Gateway Math: A Close Look at Miami Dade College’s Approach

An image of math homework


The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 18 colleges and universities that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

2015 was the second year of the First in the World grants. You can read our interviews with the 24 institutions that received 2014 grants here.

When Florida passed a law making college placement tests optional for recent high school graduates, institutions were left to grapple with how to address the needs of students in college-level math who previously might have been routed to developmental courses. (Under the 2013 law, even if students do choose to take the optional placement exam, they may still enroll in regular courses even if their test results indicate the need for developmental work.)

At Miami Dade College, enrollment has skyrocketed in the first college-level course in the math sequence, MAT 1033, while enrollment in developmental math courses dropped by more than 40 percent. Failure rates also jumped up and more than half of MAT 1033 students failed the course. The college’s dean of academic affairs, Alicia Giovinazzo, recalls, “We really felt that something needed to be done.”

With the help of a $2.9 million First in the World grant, Miami Dade now hopes to tackle the challenge though a holistic approach that includes:

  • Just-in-time remediation
  • Course redesign to involve more active learning
  • Efforts to contextualize the course to select popular programs of study

Though the specific situation Miami Dade faces is local to Florida, the initiatives they are putting in place may be of interest to institutions across North America that wrestle with how best to support and accelerate students with developmental math needs. We spoke recently with Giovinazzo to learn more about how the project will combine contextualization and remediation with academic support and early intervention.

Designing a Gateway Course to Drive Better Math Performance

The problem is how to design the best possible gateway course. The Florida law was intended to support efforts to boost college retention and graduation rates, recognizing that remedial courses for which students do not earn credit are a strain on students’ time and budgets. Failing to pass a first-year college-level class, however, also places a strain on students’ time and budgets. The 2013 law just throws a sharp light on a longstanding Catch-22. “The goal for CCAT math,” Giovinazzo emphasizes, “is to solve the gateway mathematics problem that we’ve been facing for some time now.”

Miami Dade’s CCAT Math project — “Contextualized and Co-Requisite Algebra Track Mathematics” — will replace the college’s traditional three-credit MAT 1033 course with a new four-hour, mastery-learning based course. The new course will draw on the techniques already used by those faculty whose students have been most successful in the course, as well as support mechanisms designed to address the most frequent challenges experienced by the 97% of MAT 1033 students who come from underrepresented or low-income backgrounds.

The CCAT Math initiative will include:

  • Implementing more active and project-based learning strategies in the classroom to improving students’ content mastery
  • Professional development to support faculty, including evidence-based training for all new math instructors and learning assistants
  • Just-in-time remediation and supplemental instruction to improve the foundational skills students need to be successful in math
  • Supplemental instruction with learning assistants in the classroom and also in math labs
  • Non-cognitive and student services support to increase student progression and completion, and to benchmark achievement
  • Mandatory first-term advising, progress monitoring, and early alerts, including non-diagnostic assessments and interventions
  • Assessments to evaluate and scale the project’s strategies and interventions

Besides covering traditional intermediate algebra competencies, the new course will also integrate developmental work by offering a frequent diagnostic assessment of skill gaps. The intent of the diagnostic is to develop an individual plan for each student based on the identified skill gaps. Students will work with a learning assistant both in class and during their co-curricular time in a required math lab.

Structurally, MAT1033 will continue to be a prerequisite course for algebra-based college-level mathematics courses and count toward Miami Dade College’s general education elective block.

Improving Success Through Contextualization and Peer Learning Communities

In the new MAT 1033, course content will be contextualized to high-enrolled programs of study in order to increase the visible relevancy and value of the mathematics in a student’s chosen field.

“Students always say, ‘When am I going to use this?’ They don’t see the purpose of the topics in this course. Contextualization helps the students understand what they’ll be using the material for.”
Alicia Giovinazzo, Miami Dade College

The contextualization will begin with students studying health science and business, and Giovinazzo and her colleagues are working closely with faculty from those disciplines to co-develop the curriculum. They are also working with faculty from the school of education to implement best practices for contextualization, as well as focused pedagogy and instructional strategies.

Opportunities to build peer learning communities also play a role in the project. MAT 1033 will be block scheduled to reinforce the relevance of mathematics in different programs of study and to build communities of students for peer learning. In addition, they are linking the course to communities of interest, and they plan to link co-curricular activities and programs of study.

What Does Success Look Like?

The project has a series of defined outcomes Miami Dade hopes to meet, including:

  • Increasing the number of students who pass MAT 1033 on the first attempt by 25 percent
  • Increasing the percentage of students who pass the next-level mathematics course by 35 percent.
  • To increase the percentage of students who pass the next-level mathematics course by 35 percent.
  • Increasing the percentage of students who attain 30 credits or more in an academic year from 15 to 50 percent.
  • Increasing the percentage of students who are retained fall-to-fall by 9 percent.

Faculty buy-in will be crucial in achieving these outcomes. It will be critical to provide professional development activities for faculty and staff to support them in teaching according to the project’s principles. To effectively train Miami Dade’s part-time faculty, most of whom hold other jobs, the college will focus on making training and support as accessible as possible. Giovinazzo notes that she met with other math faculty before applying for the First in the World grant, and that they had already initiatied parts of the project in different classes. Now they will be able to combine all of those components into one course. “You know that dream that if only you had the resources to do you could do? So this is it,” she adds.

Besides the faculty, students will also need to adjust; most are accustomed to a more traditional way of learning math. Giovinazzo emphasizes that the new version of MAT 1033 is a fundamentally new approach, especially with the contextualization component. She thinks students will respond positively, but also recognizes that changing how you learn can be hard. And though Giovinazzo and her colleagues anticipate that the new approach will reduce math anxiety, they won’t know for certain until they start. They will be watching closely to see if there is a need to implement additional support.

Why You Should Watch This Project

The hope is that CCAT Math, if successful, will become a model of excellence to drive better math performance across the country. Its holistic approach is especially intended to support students who are at the most risk, and may hold promise for reducing remediation and improving student success at other institutions. “We think of it as an exceptional approach to solving that problem because it intentionally integrates new course content and pedagogy with best practice academic and student support solutions,” Giovinazzo adds.

Redesigning Developmental Education: More Examples

To read more examples of developmental education redesign, take a look at these past case studies from Academic Impressions: