Yale to offer online math modules

President Peter Salovey unveiled a new initiative to introduce online precalculus modules.
President Peter Salovey unveiled a new initiative to introduce online precalculus modules. Photo by Jacob Geiger.

Students whose high school education did not fully cover the necessary background for Yale’s quantitative classes will now be able to brush up their mathematics over the summer.

Two weeks ago, when University President Peter Salovey attended a White House conference on higher education, Salovey committed to continue Yale’s existing efforts to make the University more accessible to high-achieving low-income students. But he also unveiled one new initiative — the introduction of online pre-calculus modules, to be made available to incoming freshmen.

According to mathematics professor Jim Rolf, who is spearheading the program, the University will run a pilot of six to eight short lecture videos this summer to help interested students improve their quantitative skills for success in Yale’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes.

“Mathematics is a gateway to other STEM success, so the question we’re trying to address is what can we do to help bridge the gap so they can be successful at Yale,” said Rolf, who was tapped by Salovey to develop the precalculus initiative.

Yale College Dean Mary Miller said the online modules will be available to students enrolled in the Freshman Scholars Program — a year-old, invitation-only summer bridge program intended to help select students prepare academically and socially for Yale —  as well as to students who need the pre-calculus review but cannot make it to campus for the Freshman Scholars Program.

Rolf is a seasoned developer of online education, having recently “flipped” the classroom in his Math 115 classes by pre-recording 10 to 15 minute-long instructional videos for students to watch online, thus freeing up class time for more interacting learning.

Miller said she was impressed by both the structure and delivery of Rolf’s online lectures.

“You have to take a quiz before you go to class, and that’s very effective in terms of staying up on coursework,” she said. “What I also like very much is his engaging but terse manner of explaining how you solve problems, and then having to go work it out.”

Rolf said last year’s Freshman Scholars Program taught math through a combination of tutors, diagnostic tests and Khan Academy instructional videos.

During the school year, Yale students who need to catch up in precalculus make use of informal tutoring, Rolf said, noting that professors often volunteer to coach students who need help.

Mika Yamashita, a researcher at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, said online courses are effective learning tools because quizzes or other feedback can ensure that content is tailored to individual users’ strengths and weaknesses.

All students interviewed said they appreciate programs such as this that help freshmen from diverse backgrounds make the transition to Yale.

Kerry Burke-McCleod ’17, a first-generation college student from Jacksonville, Fl., said he would have wanted to take this module if it had been offered the summer before he arrived at Yale. Although he said that he is not interested in pursuing a major in math or the sciences, Burke-McCleod said that having access to this kind of program would have opened more opportunities for him and his friends.

A member of the inaugural Freshman Scholars Program, Burke-McCleod added that it is important for Yale to provide programs and resources for students who come from low-income communities and high schools that do not traditionally send students to selective colleges.

“We played the best hand with the cards we were dealt, but I feel like we were missing a few cards that some other kids got,” he said. “It’d be good if Yale could provide a few of the cards so you can make a Royal flush or something.”

Jon Reider, a college counselor at San Francisco University High School, said he this program will likely not affect most students because the majority of Yale undergraduates took calculus in high school. But he added that the resource will be helpful in reassuring incoming freshmen that they belong at Yale and letting them know that it is acceptable to ask for help.

Georgette Edmundson-Wright, a regional vice-president of the North American Association of Summer Sessions, said university summer session programs often help students get into an academic mindset before the term begins.

A summer crash course in precalculus would not only teach students math, but would also prepare them for the rigorous pacing of college courses, said Steven Mendoza ’14. Mendoza, a first-generation college student, added that he would have wanted to do the precalculus module if it had been offered his freshman year.

Still, Mendoza said he thinks students’ starting points are not necessarily impediments to success once they get to Yale.

“It’s definitely doable for someone to take Math 112 as a freshman and major in engineering,” he said. “It’s all about applying yourself.”

Summer bridge programs significantly benefit students’ academic work in their first year of college, according to a 2012 study by the National Center for Postsecondary Research. Still, by the end of the students’ sophomore year, there was no longer a significant discrepancy between the students and their peers who did not participate in a summer program, according to the research.

Thirty-three students participated in the Freshman Scholars Program last summer.

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