Physical Geology
at Illinois Valley Community College

Instructor: Mike Phillips
Enrollment: 30-45

Challenges to using math in introductory geoscience

In my physical geology course, students abilities in math vary widely. Many students have tested into and are co-enrolled in pre-college level math. Many students experience difficulty in completing math problems that are included in the lab problem sets. In addition, the lab portion of the course is in an "open lab" setting, where students complete the lab work in the lab but on their own time (I may or may not be present to help with difficulties). TMYN can serve as a supplement to instruction and a proxy to provide assistance to students having difficulty with the material; it will be incorporated into an on-line lab help page that I have already created for the course.

More about your geoscience course

The course is a general education course that serves non-majors and majors (and also serves to recruit potential majors). The 4-credit hour course is divided into a large lecture (30-60 students), small group seminars (10-15 students), and open lab throughout the week. I am the primary instructor for this course and teach the lecture & seminar face-to-face. The lab is open throughout the week and other FT faculty (from other disciplines) and I work open hours in the lab and assist the students. Each week, a portion of lecture and seminar time is devoted to introducing lab exercises; in addition, students have access to a lab help site that addresses frequently asked questions. The TMYN will enhance the on-line lab help instruction, and it will free face-to-face class time for other instruction.

Past enhancements to the course included the creation of an on-line lab help site:

  • Description of Lab Help site development:|

and a learning community section for a students in developmental math:

  • Description of Math Rocks Learning Community development & implementation: |

Inclusion of quantitative content pre-TMYN

Quantitative content is currently provided in lecture & seminar, with the seminar instruction often focused on previewing the more difficult portions of lab assignments. Since the students find the math portions difficult, much of my time in seminar is spent walking students through math portions of the labs; this benefits some students more than others and may be forgotten by the time a student begins working on the lab exercise.

Current lecture & lab topics with components covered in TMYN

  • Topographic Maps: Topographic Profiles, Slope, Scales & Unit Conversions
  • Streams and Humid Climate Landscapes: Gradient & Rate of Motion
  • Arid-Climate Landscapes: Slope
  • Remote Sensing of Volcanoes: Rate of Motion
  • Igneous Rocks & Volcanoes: Topographic Profiles, Slope & Rate of Motion
  • Structural Geology & Geologic Maps: Trigonometry
  • Plate Tectonics: Graphing & Rate of Motion

TMYN will allow me to address student needs via my existing lab help page. The primary benefit is that students use the lab help page as they work on the lab exercises, and allows students to access the help they need when they need it. Students will not need to worry about forgetting what was covered the previous week, and students who were absent will have direct access to important information. Secondary benefits include access to the same information when it arises in problems later in the semester and freeing up seminar time to address other material.

Which Math You Need Modules will/do you use in your course?

  • Graphing
  • Plotting Points
  • Best Fit Line
  • Topographic Profile
  • Reading Points from a Line
  • Rates
  • Slopes
  • Trigonometry
  • Unit Conversions

Strategies for successfully implementing The Math You Need

TMYN will be incorporated into the existing lab help pages; each lab help section will be linked to the appropriate TMYN module. Modules will be incorporated as necessary to address the lab exercises assigned. Throughout the semester, I will refer students to the lab help site (and TMYN). At the beginning of the semester, I will highlight the lab help and TMYN in class and walk the students through some of the examples. Each TMYN unit will be followed with post-assessments that will be worth 5-10 points credit. The first time the TMYN module is encountered, students will complete a unit assessment for 5-10 points of credit. All unit assessments will allow students to retry until all answers are correct. The TMYN units will also be linked from the on-line syllabus and other pages in the course web site as appropriate.

I will also create pre- and post- course assessments as well as unit assessments. The pre- and post- course assessments will be given for credit.

Lab help is keyed to Laboratory Manual for Physical Geology by Jones & Jones, McGraw Hill

Lab Help is located on-line at:

Reflections and Results (after implementing)

After implementing, Fall 2010

My plan for implementation was too passive. As planned, I incorporated TMYN as part of my course's on-line lab help materials; I introduced TMYN during the first class session; I emphasized the importance of using TMYN throughout the semester; and I offered extra credit for using the site. Unfortunately, only one student of 20 accessed the site on one day late in the semester and completed three quizzes. While I know students use the on-line lab help, I was not able to track the use of TMYN, and they clearly did not take the step of completing the on-line quizzes. I did not complete a post test because I was not able to document student use of the TMYN site.

