problems are related to high demand,” Quick said. “People have to wait sometimes to get help. If there are more students in here wanting help then there are tutors available, then those student’s questions go on the list, and that’s a first come first serve listing of who tutors should help next.”
Quick said students sometimes have to wait 20 minutes before being assisted by a tutor. In addition, students feel pressured by the time constraint the tutors are under.
“This learning environment would not be my first choice if I was a student,” Quick said.
Quick compared the Tutoring Center’s noisy, hectic setting to “being in a barn when all the cows are mooing.”
Though there are things Quick would like to improve, there is simply not enough funding.
In 2016, the Tutoring Center had an annual budget of $256,226. Of that, $142,628 went toward student hourly wages, $106,360 went toward permanent staff salaries and $7,238 went toward other operating expenses.
“There’s so many competing priorities for resources on campus that to fund one thing means to not fund something else, so we’re one of many worthwhile areas that would like to have improved funding,” Quick said.
Struggle with collegiate math curriculum
Among the 366 GUR classes offered for students to take, the second and third most failed classes are both in the math department, according to the data collected from the Registrars office. Math 112 is a algebra course focused on teaching problem solving while Math 114 is Precalculus involving data analysis and functions. Both of these classes are notorious at Western for the low success rates.
“If you compare them to national rates, they are particularly average. Still, that’s not good enough,” Steven VanderStaay, vice provost of undergraduate education, said.
Math 112 is described on the Western catalog as “pattern recognition and generalization, building mathematical models and problem solving are emphasized. Supporting topics include polynomials, linear and quadratic equations, inequalities, graphs, rational expressions, radicals and functions.”
Riley Sealtabel, a graduate student in the Math Department, said the material covered in Math 112 is nothing new from algebra in high school however collegiate math at Western aims to teach students a more comprehensive method of solving problems.
“Math 112 deals with material students often learn in high school and you can learn very algorithmically, but because we’re teaching at a college level we ask really difficult questions in that class and really expect students to develop extensive problem solving skills and you don’t always see that in math curriculum before you get to the college level,” Lindsay Skinner, graduate student, said.
VanderStaay said the math courses at Western strives to teach students how to grasp concepts and problems rather than memorize how to do them.
“Often times, the student just wants to get it right and to be successful in our math program, you really have to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” VanderStaay said. “Learning a different way to solve a problem is useful even though it could be disconcerting.”
Math 112 and Math 114 are held in multiple sections of 30 to 75 students as the maximum capacity. The class is held for 50 minutes everyday of the week. In order to pass the class and move onto the next section or fulfill the requirement, students must finish with a C- or better.
Despite the class being held five days a week, Skinner said a longer class time would help students digest material better.
“Think about it: we get a math class four days a week for 50 minutes and we’re going over problems from last night that you didn’t even understand rather than going over the next homework,” junior Brenden Finnerty said. “It’s a vicious cycle of what’s on the next homework and doing that until the exam. I don’t see how that works out.”
Kim Ragsdale, director of the Math Center, said the overall fast pace of the class could be cause for students’ difficulty to learn the concepts well. To solve the issue, Ragsdale believes that students need to put in more time and effort for the class if they want to succeed.
“A lot of students in 112 don’t like it and it’s very hard to be successful in a class you’re not going to put work into because you don’t like it,” Ragsdale said. “You also have students who feel like ‘I know this, I’ve seen it all before’ and they spend less time preparing.”
Among his dissatisfaction with the Math 112 course, Finnerty said the main issue is the class being taught by a student teacher rather than an accredited professor.
“Every class I’ve ever taken with a TA has been lackluster considering the amount of money I pay to be taught by a student teacher than a professor with actual credentials,” Finnerty said.
Finnerty, an international business major, took Math 112 in winter quarter of 2016 as a prerequisite for Math 156, Algebra with Applications to Business and Economics.
There are 16 teaching assistants in total for math who are required to teach two years of lower level math classes before earning their degree. Lower level math courses are primarily taught by graduate students instead of professors to save university resources as well as help the graduate students with their tuition, according to Vanderstaay.
“[Math 112] shouldn’t have been taught by a student teacher,” Finnerty said. “When you have really smart people who major in math, that indicates to me that there was someone who didn’t necessarily have to work through it rather than someone who had to go into not knowing anything.”
In Finnerty’s Math 112 section, the class began with 30 students and ended up only having 18 students attend the final exam after they dropped out or withdrew.
According to VanderStaay, the graduate students who taught Math and English classes in the past were given little to no training before being put in the classroom.
Ragsdale said graduate students are put through a week of training before the quarter begins to review the syllabus and material for the class. Additionally, the graduate students also attend a class, Math 595, throughout the quarter to discuss teaching methods and material in the class such as problems and tests.
Even with the week of training and weekly meetings with lead instructors, VanderStaay said there isn’t enough preparation for the graduate students to teach.
