Addressing student retention

November 1, 2007

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If that’s not your cup of tea, you’re far from alone. The number-one reason students drop out of university and college in North America is fear of calculus and math. SFU’s Faculty of Science is doing something about it. Science dean Michael Plischke and his academics are offering help for those who passed calculus in high school, but find university math, calculus, physics and chemistry a hefty challenge.

"There are hundreds of students at risk," says Tom Archibald, chair of the mathematics department. It’s a significant problem, he says, because if they don’t pass calculus they can’t qualify for physics and engineering courses. In recent years, up to one-third of the class dropped out or failed to get a high enough grade to continue in subsequent required courses. This semester the math department introduced a calculus support program for students who find questions about differentiability from some other planet. It starts with a diagnostic test to find out if they will encounter difficulties. They then participate in weekly online tutorials to test their knowledge at the beginning of each week’s material. Those who can’t answer the preparatory questions are encouraged to attend drop-in workshops during the week, followed by an online post-test to see if they’ve understood the week’s material.

Getting students to focus earlier on their problems is key, says Archibald, who notes that this semester’s mid-term exam averages were up dramatically compared to the last two semesters. "The only ones who failed mid-terms were those with low initial test scores who failed to participate in the support program," says Archibald.

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