ALT-Placement Project: Investigating Adaptive Learning Tools for Mathematics Remediation and Placement
Among the many obstacles college students face in their pursuit of higher education is the discovery that they are insufficiently prepared for a college-level curriculum and must enroll in remedial courses to make up deficits in their knowledge and skills. This detour from college-level courses is expensive in both time and money, and it often means the end of the college road for these students, particularly for those deficient in mathematics. According to a U.S. Department of Education study (NCES, 2013), only 27 percent of all students enrolled in developmental math will complete their degrees.
For most students, placement into developmental courses is determined solely on the basis of whether their score is above or below a certain cutoff on a one-time, high-stakes, diagnostic exam taken shortly after being admitted. Increasingly, researchers are calling into question the validity of these exams and the remedial “treatment” that is assigned based on the outcomes of these assessments. Given the fact that developmental education so clearly increases costs, decreases persistence, and ultimately hinders students’ success, institutions need more precise ways to determine students’ mathematics knowledge deficits and remediate them more effectively.
In this project, we will pilot the efficacy and feasibility of replacing the high-stakes mathematics placement exam process currently in use with a process that empowers students to assess and remediate their mathematics knowledge using adaptive learning tools instead. Adaptive learning tools are computer-based educational systems that dynamically modify the presentation of material in response to student performance—putting the learner at the center of a more personalized learning experience. Our hypothesis is that these adaptive tools will deliver just-in-time skills remediation while also providing better diagnostics that will be a more reliable measure of students’ knowledge, thus enabling more accurate mathematics course placements that will increase persistence and lower costs.
The Kirwan Center has recently received a $150,000 Phase 1 planning grant from the Kresge Foundation to pilot a project comparing the current process of using high-stakes exams with adaptive learning platforms to evaluate whether this “alt-placement” approach allows more accurate assessment of students’ knowledge. For this pilot we will develop, test, and improve the proof of concept; track incoming students through their first credit-bearing mathematics course; and evaluate the efficacy and feasibility of the alt-placement process. Based on our findings, we will offer recommendations for ways to incorporate adaptive learning tools as replacements for high-stakes examinations, thus offering new ways to remove barriers by more effectively diagnosing students at risk of failing or not being successful.
Assuming the use of adaptive tools shows promise, we will seek funding for Phase 2 of the project, in which we hope to conduct a randomized control study of the most promising use cases and investigate scalability across the Maryland public higher education landscape as well as develop a generalizable model for other institutions outside Maryland to follow.