Spotlight on Innovation: How Bryn Mawr is Closing Math Skill Gaps with Targeted Online Modules

An image of math homework


The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 24 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.

Bryn Mawr College has long boasted a strong history of women attaining STEM degrees, with more than a third of their students majoring in math or science. Now, Bryn Mawr is working to take the next step toward increasing the number of underrepresented, underprepared and low-income students attaining STEM degrees by targeting the needs of students who have gaps in specific math skills or who lack the overall mastery that would allow them to thrive in STEM. Their project, funded by a $1.65 million First in the World grant from the US Department of Education, will combine face-to-face coaching support and blended learning through online modules, in partnership with twelve other institutions.

The Challenge

The project targets the group of students who have passed Bryn Mawr’s entry quantitative skills assessment but who are struggling with math in gateway STEM courses, explains Elizabeth McCormack, associate provost and physics chair. In some cases, a student has specific areas of weakness, perhaps in functional analysis or trigonometry. “Often there’s a gap in time since students last used these skills,” McCormack notes. In other cases, students simply lack the overall mastery that would allow them to thrive in STEM.  Either situation can leave students struggling and increase the possibility that they might drop out of a STEM program.

“Scaffolding can make a difference,” McCormack notes. To address those needs, Bryn Mawr is partnering with Allegheny College, Denison University, Franklin and Marshall College, Grinnell College, Lafayette College, Mills College, Oberlin College, St. Olaf College, Smith College, Vassar College, Wellesley College, and Whittier College to created targeted online modules as a just-in-time aid.

Pairing Online Modules and Face-to-Face Coaching

Bryn Mawr will develop online modules in chemistry, calculus and physics courses that serve as gateway courses for STEM programs. Each module will address a specific area of potential weakness, and each will be context-dependent. For example, if a student in a physics class needs trigonometry scaffolding, the trigonometry module will work through the material using physics-oriented trigonometry problems.

This model also incorporates coaching so that faculty members are working with students to directly address needs. “We don’t want to send a student away to work alone online without guidance; instead we want to provide them an online opportunity in context and tailored to their needs,” McCormack explains. If she is teaching a class and notes that a student is weak in one area, she might assign the appropriate module as part of the student’s homework for the week, and continue to work with them to address areas of weakness as needed.

McCormack says she will work with Bryn Mawr’s partner institutions to determine specific areas and contexts in which to develop modules. Bryn Mawr will then build the core modules and make them available to the partner institutions. Bryn Mawr also sponsors a blended learning conference each May, and they will use that time to share data and feedback from the group.

The opportunity to have so many faculty trying different approaches with the modules results in a “rich multiplication factor,” McCormack adds. For example, at one institution, modules embedded in a course might ask students to take an initial assessment, work through some sections, and then take a mastery test to show they’ve mastered the concepts. Other institutions may use the same modules differently, perhaps in a tutoring center or as an alternate form of coaching or supplemental instruction.

Keys to Success

Faculty input, preparation and support will be critical to the project, McCormack notes. While at first it may appear more efficient to use ready-made online materials already available, McCormack cautions that if potential users haven’t had any input in tailoring those materials to meet local students needs, those materials often will not get used. “A development process that leads to faculty adoption is key,” she emphasizes.

To be successful, Bryn Mawr intends to:

  • Organize a project team that strikes a balance between faculty input and expertise from outside professionals who specialize in learning technology.
  • Develop communication plans and appropriate professional development activities to help faculty learn how to use the materials effectively to coach students.
  • Prepare, engage and support faculty adopters as they experiment with the use of these new resources for student learning.

Why You Should Watch This Project

We are excited to watch this project and see how this just-in-time approach increases STEM success for underprepared students. If successful, it may also serve as a model for addressing skill gaps in other academic areas (beyond STEM) in a personalized and efficient manner.


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