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Alumna’s Teaching Strategies Revolutionize Math Class

05/24/16

An idea Donna Quallen ’16 developed last fall in a capstone course as part of her Master’s of Education degree program not only transformed the way she teaches math at Taconic High School in Pittsfield, it changed the trajectory of her students’ education by improving all of their Accuplacer math scores by at least 28 percent.

As a result, Quallen expects about 75 percent of her students – most of whom are high school seniors – will be ready to take a credit-bearing, college-level math class by this fall, instead of having to enroll in non-credit-bearing math modules designed to bring them up to speed.

In contrast, Quallen said that test scores earned last year by a similar group of students who also struggle with math indicated that an average of only about 12 percent were ready or almost ready for college math.

She credits the dramatic shift to an innovative physical reconfiguration of her classroom, and a change in performance assessments. Instead of seating students at individual desks, she grouped them at tables topped with whiteboards to encourage collaborative problem-solving.

The teamwork-based teaching method necessitated an elimination of traditional tests and quizzes. Instead, she grades them on the quality of their teamwork with peers, along with effort and presentation.

Quallen teaches an “Introduction to College Algebra” class for students who struggle with math. “Our goal in this class is to get to kids to college-level math, or so close that over the summer they might be able to get the scores they need to take a college math class in the fall.”

Most of Quallen's students are in their third year with her as their teacher, so she’s familiar with their learning styles.

“That’s what precipitated this whole change in physical environment,” she said. “It’s led to the most amazing results I’ve ever seen.”

Donna QuallenAccording to Quallen, one of the best ways for students to become active learners is to have them work in groups.

After hearing about an idea to mount whiteboard on a table, she spoke with Taconic’s carpentry teacher, and asked if his students would measure the tables, then cut and adhere to them the whiteboard she purchased. He agreed, and Quallen tested the change on two tables in her classroom.

“A funny thing happened,” she said. “At those two tables, the students were working and working. The other ones were asking to use the tables, so we wound up covering all five of them.”

“Now, I had tables where students could do the work. If they needed help, I could just go over and write in the middle of the board so everyone could see,” Quallen said. “Plus, I found that because students liked writing on the whiteboard, they would try the problems. Now, all of a sudden, they were trying. They’d say, ‘Oh, this is not quite as hard as I thought it was going to be.’”

After students agree that they’ve solved a problem, Quallen checks their result before they move on. “I erase what was wrong so they know where they need to fix the mistake.”

Working together as a team, each student contributes different strengths, which allows them to learn from each other.

One student told Quallen, “If I make a mistake, I take one of your cloths, wipe it off, and start all over again. When I make a mistake on paper, I cross it all out, and the whole time I see that on my paper, telling me, ‘Hey, you don’t know what you’re doing.’”

Although her students acknowledge they’re doing much more math work than ever before, “They don’t mind,” Quallen said. “They say it’s fun to do math on the whiteboard, and it’s easier to understand because, if something was wrong, all they had to do was wipe it off and try it again.”

After spending the summer making modifications to additional lessons, Quallen plans to share her results with other teachers in professional development settings.

“MCLA helped me to look at things differently,” Quallen said, “and to take a broad idea, narrow it down, focus it, and turn it into something that’s really worthwhile.”