Mathemagic? How Mathematics Improved Student Outcomes

Friday, January 10, 2020


Student standing in front of chalk board

As we welcome the new year, I take some time to review the progress we have made on various initiatives to improve student and faculty success across the University. What has worked in the past? What necessary changes should be anticipated? What is our current trajectory? It gives us an opportunity to expand things that worked and correct things that didn’t go as expected.

Let me take this opportunity to share one such success story: Efforts by faculty in the Department of Mathematics, led by professor and associate head Jason Cantarella, have led to significant redesign of the precalculus and calculus courses. These changes, in turn, have resulted in remarkable gains in student success.

One measure of student success is the number of students who recieve a grade of D, grade of F or withdrawal from a class (or the “DFW rate”). While the DFW rate for precalculus averages 27% nationally, the corresponding figure at UGA has dropped from 35% in 2013-14 to below 15% in the most recent fall semester. That’s an impressive change of more than 50% over the past three years. 

Similarly, the DFW rates for the calculus class are also at a five-year low and have reduced from 29% in 2013-14 to 21% in 2018-19.  Students are showing progressive improvement as a result of the changes implemented by their faculty. 


 Math stats 

So how did the Department of Mathematics achieve these impressive results? In 2015-16, the department received funding from the Small Class Size Initiative which allowed the department to offer smaller classes, typically limited to fewer than 20 students in each section. The smaller classes allowed the department to re-think the course structure and pedagogy. 

In 2018-19, Department of Mathematics faculty, including Kelly Black, Toyin Alli, Jennifer Royal and Kellie Sappington, created an active learning roadmap for the pre-calculus and calculus courses. This emerged from their participation in the Active Learning Summer Institute (ALSI), an annual workshop offered through the Center for Teaching and Learning (by the way, we are now accepting applications for the next round of ALSI and I would encourage you to apply!). The daily schedules for the revised courses have three main parts: pre-class video assignments, pre-class problem sets and in-class group work. The faculty have also created workbooks and other materials for these classes. 

Both smaller class sizes and active learning practices have converged to increase student success.   

Kelly and Toyin are now helping the department expand its active learning practices and integrating these into the department’s graduate study training program. This will allow graduate students teaching this course to use the same successful approach to teaching and student success and further ensure consistent use of best practices across all sections of the class. Kudos to the many faculty and staff in the Department of Mathematics (including former and current department heads, Malcom Adams and William Graham) as well as the team in the Center for Teaching and Learning, who helped make these changes. 

This is just one of many success stories at UGA. Later this semester, I hope to share more such success stories, including those related to transfer student support, campus-wide assessments and in-service learning initiatives.

As always, if you have suggestions on how we can continue to improve student achievement, please do not hesitate to contact me.



Rahul Shrivastav
Vice President for Instruction