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High school graduates needing remediation

Vivian Zabrocki’s second math class of the day is over, but most students aren’t leaving.

They keep working at their computers on the lesson of the morning — factoring trinomials.

“How many classes do you see do that?” Zabrocki asks. “I can’t kick them out of here.”

The students are not math majors, nor are they particularly interested in math. In fact, they are students who couldn’t do college-level math when they enrolled at Montana State University Billings.

An innovative class created by Zabrocki and MSU Billings’ Academic Support Center staff is just what some students need to move on to college math.

The class is one of several developmental classes that MSU Billings students take if they are not yet ready for college classes.

All incoming freshmen take a placement test. If math or writing skills aren’t up to college level, they must take pre-college classes.

At MSU Billings, 70 percent of all new students have to take at least one developmental course. One reason is that the university has a large number of nontraditional students who may have taken their last high school math or writing class years ago.

Even students going to college right out of high school may be years away from a math class if they took the state’s two years of required high school math when they were freshmen and sophomores.

Fifty-five percent of recent Montana high school graduates entering the main MSU Billings campus and 44 percent coming to the College of Technology need at least one remedial class.

Asked if high schools were to blame for the high number of students needing pre-college math, Zabrocki said she doesn’t think so.

“It has to do with maturity,” she said. “Some students may not have been ready to learn it in high school.”

Fall semester, the developmental program had 738 students taking math, 324 students in writing and 121 in reading. MSU Billings’ total enrollment was 5,335.

MSU Billings has three developmental math classes — M061, M090, M095 — each progressively more difficult.

Zabrocki, who has taught math at MSU Billings since 1993, designed a new way of teaching that is in the fifth semester of a pilot program.

The MSU Billings courses are among a few pilot programs around the state that might be a model for other campuses in the future, said John Cech, the state’s deputy commissioner of two-year education. The state is applying for a federal grant to improve the way that developmental classes are taught.

Unlike standard classes that moved the whole class through the curriculum at the same pace, MSU Billings’ pilot classes are broken into four modules. Students with similar math skills are grouped in the same module, so students who don’t know as much aren’t frustrated and students who know more aren’t bored.

In a conventional class, a student might get behind and then struggle through the rest of the semester only to flunk out.

In the pilot classes, students must get a perfect score on homework and at least 80 percent on quizzes and a final exam to progress on to the next module.

Most students get 90 percent on the tests, Zabrocki said.

“It just works,” she said.

Most of the homework is done on a computer program that lets students know immediately if an answer is right or wrong. That helps students figure out just what part of the lesson they need to work on more. They also have pencil-and-paper homework.

Students can’t take a quiz unless they have completed all the homework.

When students do well, they can finish the semester more quickly. Forty percent of students in M090 last fall completed that class plus M095 — two semesters’ worth — in a single semester in the pilot program, said Chairsty Stewart, assistant director of the MSU Billings’Academic Support Center.

The pilot program is successful because students must prove they have mastered material before they move on and because students get individual attention, Stewart said.

Classes meet five days a week. Zabrocki starts each class by explaining a math concept and then works on problems illustrating that concept on a large screen.

In the last part of the class, students do more problems in the Math XL computer program.

Students also pair up with other students to do exercises, requiring them to explain math concepts that they are studying to each other.

Zabrocki circulates through the room and checks to see how students are doing and answer questions.

MSU Billings will continue to offer both the pilot classes and traditional courses because the latter still fit some students better, said Ben Barckholtz, director of the Academic Support Center.

The pilot program is one reason that MSU Billings is on the cutting edge in developmental education, Barckholtz said. The developmental program is only one of 42 in the country certified by the National Association of Developmental Education.

Last year, the Academic Support Center staff won the university’s Walter and Charlotte Pippenger Excellence in Innovation Award.

Innovation goes beyond math in Zabrocki’s class.

On a campus with many older, nontraditional students, Zabrocki has learned that students have a lot going on in their lives that gets in the way of school. Some work 40 hours a week in addition to school. Some have children. Some have medical problems.

As a result, some students have poor attendance, so Zabrocki incorporates time-management lessons into the class.

Because some students haven’t learned good study habits, the class works on that, too.

Contact Mary Pickett at or 657-1262.