By Doug Ward
Bozenna Pasik-Duncan specializes in a branch of probability theory called stochastic systems, which views problems through a lens of randomness.
She teaches courses in that area, as well as in subjects like applied statistics, linear algebra and optimization theory.
When faced with a high dropout and failure rate among students in a large 100-level calculus class, though, Pasik-Duncan found a solution in a distinctively humanistic equation: She created a sense of community.
Her methods offer an excellent example of how cooperation among students and instructors can improve learning – and help everyone make friends along the way.
The calculus class that posed the challenge for Pasik-Duncan was Math 121, a 500-person class with several lab sections. In a typical semester, 30 percent or more of the students who enroll eventually withdraw or receive a D or an F. In university parlance, that’s known as the DFW rate, a statistic that administrators follow closely.
To address that problem, Pasik-Duncan urged collaboration from the first day of class. Everyone was expected to collaborate: the instructor, the teaching assistants and the students.
Collaboration was just the beginning, though. She promoted the idea of “C to the power of five”: collaboration, community, connection, curiosity, and connectivity.
“Always interpret,” she told students. “Always question. Why, why, why, why do I need to know that?”
About a quarter of the students in the class struggled with concepts like derivatives, domains, integrals and arc lengths. A quarter of the students, many of them from outside the United States, excelled at calculus. So Pasik-Duncan struck a deal. She asked for volunteers to help the struggling students and said she would write letters explaining their role in helping others succeed.
“We’re a community. Let’s help each other,” Pasik-Duncan told students. “At this moment, you need my help. Next semester, I may need your help.”
Students loved it, she said. Not only did they make connections among concepts in the classroom, but they made connections with other students. The DFW rate in her class fell to less than 14 percent, less than half the typical rate.
And not only did the struggling students improve in math, but the international students who struggled with English found that the one-on-one interactions with fellow students helped them improve their language skills.
“I consider this a beautiful thing,” Pasik-Duncan said. “On top of teaching and learning, we also have this community service.”
And the power of community.
Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.