Maths pathway supports student success in engineering

Online learning

A new approach to teaching maths – the Maths Emporium method – has recently gained international attention. As it turns out, a similar model had already been developed at WelTec – and it’s successful.

Maths can be a barrier for would-be engineering students

The Wellington Institute of Technology (WelTec), in common with other institutes of technology and polytechnics (ITPs), finds that maths is often a barrier for would-be engineering students. Some don’t make it into engineering courses because they lack the maths requirement, while those who do may struggle with this aspect of their learning.

Senior Maths Tutor Penelope de Boer, who has experience teaching at universities and ITPs, notes that many students enter the classroom with a fear of maths which impacts their learning and achievement.

Building student competence and confidence

“You have to build up the student’s confidence around maths and problem-solving,” Penelope says, “and offer progression to higher level study.”

Five-and-a-half years ago, she started making changes to improve student achievement in maths and develop a maths pathway for engineering students. Students now use an online, interactive learning tool, and must be proficient in each skill before moving to the next.  

“You have to offer progression, not just a course;” says Penelope, “Students can now progress from the Level 2 programme to the Level 6 maths offered in the Bachelor of Engineering Technology.”

Malcolm Fair from the School of Engineering says this approach has given students more confidence to go forward. “We’ve had students who started with the Foundation Mathematics for Engineering course and worked their way through to the New Zealand Diploma in Engineering and then the Bachelor of Engineering Technology.”

The Maths Emporium model

Penelope spent years trialling ideas, developing resources and ultimately creating a smoother pathway for students. She recently heard about the Maths Emporium model being promoted around the world. “It’s pretty much what I’d come up with working on my own!”

The Maths Emporium model, developed by a team of educators in the USA, aims to ensure students are proficient with new skills before they progress to the next stage. The model is based on 10 key elements:

  • Redesign the whole course sequence and establish greater course consistency
  • Require active learning and ensure students are “doing” maths
  • Hold class in a computer lab/classroom using commercial instructional software
  • Modularise course materials and course structure
  • Require mastery learning
  • Build in ongoing assessment and prompt automated feedback
  • Provide students with one-on-one, personalised, on-demand assistance from highly trained personnel
  • Ensure sufficient time on task
  • Monitor student progression and intervene when necessary
  • Measure learning, completion and cost

Improving student attitude and achievement

Penelope had become increasingly aware that students did not necessarily expect to do well with their maths studies and had built up barriers over many years in their thinking and approach to maths. “I started looking at developing a pathway for students – from those with no maths through to a reasonable level of maths to complete the New Zealand Diploma in Engineering.”

Setting up a maths pathway for engineering students

Penelope trialled various ideas, “some of which failed,” she says, in developing the maths pathway. Having established a new structure and methods for learning maths, she has mentored other staff in teaching it.

Almost all of the Engineering School maths classes are now taught in the same way to achieve consistency in both expectations and outcomes.

Ensuring students actively participate in their learning

In previous years, students were often late to class and didn’t bother taking notes. “They used to sit in class watching me and assume they could solve problems later,” Penelope says, “When I asked ‘how will you study?’ they’d just shrug.”

In response, Penelope wrote and presented a series of video clips for each course. Students have to watch a video clip in their own time, take rudimentary notes (they were initially given documents to fill in, then blank PowerPoint slides) and attempt any questions covered in the clip. Prior to this, students do a ‘pre-quiz’ on MyMathLab covering the knowledge they’ll need for the next class. “It’s not self-teaching, it’s a modern version of reading a textbook before class.”

Punctuality is no longer a problem following the introduction of the ‘post-quiz’ – held at the beginning of each class and covering the work students did at home. “They quickly got the idea they needed to be in class on time! Although they don’t get any credits for either quiz, it helps prepare them for what they’re about to learn.”

