Valparaiso University's Math Department is currently undergoing several changes that affect student fees, course structure and grading systems.
“So we are trying to make changes in the curriculum and how we run things to help students as much as we can. So we started last year introducing open education resources in many of our service courses. By service courses I mean courses that engineers take, that business students take, that other majors take,” said Zsuzsanna Szaniszlo, Department Chair and Professor of Mathematics and Statistics.
One of the changes is the removal of expensive textbook fees for students in order to only charge students a semester fee for an online homework platform.
“And students in finite mathematics, calculus, differential equations, they are charged a $25 textbook fee,” Szaniszlo said. “And that helps us keep running the online electronic homework system instead of purchasing it from the publisher so that saves about $50,000 per year for students and textbook costs.”
A grant from the University Guild was used to make additional course changes, such as those to the introductory mathematics courses.
“Our newest initiative is to let students enroll in multidisciplinary courses at the same time that they take the math course. So instead of making Math 110 the prerequisite for Psychology 201 it’s now corequisite so students can take it together,” Szaniszlo said.
Academic Advisor Jennifer Easthope helped to create a link on Starfish, a website that connects students with University services, between the instructors of the interdisciplinary courses.
“So faculty now can lift a flag in Starfish alerting the math instructor that the student needs specific math help. And we asked all the instructors in the other departments to let us know what math topics they want students to know in general,” Szaniszlo said.
Some frustrations with the new interdisciplinary curriculum have stemmed from students being put in the wrong courses.
“So students registered during the summer at FOCUS and now they are here and I’m looking at schedules and some of them were not correct. And of course it’s too late to fix schedules because all the other classes are set so we are working with maybe 15 students trying to help them individually achieve what they want to do,” Szaniszlo said.
Instructors will work with the students to clear up any issues.
“So instead of messing with their whole schedule, the instructors will work with them individually to make sure they can do both [courses] if they want,” Szaniszlo said.
But the reaction to this change has generally been positive.
“I think the frustration at FOCUS is much lower because students can actually take the courses they want to take. So advisors generally say that they are so happy about the change because it made FOCUS much easier for them and the students,” Szaniszlo said.
The National Science Foundation Grant will also allow for an extended calculus course to be added to the curriculum next academic year.
“So what we’re trying to do is that students who test below a level that they are able to jump into calculus, they can take an extended calculus course for two semesters. By the end of the second semester, they would end where the first semester calculus course ends,” Szaniszlo said.
This course will have a mastery based grading system, in which students’ success in the course is measured by completion of learning objectives rather than traditional grades.
“And the plan is to use mastery based grading in this course so instead of having the traditional exams you collect your points and you lose points basically. So there will be maybe somewhere between 15 to 20 learning objectives and students can demonstrate during the year anytime that they’ve met that learning objective,” Szaniszlo said.
Szaniszlo hopes to evaluate this interdisciplinary effort after this year.
“So we’ll see how this goes, this is our first semester that we are doing this. And this is, as far as I know, unique in the country,” Szaniszlo said. “We got a grant from the National Science Foundation to try to evaluate this effort. So the grant is two things: one of them is to implement this corequisite structure and to evaluate if it’s really working.”