A collaborative project aimed at improving first year mathematics students’ experience

Published On: 6 May 2022|

The facilitation of engaged participation and not just the acquisition of knowledge is the aim of the Community of Practice on the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics (TLM CoP), Mr Robert Prince, Principal Investigator at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Educational Assessments (CEA) told members of Universities South Africa’s TLM CoP at their first meeting on 20 April.

His department had been tasked in 2018 with coming up with ways of improving the first-year mathematics students experience across the board. And so, the Diagnostic Mathematics Information for Students Retention and Success Project (DMISRS) was born.

Prince (right) explained the purpose of DMISRS as “a national collaborative project that aims to analyse the curricula of first year mathematics courses in Higher Education in order to establish how best to address students’ needs through curriculum integrated support initiatives, including blended learning.” He told delegates that one of the preoccupations of his team regarding this project was the impact of this CoP.

Referencing the definition of a community of practice as offered in Barab et al (2006), he described the term as “A persistent sustained social network of individuals who share and develop an overlapping knowledge base, set of beliefs, values, history and experiences focused on a common practice and / or mutual enterprise.”

“That is what we were trying to do with the DMISRS project – and what, I suspect, you are trying to do with USAf’s TLM CoP. The focus, in this case, is on learning, on facilitating engaged participation, not simply knowledge acquisition. CoPs cannot be created or designed – they emerge from shared practice and histories and learning is participation. Supporting participation is therefore a key action,” he said.

Prince listed six salient points:

  1. A common practice and shared enterprise: Here the group exhibits observable activities and interactions, and members identify themselves as sharing common practices or mutual enterprises. With the DMISRS project, the artefacts are the webinars, the workshops, the symposia and presentations, reports – in terms of what was produced by the team, but also by people as presentations at symposia.
  2. Opportunities for interaction and participation: The context provides meaningful opportunities for social –human-to-human interaction – in which “newcomers” and “old timers” are engaged. So, people who are new to the practice can engage with people who are more familiar with it. The context provides opportunities for newcomers and old timers to meaningfully participate or engage. So the interaction and participation opportunities are structured in a way that directly refers to the common practice of the group.
  3. Mutual interdependence: the group includes members who have diverse expertise and knowledge. In this area members depend on one another for participation, shared problem solving and completion of group tasks. The group functions within a broader societal role that gives it, and the practice of group members, meaning and purpose.
  4. Overlapping histories, practices and understanding among members: There are mechanisms for the development of new socially agreed upon goals, practices and understanding. There is a core knowledge base that defines what practice and meanings are associated with the group. Members of the group know each other, or about each other and about those contributions that other members have made.
  5. Mechanisms for reproduction: The group contains both newcomers and more experienced experts. The group has a history that has continued beyond the completion of some particular problem or task. The group passes through multiple cycles as newcomers become old timers. That, Price said, is an important aspect of a CoP.
  6. Respect for diverse perspectives and minority views: This, he stressed, is crucial. The environment provides even and fair opportunities for members from different backgrounds to participate in and make contributions to the group practice. Members show politeness towards diverse and minority perspectives in the group. Members are satisfied that the individual perspective has been understood and respected.

Those, he said, were the six aspects to measure impact.

Referring to his presentation, Prince said: “We initially thought we would analyse the NBT mathematic scores for participation in the Higher Education Institutions (HEIs); we’d research available support programmes for HEIs; we’d review results and workshops for HEIs. In that way, HEIs would understand their student needs.”

He called that the first leg.

The other leg was to facilitate collaborative learning among HEIs via the DMISRS annual symposia. HEI would share their ideas and experiences of successful student support and thus learn from one another, new ways of supporting their students.

Those two legs would move into the medium-term outcome of curriculum and programme support, improved by evidence-based changes and decision making and ensuring that at-risk students were supported through a targeted approach to learning.

Anticipated outcomes of the DMISRS project

“We thought about the long-term impact: to reduce university drop out rates and increase pass rates. This is the theory of change we had thought about at the beginning.” Since then, the project team had examined their experiences and made changes in ways that are more complex and nuanced, but that takes their experience into account.

They have analysed scores for participating HEIs and researched available support programmes for HEIs and shared results in institutional workshops. The idea is that HEIs understand their student needs in the short term; they reflect on teaching and learning practices and improve understanding on the use of and how to analyse diagnostic data.

Said Prince: “HEIs discover new learning and teaching strategies from one another and new ways to support students. Academics feel a sense of belonging to a community. The long-term outcome is that curriculum support programmes are improved collaboratively through evidence-based decision-making, reflecting on diagnostic data and empirical theory. This gives the impact – where at risk students are supported through a targeted approach to learning,” Prince said.

Where we are with the DMISRS

Prince said the three-year project, which commenced in 2018, has been extended for another two years. He told members of the TLM CoP that money was available for NBT mathematics paper-based or computer-based testing of NSFAS eligible students. He added that money was available for conference attendance.

He announced that they were running an annual symposium again this year and told delegates his team was happy to run workshops or discuss these presentations at their institutions.

Question and Answer session

TLM CoP Chairperson, Dr Pragashni Padayachee, Senior Lecturer: Mathematics; Academic Support Programme for Engineering (ASPECT) at the University of Cape Town, said: the USAf TLM CoP’s first-year mathematics project to improve the teaching and learning mathematics, had many synergies with the DMISRS project. “We support conversations between the DMSIRS team and Dr Mark Jacobs — Cape Peninsula University of Technology, lead researcher on this project and his team — around possible collaboration.”

Kabelo Chuene, Associate professor at the University of Limpopo: “To get the results for NBT is tricky because you need registrars of institutions to communicate with you. It makes it challenging to be a part of DMISRS because that makes you feel like the other. Have you thought of removing that requirement so people who are teaching at first year level can work with you directly because they see value in the work that is being done?”

Robert Prince: “If there are any impediments to participation let’s discuss this. This is a national collaborative project so we don’t want to create barriers. The only thing we must be clear about is that if we invite institutions with data, you need a contract in place that says you will not share that data with anyone else. That’s a challenge within the project.”

Dr Padayachee asked: “Regarding collaborations with, for example, Association of Mathematics Education SA (AMESA) and other conferences. How do you see this happening?”

Robert Prince: “There are congresses that deal with mathematics broadly, but not one that speaks to the mathematics experience. I think we need to work with AMESA – they largely deal with school mathematics. We need to find spaces where we can put first year maths agenda on the table. We, as a collective, have not done enough to put it on the agenda.

AMESA vice president, Ms Batseba Mofolo-Mbokane responded that the international Delta conferences – a southern hemisphere conference on the teaching and learning of undergraduate mathematics and statistics – were held every second year. Delta covered first year teaching of mathematics.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa