Want to help students graduate? Make it personal

    When Dr. Tammy Muhs, an associate lecturer at the University of Central Florida, sat down to write her new algebra course, she started by imagining it was late at night, that her kids were finally asleep, and that she wished she were, too. She imagined that she’d spent the day standing at a cash register and the dinner shift waiting tables. That she was twenty-six years old and one math credit away from being the first in her family to graduate from college. That she had already failed algebra once and would not be able to afford to take it a third time. And that, for all of those reasons, even though she was overworked and exhausted, she was going to do her math homework anyway.

    Then, with that image of her students and the realities of their lives fixed in her mind, Dr. Muhs poured her expertise, her energy, and hours of her personal time into creating a digitally-powered, personalized freshman algebra course that she believes will give each of those students the best possible chance to succeed. “These students are doing everything they can to be successful,” she explained. “I just feel as though my role is to do everything I can to help them.”

    Dr. Muhs may be an exceptionally dedicated educator, but the students she teaches are, at least statistically speaking, becoming the norm. In 2018, the typical U.S. college student is no longer the stereotypical student who lives on campus and attends a four-year college full time. Forty percent of today’s college students are 25 or older, more than a quarter have kids of their own, and nearly two-thirds have a job. These non-traditional students face an array of barriers to graduation: Two out of every five students who enroll in higher education will either withdraw for a period of time or drop out altogether.

    As I wrote this spring, our foundation is optimistic that digital learning tools can play an important role in helping more of these students get the support they need to successfully earn their degrees. A growing body of evidence suggests that students perform better in—and are more likely to complete—classes that include an online component. When I visited UCF last fall, I got to hear from Dr. Muhs about the opportunities these digital tools are opening for her algebra students.

    Dr. Muhs told me that, in the 13 years she’s been at UCF, she has taught classes as small as five students and as big as 450. Her average freshman algebra class usually includes several hundred students at all skill levels—from the math whizzes to students who have put the class off for four years out of fear. “A lot of people are amazed to find out that I have so many seniors in my class since it’s a freshman class,” she said. “But it’s often the obstacle that keeps them from being able to graduate.”

    Using a traditional textbook and traditional technology, the instructor of a class that large has almost no choice but to accept that there will always be some students who fall through the cracks. But with personalized learning tools, Dr. Muhs is able to make even a class of 450 feel a little more like a class of five.

    Personalized learning tools use algorithms to adapt the course experience to each individual student. Students complete assignments online, each going at their own pace. A student who demonstrates mastery of a concept is able to move onto the next one. A student who is struggling is offered extra help. It’s like each student has a customized textbook that is constantly being rewritten just for them. And because Dr. Muhs is able to see the data in real time, she’s able to step in right away if a student needs her. Even in a class of hundreds, she knows exactly who is off-track by the first week of the semester.

    “These students are doing everything they can to be successful. I just feel as though my role is to do everything I can to help them.” – Dr. Tammy Muhs

    Dr. Muhs uses the adaptive learning tools to connect with her students in other ways, too. Although there are students in her class that she may never meet, she wants each one of them to know they have an ally in her, so she looks for chances to demonstrate that she cares about who they are and where they want to go.

    For example, instead of the usual word problems students see in textbooks—which tend to involve antiquated scenarios like mixing water and antifreeze for the car radiator—Dr. Muhs writes word problems that reflect her students’ lives and ambitions. She researches the subjects her students are studying for their majors and uses that information to write multiple scenarios for each word problem so that students get personalized questions based on their own areas of study. A student studying hospitality might see a question about how much pomegranate juice to mix with the less expensive apple juice to maximize profits on a pomegranate blend. An engineering student might be asked to determine the number and pricing of soil samples taken as part of an elevation survey.

    Dr. Muhs also makes sure that the names of the characters in the word problems are proportionately drawn from the ethnic makeup of UCF’s diverse population. She gets a lot of feedback from students who are pleasantly surprised to see a name they recognize in their homework. And although one student told her that seeing a name from his country made him a little homesick, Dr. Muhs hopes it also made UCF feel a little more like home.

    These personalized learning tools have the potential to transform students’ college experience, but we have a long way to go before that potential is realized. As impressed as I was by Dr. Muhs and her algebra course, I also recognize that not every instructor—no matter how well-intentioned—will have the time or ability to master a new online platform and create a class like this from scratch. For these personalized courses to achieve scale, more colleges will need to follow UCF’s example and commit to helping their faculty introduce digital learning in their classrooms.

    Not every student will be lucky enough to have a teacher like Dr. Muhs. But as the tools she used to design her course reach more faculty on more campuses, I hope to see more students across the country experience classes like the one she created for hers.

    (The author is the co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Excerpts from the author’s LinkedIn)