BACKGROUND: At MiraCosta College (CA), we have a facility called the Math Learning Center (MLC) which has two purposes: It offers self-paced courses and supports classroom teachers. I was the designer and original coordinator of the MLC, as well as the current chair of the MLC committee in the Mathematics department.  I have worked in the MLC each semester since it opened. Students can attend the Center any hour it is open and at either of our two campuses. The self-paced courses that are offered in the MLC are Prealgebra, Elementary Algebra, Intermediate Algebra, and Trigonometry.  Each class begins with an orientation. Since the MLC is open 63 hours on one campus and 54 hours on a second campus, many different instructors administer the orientation.  Orientation times are listed in the class schedule, along with a description of the nature of the self-paced classes.  Each of the Algebra courses and Prealgebra has 9 tests and a final, with the trigonometry class having 5 tests and a final.  Students in the class must pass a computerized practice test at 70% as a prerequisite to taking the written test. Only written tests count towards their grade.

The structure of the self-paced courses has always had the challenge of demanding more responsibility from the students than a classroom courses.  The students must have self-motivation to attend at a time of their own choosing and track their own efforts to make sure they’re making significant progress. They must maintain these disciplines throughout a course, which lasts up to 32 school weeks.  Significant progress is defined as completing a test every 3 to 4 weeks, depending on the difficulty of the chapter.  The students are given a schedule, which they are expected to meet.

PURPOSE: I decided to create a case study similar to one we did at the On Course Workshop.  In consultation with the MLC Coordinators, we identified lessons we wanted the students to learn from the case study and came up with these two:

  1. Make students aware of common problems students have making test deadlines, as well as the consequences of missing test deadlines.
  2. Provide new students and continuing students with updated information about how the course is run. (e.g. there was one procedural change from last semester.)


  • Copies of the Case Study: “The Missed Test” for each student (appended below)
  • A Script for the instructors who administer the case study in the orientation; at the pre-semester staff meeting I administered the case study to the faculty and staff as though they were students, thus training them to give the orientation to the students in the course.

DIRECTIONS: During the orientation process, students read the case study as a group, then were given time to determine the responsibility of each participant.  A few students were then asked to explain their choices.

The instructor who administered a particular orientation was determined by time of day and the day of the week.  For example, if Beth were the instructor for Thursday night, she would administer the orientation on Thursday night.  Towards the end of the semester, it was determined that two instructors did not administer the case study at their orientation.

OUTCOMES/EXPERIENCES: Every student who participated responded that Jane, the student, was most responsible. There were varying opinions as to who was the next most responsible.  All the students took the case study seriously and appeared to enjoy it.

This semester, there has been a great increase in awareness concerning test deadlines, in that students called in throughout the semester concerned about their status if they didn’t meet their test deadline.  The MLC coordinators reported that this was a big change from previous semesters.

In addition, fewer students were dropped for not completing the first test.  The drop rate for not completing the first test went from 25% to 16.5% in the two Algebra courses and the Prealgebra course.  (I only report the Algebra courses and the Prealgebra course because we do not have legacy data on the trigonometry course.)

In an evaluation after students took their second test, students reported 2 opinions.

  1. “The Missed Test” case study taught me some of the rules of the course. (Of the 24 responses, 88% said this was true.)
  2. “The Missed Test” case study made me conscious of deadlines for this class. (On a scale from 0 = never to 4 = always, the mean response was 3.2.)

The responses to these two questions indicate the impact that the case study had upon the students.  The students learned about the course rules and deadlines through the case study.

LESSONS LEARNED: My first lesson was that we have to check up on faculty to insure they complete the orientation.  It was unfortunate that some of the faculty failed to administer the whole orientation to the students.

In developing this tool, the MLC coordinators expressed some lack of confidence in the effectiveness of the case-study approach.  The orientation is a very valuable time for the coordinators and the students, and a great deal of information must be conveyed in a short amount of time.  Most of them now believe that the time spent in this case study is very valuable, and the case study will be used in subsequent semesters.  The students as a whole have been more aware of the workings of the MLC and very aware of the test deadlines.

Student behavior in mathematics courses can be improved if the instructor teaches to the whole student, including shaping their perceptions of the course, giving them expectations and allowing them to better visualize certain pieces of the course.  Allowing the student to have a better perspective of the course produces more responsible actions from more of the students.

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PROFESSOR HEPATEA announced that her self-paced math course consisted of 9 tests and a final.  In her syllabus she told students that tests could only be taken from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm, and that students may not start a test after 7:00 pm.  Before taking the written test for a grade, each student must pass a computerized practice test with at least a 70%.  In addition, a student who missed a test deadline could be dropped from the course.

JANE had a history of doing well in most classes, but struggled with Math.  She found the self-paced class to be working for her because she could work at home.  Jane held an “A” average through the first 3 tests, but often found herself taking the practice test and the written test on the day of the deadline.  For some chapters she had to take the practice test twice before passing it at 70%.  This math class was her last requirement before she transferred to Movinon University.

ALBERT, Jane’s husband, worked hard at his job, trying to move up the ladder in the computer company he worked for.  He often arrived at home at night just to say hi, give Jane a kiss, and sit down at their computer to work late into the night.

Albert was working on a project that had a deadline of March 15.  DILBERT, Albert’s boss, had told him that not meeting the deadline would have serious consequences and could lead to a downsizing of the department.  This pressure lead to Albert’s ignoring Jane, and there was tension developing in their marriage.  Jane found concentrating on school was becoming more and more difficult. 

Jane was able to complete her homework but received a grade of only 65 on her practice test a week before her test deadline.  Driving to school the next day with SHELLY, her classmate and car-pool friend, Jane told Shelly how the class was going.  Shelly responded,  “I got an 85 on this chapter, but once got a 60 on a practice test, and they never checked the score. I was still able to take the real test. I don’t think you’ll have any problem with a 65.”

A week later, on the test deadline, Jane and Shelly arrived at the college at 4:00 pm to take their test.  Not wanting to take the test on an empty stomach, they went to the cafeteria to get something to eat.  As they ate, they went over questions they thought would be on the test.

At 5:30 they went to the Math Learning Center to get their last few questions answered.  After getting them answered, at 6:15 they came to the window to start the test. DAVE, the Instructional Aide, saw that Shelly had an 85 on her practice test and issued her a written test.  Jane stepped up to the window and Dave looked up her practice test score.  Seeing a 65, Dave told her she needed a 70 and refused to give her a test.  Jane told Dave about the 60 that Shelly had gotten on a previous practice test, but that did not persuade him to issue her a written test.  Dave told her to quickly take the practice test and come back.

Jane retook the practice test and got a 75, but when she returned to the window, it was 7:15, past the starting deadline, and Dave would not give her a test. The next day Prof. Hepatea dropped Jane from the class.

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Listed below are the characters in this story.  Rank them in order of their responsibility for Jane’s being dropped from the class.  Give different scores to each character.  Be prepared to explain your choices.

Most responsible —  1  2  3  4  5  6  —  Least responsible

_____Prof. Hepatea, the teacher                    _____Dilbert, Albert’s boss

_____Jane, the math student                         _____Shelly, Jane’s classmate

_____Albert, Jane’s husband                          _____Dave, an Instructional Aide

Diving Deeper:  Is there someone not mentioned in the story who may bear some responsibility for Jane’s being dropped from the class?

–Brent Pickett, Faculty, Mathematics, MiraCosta College, CA

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