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Overcoming barriers to mathematics learning

A new online mathematics tutoring program at West Virginia University is helping students navigate virtual learning.

After months of transition and adaptation, mathematics tutoring coordinators Nicole Infante and Lori Ogden recognized an opportunity to establish a fully online tutoring program for undergraduates.

Nicole Infante
Nicole Infante

“When WVU switched everything online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to make the decision to either continue offering tutoring in an online format or to completely shut down. We wanted to continue to serve our students, so we transitioned online. We immediately saw the number of students participating in tutoring drop significantly,” said Infante, an associate professor of mathematics. “We were curious what changed and what could we do differently. We wanted to make the online experience more comparable to the in-person experience so that students would keep coming back.”

After extensive evaluation and assessment, Infante and Ogden along with alumnus Keith Gallagher (PhD Mathematics, ’20) and postdoc Tim McEldowney – are leading a research study to improve online tutoring for undergraduate students.

Lori Ogden
Lori Ogden

Each semester, approximately 4,500 to 5,000 WVU undergraduates are enrolled in math courses. Prior to the pandemic, about 3,000 in-person visits from approximately 800 unique students are made to the Mathematics Learning Center each semester. Since switching to an entirely online format in spring 2020, only about 900 visits from 300 unique students were made that semester. Through this study, the research team hopes to continue to increase participation. 

“We've learned so much since the spring 2020 semester,” said Ogden, a teaching associate professor and director of the Institute for Mathematics Learning. “It was such a quick pivot that we were pleased with what we accomplished in such a short time, but we’ve learned a lot of what should be done differently. What's going on now looks very different.”

Alexandra Hill
Alexandra Hill

Funded by a $307,040 award from the National Science Foundation, they will spend the next year observing and assessing the online tutoring program to inform best practices. These techniques will then be shared with math departments across the U.S. through a handbook, videos and virtual trainings.  

Alumna (BS Mathematics, ’20) and master’s student Alexandra Hill has contributed to the research through her senior capstone and Honors College EXCEL project.  

“My project compared the techniques of three different online learning centers and the feedback the learning center administrators had on the process of their respective center. I also interviewed the four online tutors to get their feedback on how they felt about their sessions with students,” said Hill, a Ridgeley native. “The handbook will help more tutoring centers than those at WVU by identifying the best practices for tutoring online. It can serve as a guide for tutoring center administrators to follow in training their own tutors for online experiences.”  

Courtney Sybor
Courtney Sybor

A key to transitioning the program online was the continued interest from the 55 undergraduate learning assistants who staff the tutoring sessions.

“One of the most fascinating things about math is that there are so many ways to teach and learn the same concepts. Math is something that many people struggle with, and I learned early on that not everyone is going to learn the same things the exact same way,” said Courtney Sybor, a mathematics major from Hurricane who has worked with the Learning Center since her sophomore year. “If we taught every method to understand and solve every concept, we would never make it past the opening content of a class. Tutoring helps students understand math by expanding on or teaching those other ways to approach a concept.”

A constant across both the in-person and online tutoring is the walk-in approach. Students are not required to schedule an appointment ahead of time.

Olga Hawranick
Olga Hawranick

“I became a learning assistant to gain more experience working with students and become more involved with the department. I’ve grown close to many students and professors and have greatly enjoyed it,” said Olga Hawranick, a junior mathematics major from Fairmont. “Since becoming a tutor, I have a stronger sense of my own philosophy of teaching. My reasoning behind my actions while in a conversation with a student about math is better thought out and has a purpose to help guide the student along. Also, I feel more comfortable and prepared in different situations now.”  

Student learning assistants are assigned to tutor for specific courses through the Mathematics Learning Center.

“The learning assistants are really specialists in these individual classes. That access point is through the specific course in eCampus, and so it has been a little easier for the students to develop relationships with the learning assistants,” Ogden said. “They are working with very specific classes, so they have connected with students more easily.”

Other tips for establishing that connection is turning on webcams during the video sessions. The learning assistants also pre-recorded introductory videos to help the students get to know them.  

“We are trying to make that personal connection,” Ogden said. “Since we were noticing that attendance during our drop-in virtual tutoring times wasn't as high as we would like it to be in some of the classes, the students made a video introducing themselves saying, ‘Hey, I'm just like you. I've been working with this class. I can answer your questions. Please drop by.’”

The learning assistants also email all students enrolled in their assigned courses as the drop-in tutoring time begins to further encourage participation.

“We get better attendance when we have the tutors email the students. Putting that link in the email makes it just one click. We are trying to remove every possible barrier to participation,” Infante said. “We are seeing participation starting to increase. We're not quite to our in-person levels, but we're definitely improving. Those are some of the key steps we've come through in our evolution.”

To support communication over video conference, the learning assistants use their creativity as well as technology like tablets and screensharing to work through assignments with students.

Keith Gallagher
Keith Gallagher

“The learning assistants have learned to navigate the technology,” said Gallagher, now a postdoc at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. “Sometimes they hold their paper up to the camera. They will send pictures of homework back and forth over email if the camera wasn't great, or the student might narrate and the tutor might write on the screen.”  

Nonverbal communication is also critical in these conversations.

“You can see the student’s face. You can see whether they're nodding along, or they're making an ‘I don't get it face,’” Gallagher said. “You're more apt to ask if something makes sense or can you repeat that back to me.”

The research team has seen both the students and the learning assistants become more comfortable with tutoring over video conferencing as the pandemic continues.

“One of the things that we learned early on is that a lot of students were treating it like a drive-through homework service – just come in, ask a question, get the answer and log off,” Gallagher said. “Now we're seeing both the students and the learning assistants getting more comfortable with Zoom. It’s become more of a natural environment where the tutors are more apt to use teacher-like moves. They will ask the students to share what they've tried first or ask why they think something isn't working. We’re trying to encourage those approaches – not just doing the problems for them and showing them how it works but really seeing what the students thinking and how we can help build more constructive behaviors.”  

Ultimately, the research team hopes to encourage effective learning habits for all undergraduates.

“In learning math, it’s not enough to just come to class. You have to practice,” Ogden said. “Knowing that you can do your homework outside of class, sit down and engage with the material and that there is someone available to help makes all the difference. Getting students to work outside of class is really, really important to their learning. They are more apt to work outside of class if they have access to quality help.”  

Mathematics tutoring is available Sunday through Thursday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Learn more at the mathematics tutoring website.