Remediation of first-year mathematics students' algebra difficulties.
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The pass rate of first-year university mathematics students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg Campus) has been low for many years. One cause may be weak algebra skills. At the time of this study, revision of high school algebra was not part of the major first year mathematics course. This study set out to investigate if it would be worthwhile to spend tutorial time on basic algebra when there is already an overcrowded calculus syllabus, or if students refresh their algebra skills sufficiently as they study first year mathematics. Since it was expected that remediation of algebra skills would be found to be worthwhile, two other questions were also investigated: Which remediation strategy is best? Which errors are the hardest to remediate? Five tutorial groups for Math 130 were randomly assigned one of four remediation strategies, or no remediation. Three variations of using cognitive conflict to change students’ misconceptions were used, as well as the strategy of practice. Pre- and post-tests in the form of multiple choice questionnaires with spaces for free responses were analysed. Comparisons between the remediated and non-remediated groups were made based on pre- and post-test results and Math 130 results. The most persistent errors were determined using an 8-category error classification developed for this purpose. The best improvement from pre- to post-test was 12.1% for the group remediated with cognitive conflict over 5 weeks with explanations from the tutor. Drill and practice gave the next-best improvement of 8.1%, followed by self-guided cognitive conflict over 5 weeks (7.8% improvement). A once-off intervention using cognitive conflict gave a 5.9% improvement. The group with no remediation improved by 2.3%. The results showed that the use of tutorintensive interventions more than doubled the improvement between pre-and post-tests but even after remediation, the highest group average was 80%, an unsatisfactory level for basic skills. The three most persistent errors were those involving technical or careless errors, errors from over-generalising and errors from applying a distorted algorithm, definition or theorem.
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