Changing how students work in the classrooms

All WelTec engineering maths classes are held in a computer lab where students access course content, written by Penelope, on MyMathLab. (They purchase access to the site for each course rather than textbooks and can use it at any time on any internet-capable device).

”Previously, a student using MyMathLab at home might have technical issues or difficulty in understanding an answer,” Penelope says, “now they’re using computers in class I can resolve those issues so they don’t get frustrated.”

Students work at their own pace; they can re-watch video clips or repeat a question using different numbers. Rather than being in front of the class, “knowing some students are checking social media online,” Penelope now moves around the room providing assistance as required.

“Now, instead of just listening to me, they’re focused on the task; and that doesn’t leave time to be checking Facebook!”

Setting up engineering maths courses as modules

Each Level 2-6 maths course is divided into modules. Students are required to complete every exercise in a module before they’re eligible to do the module assessment.  Although they can work at their own pace, Penelope discourages students from getting ahead of the timetable. “Racing through the work isn’t necessarily helpful and would make it more difficult to manage all the students and assessments.”

Students must pass each assessment before starting the next

Engineering diploma and degree students must achieve 100% in an online assessment before they can start the next one – it won’t open in MyMathLab until they have attained that result. Students in lower level classes need 70-80%. There is no limit to how many times students can attempt an exercise or assessment, but they fail the course if any assessment is incomplete.

Any student enrolling for an engineering maths course without the pre-requisite level of maths must do an assessment. All diploma students are assessed on Day 1 of their course; anyone not achieving 100% must complete work on the missed topics, which they generally do over one to three classes.

Ongoing assessment and feedback

Under the new course structure, it is compulsory to attend every two-hour lesson. Students receive emailed guidelines on what must be completed in the classroom and in their own time. They can contact tutors online, rather than waiting for class time to ask questions. Penelope notes that where an explanation is too long for an email, she makes a video clip instead.

Providing one-on-one support

“Students often bring a fear of maths to the classroom which can inhibit their achievement,” Penelope says. “The homework is mostly comprised of watching video clips, a very low-threat exercise for those students.”

In class, students get immediate feedback from MyMathLab or the tutor, and can help each other if required (students get a different set of questions to others at their table). Anyone wanting to contact the tutor privately can click on the ‘Ask my instructor’ button. “On a few occasions when I couldn’t get in to campus due to flooding, students could work on their own and still contact me.”

Classes are limited to 24 students which allows tutors to speak with each student several times over two hours.

Ensuring students spend an appropriate amount of time on tasks

Tutors can monitor how long someone takes to complete an exercise and, if it seems excessive, can provide additional support to that student via email.

Monitoring student progress

Class attendance and student progress is recorded online, with information fed to tutors and mentors. When a student is not progressing, MyMathLab sends an automatic email based on criteria set up by Penelope, for example, ‘Scored less than 40% in Test 5’.

“I can see which question a student gets wrong, so can target specific help for that person;” Penelope says, “I also record if they have watched a video.”

10. Each course is reviewed by tutors at the end

At the end of each course, data on student achievement is collected and compared with previous results. Tutors note any impact from changes in teaching and discuss any improvements to teaching that might be required.

“Students can do maths if they start at the right place

Penelope says that while establishing the new pathway has been “hugely time consuming”, it really does make a difference – there’s been an increase of 12% in average grades – and there is now a large collection of video resources for each course.

Malcolm notes that gaining confidence with maths makes other subjects more manageable for students. “They’re not struggling with the maths component and making the mistakes so they can concentrate on other course content. Students can do the maths if they start at the right place.”

“Seeing them come in thinking they can’t do maths – it’s a barrier to get through – and then their realisation that they can achieve, that’s really good. The new structure has increased our success and retention rates. Some engineering degree students who’ve come through that pathway have subsequently chosen to take optional maths courses in their programme.”

Penelope welcomes queries from other ITPs: please contact her via email at

Our thanks to Penelope and Malcolm for their time and advice; if you have any queries please contact

August 2018