In the Spring 2011, I will make completion of TMYN quizzes a required part of the course with credit given for successful completion of the assigned quizzes as a part of the appropriate lab exercises. In addition to pre- and post-tests on TMYN concepts, I will also develop three surveys to be given at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester to gage students' attitudes toward math and use and perceptions of TMYN. I will report back in May.

After implementing, Spring 2011

The TMYN site was highlighted in the first class session after a math pre-test was administered. TMYN assessment scores were included in students' final grades as an inducement to complete the modules and assessments. In addition, students were reminded to complete TMYN modules and assessments throughout the semester. Completion of TMYN was required during week 2 (unit conversions), week 5 (gradient), week 6 (gradient & unit conversions), week 9 (rate & slopes), week 14 (graphing & rate). Trigonometry was initially intended to be included, but later cancelled. The course began with 22 students, of which 4 withdrew.

There were five assessments on the web site for students to complete: unit conversions, slope & gradient, rate/velocity, graphing, scales & scale conversions. Students could take the assessments as many times as they wished, with the goal of a perfect score. There were 32 total points available. Of the 18 students who completed the course, 13 completed at least one assessment on the wamap site, 11 completed at least two, 9 completed at least three, 8 completed at least four, and 5 completed all five assessments. Assessment results summary:

  • Unit Conversions - value: 9 pts; students completed: 13; average score: 6.7
  • Slope & Gradient - value: 3 pts; students completed: 11; average score: 2.5
  • Scales & Scale Conversions - value: 7 pts; students completed: 6; average score: 3.2 (no corresponding TMYN module assigned)
  • Rate/Velocity - value: 5 pts; students completed: 9; average score: 4.1
  • Graphing - value: 8 pts; students completed: 9; average score: 5.
  • All - value: 32 pts; students completed: 5; average score: 21.7

Students completed a pre test and post test with six questions. Pre/Post-test (Acrobat (PDF) 2.6MB May22 11) The pretest was completed at the beginning of the first lecture session of the course. The post test was the last page of the final exam. 1) & 2) unit conversions, 3) calculating slope, 4) trigonometry, 5) rate, and 6) plotting points/graphing. Each question was worth two points, one point for correctly setting up the calculation and one point for correctly calculating. Question 3 had two answers (feet per foot and feet per mile) and was worth three points. I did not provide a conversion table for unit conversions. Pre & Post test results summary:

  • 1. & 2. Unit Conversions - value: 4 pts; pre-test avg: 0.91; post-test avg: 1.10 ( no unit conversion information was provided)
  • 3. Slope - value: 3 pts; pre-test avg: 0.13; post-test avg: 0.93
  • 4. Trigonometry - value: 2 pts; pre-test avg: 0.06; post-test avg: 0.00 ( no corresponding lab exercises & TMYN not assigned)
  • 5. Rate - value: 2 pts; pre-test avg: 0.50; post-test avg: 0.80
  • 6. Graphing - value: 2 pts; pre-test avg: 1.13; post-test avg: 1.47

13 students took both the pre and post tests. Of those, 10 improved their scores, one showed no change, and two had decreases in their scores. Comparing final grades to pre and post test scores revealed no correlation. Comparing final grades to total TYMN scores revealed a positive correlation; students with a higher total score on the TMYN assessments earned a higher grade for the course. While the final course grade included the TMYN assessment score, the assessment score was 3.6% of the final grade and the correlation remained when the TMYN assessment scores were removed from the final grade calculation.

Overall, I was unable to document whether TMYN was helpful to the students. The positive correlation between TMYN assessment scores and final grades could be a result of TMYN or it could reflect that higher performing students are more engaged in the course, are more likely to complete all of the assigned work, and enter the course with higher math skills.

Unfortunately, participation in TMYN remained an issue (five students did not complete any TMYN assessments and only one-half of the students completed three or more of the assessments), even though the completion of the TMYN assessments was included as part of the final grade and students were reminded to complete the modules and assessments throughout the semester. The students who probably would have benefited the most from TMYN were the least likely to fully utilize it. Verbal feedback from the students indicated a strong resistance to completing any math-based activities including in lab exercises and TMYN.

In the future, I will continue to use TMYN. The structure of the course, especially the open lab setting, requires additional support for students, and TMYN is especially useful because it can be accessed by students at any time. I plan to find more ways to integrate the modules and assessments in order to ensure completion. I will also look for additional lab exercises that require students to use math; such exercises will provide additional incentive for students to use TMYN as a resource. I intend to rewrite the pre/post test to more closely mirror the material as it is addressed in the course. I will also use feedback assessments throughout the semester to monitor student engagement and attitudes with respect to TMYN.


Course web site:

Spring 2010 syllabus (Microsoft Word 113kB Jul15 10)