Seatalbel has taught Math 112, Math 114 and Math 115 as part of the two-year graduate program. Sealtabel said he enjoys teaching the courses and hopes to get his PhD to teach math in the future as a permanent career. However, not all graduate students teaching in the department are as enthusiastic about teaching as Sealtabel is.
“There are some people in this program who are doing the teaching assistance to help pay for the program and not because they’re interested in teaching. It’s certainly possible that students could suffer from having an instructor who doesn’t care,” Sealtabel said.
Manawa has experienced a spectrum of teaching assistants and how it has affected her retention of the class.
“It was obvious that my first grad student was very uninterested in the class and didn’t care at all. She made it really hard to be there because if she’s not enthusiastic, I’m not going to care,” Manawa said.
On the other hand, Manawa said her second graduate student passionate and eager to teach the course, making the class more enjoyable and easier to learn. Even with her better professor, Manawa still didn’t pass the class on her second try. After her trials and errors, Manawa said she has not seen any change whatsoever in the Math 112 curriculum and instruction.
“I’ve been in the tutoring business for 20 years, and the question hasn’t changed that much, and the classes haven’t changed very much,” Ragsdale said. “I think that’s one thing to think about - is there a better way to present the material? Is there a way to get students engaged and wanting to learn it?”
Students Enter Logic Blind-Sided
According to the University Catalog, Philosophy 102 focuses on “Identifying, extracting, and assessing reasoning in everyday contexts by developing an artificial symbolic language to provide a clear representation of deductive reasoning.”
Based on its description and course title, some students assume Philosophy 102 is a critical reasoning class, and will therefore be an “easier” alternative to taking a math GUR.
“Often, students who take the class struggle in math, but it uses the same kinds of skills,” VanderStaay said.“That class in particular, people don’t anticipate its challenge level and that’s one of the issues.”
This was senior Dee Payton’s mindset when she decided to take the class as a freshman.
“I didn’t know what logic was, but I knew I’m bad at math and if I can fulfill this requirement with something that isn’t math then I’ll probably do that,” Payton said. “Just because it’s not math doesn’t mean it’s not hard.”
Vanderstaay said the pass rates for Philosophy 102 increase when students expect it to be difficult or expect it to be math.
Payton is now a TA for the class. She hosts hour-long study sessions for students in Bond Hall on mondays, tuesdays and wednesdays.
Besides students’ misconceptions about the course, Payton believes class size is another issue.
Professor Dan Howard-Snyder, who has been the only instructor teaching the course for years, is currently responsible for two Philosophy 102 segments, each capped at 174 students.
“When you’re in this huge GUR class, you’re like ‘I don’t want to be here. I just want the experience of this class to be only in this classroom and then I’ll leave,’” Payton said. “It’s really helpful to take the time and work outside of the class.”
Payton’s class, which started the quarter with over a hundred students, has gradually dwindled to about 15. Senior George Tian is one of those remaining students.
“The people that are still left, these are the guys who have been cranking it out [studying] two hours a day,” Tian said, “We’re all here with really high scores.”
Tian said Philosophy 102 is the hardest and least forgiving GUR he’s taken at Western. He compares the workload to upper-division classes he’s taken in the past.
“Students’ expectations are ‘I walk into this class it’s a GUR, most GURs are really forgiving, you can shirk off, you can fall asleep in class, you can not show up,’” Tian said. “In this class, because of the coursework you can’t do that because if you decide to skip a class, you’re going to be so lost compared to people who actually came. I think those are the reasons people ended up dropping like flies.”
Tian feels the course material would be more effectively taught if it were split into two subsequent classes. He believes this would decrease the workload and amount of material students have to take in, which would allow them to process it better.
“If they [students] do decide to slack off a little bit, even though that’s not the teacher’s fault, they’re met with a little bit of recourse or wiggle space, and they can do a lot better,” Tian said.
The Philosophy Department has refused to comment on the matter.
Access to Additional Help
During his time in Math 112, Finnerty visited the Tutoring Center frequently to seek help on homework and upcoming tests. His visits to the Tutoring Center weren’t always worthwhile. In some occasions, Finnerty waited 10 minutes for an available tutor to help him with a math problem. When the tutor would finally arrive, their assistance wouldn’t always be beneficial.
“Their hearts are in the right place and they really want to help people but sometimes you just end up sitting there together blankly staring at a page,” Finnerty said.
Finnerty said the tutors taught him how to do problems based on their intuition which differed from the way his TA would teach in class. When all else failed, Finnerty sought out help online or taught himself the material to succeed without the university’s help.
Western offers the Tutoring Center as a resource for those who have difficulty in particular subjects. There are currently 64 student tutors on staff who specialize in mostly math and science GUR classes. The Tutoring Center estimates 40,000 visits annually and operates for cumulatively 60 hours every week.
Quick witnessed a visible change in the resource’s usage within the nine years she has held her position.
“The use of the tutoring center in those nine years has almost tripled. Part of the reason for that, about half-way through those nine years we moved over here to the library and became part of the learning commons,” Quick said.
Student tutors are required to attend review sessions for subject mastery and learn a variety of questioning techniques. According to Quick, the number of tutors hired within the past four years has been steady.
“[Tutors and peer advisors hiring] depends on how the demand was for the previous year, and again that’s measured by people signing in and signing out,” Quick said. “If we had a huge leap in the number of students signing in and signing out, we’re going to assume that our demand has gone up and we’ll fight like heck to get funding for additional tutors
One issue that Sealtabel has run into during his time teaching Math is the problem solving process a tutor at the Tutoring Center teaches to a student clashing with his own methods. The conflict causes students confusion on tests and homework in class.
“There are times when my students come in and they have feedback on how they answered a question from the tutoring center which is different from the way I’m teaching them and that causes confusion for students,” Sealtabel said.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Payton holds a tutoring study group in Bond Hall for Intro to Logic students who need additional help. Sophomore Nicole Irizarry’s largest obstacle in Philosophy 102 is the workload and limited time for comprehension. Irizarry began attending Payton’s tutoring sessions for supplementary help.
“[The tutoring groups] show that Western is trying to have its students achieve and it’s really nice to have,” Irizarry said.
Philosophy 102 is not offered at the Tutoring Center as a subject. Payton wishes the Tutoring Center offered drop-in logic tutors to assist students.
“They try to have tutors who can tutor multiple subjects, and logic isn’t usually one they overlap with,” Payton said. “They stopped having logic tutors and I get that saves money but it would help to have one more resource.”
Dan Howard-Snyder, philosophy 102 professor, additionally holds office hours for students who aren’t absorbing the material well. Tian is passing logic with an A. However, he sought out help from Howard-Snyder and Payton outside of class in order to earn that grade.
“The only people I see come to help sessions are the only people left in the class, the people who dropped like flies, I didn’t see them coming to the study sessions,” Tian said.
Payton said while the instructor is passionate and well-educated on logic, he might not understand how others aren’t picking up on the concepts as quickly as him.
“He can be a little intimidating. Of the professors at this university, he is probably the most attentive to when the student is right in front of him then and there. A lot of times, you just don’t know what you don’t know,” Payton said.
Western has increased its variety of resources to help students succeed yet the failure rates are still growing drastically. As a last resort, some students reach out to third party resources to help them pass their GUR classes.
“I’ve had to look up Youtube tutorials on how to do certain concepts and equations. In lecture, once they say something and move on, it’s kind of hard to ask to go back when there are 70 other kids in the class trying to move on too,” Manawa said.
Although the increase in student failure and following consequences have been a long systemic problem, it has not gone unnoticed.
“We’re definitely paying attention to [the failure rates] and we’re aware of it but it’s a hard question to address because there are things that students need to get out of a math program class and there are standards we need to go back on,” Sealtabel said.
The increasing failure rates at Western have been under assessment for a while, according to VanderStaay. With the rise in tuition costs and demand for better education, the math department has taken action in hopes of increasing success rates and providing an overall quality education.
“We’re doing something really exciting right now. We just hired an outside consultant who is specializes in undergraduate education and math in particular to come in and assess what we’re doing and tell us what we can do better. The next step is to hire a coordinator for undergraduate mathematics,” Sealtabel said.
According to VanderStaay, the outside consultant is an expert in college math success who examines math departments and creates a report on how it can improve. Vanderstaay said the math department is currently searching for a permanent faculty member who will guide the program to success year-round.
In the upcoming year, a new placement test has been created to accurately evaluate where incoming students are at in terms of their math knowledge. Ypma said the test will be written answer in comparison to the old placement test which was multiple choice.
“This [test] will throw some questions at you, figure out that you already know everything you need to know about quadratic equations, then move on to trigonometry or whatever, whereas the old paper version was ‘you’re going to do all 30 of these questions,” Ypma said.
Vanderstaay said the math department hires graduate students instead of professors to teach the beginning level math courses to save money. Even with the effort to be tentative in resources, there is still a lack of funding to provide a better education.
The math department recently applied for a grant to pay graduate students for more hours in training before they start teaching. Ypma hopes to also use the extra funding for a directorial first year math instruction and an additional week of training for graduate students before fall quarter.
Additionally, Ypma said the department is attempting to reduce class sizes from a cap of 75 to 35. The goal is to have classes that are “small enough that there can be some personal contact between the faculty member and the students, yet large enough you have some reasonable dynamics and you can have groups working together,” according to Ypma.
“There’s been a lot of discussion between the administration in old main and in the college here and everybody is very supportive of what we’re trying to do,” Ypma said.
There is a newfound attentiveness in the air at Western for increased student success.
THIS STORY WAS WRITTEN BY JOURNALISM STUDENTS IN AN ADVANCED REPORTING CLASS IN SPRING 2017, IT IS PART OF A FOUR PART SERIES OF INVESTIGATIVE STORIES. CHECK OUT LAST WEEK'S 'DARK DAYS' STORY AND OUR NEXT INSTALLMENT 'ROADBLOCKS TO RESOURCES'!