Conversion of a Mathematics Course to Tutor-Supported Computer-Assisted Flexible Learning

Robin Shaw

TLTSN (Teaching and Learning Technology Support Network) Consultant
Robert Clark Center for Technological Education
University of Glasgow

The mathematics component of the Bachelor of Technological Education degree course at the University of Glasgow, Scotland was formerly covered by a series of lectures. With the replacement of lectures by a computer assisted learning program (CALMAT) supported by tutorials, the success rate of the students in the degree examinations improved as did teacher and student satisfaction with the course.

This study reports a complete change of learning resources and teaching strategies in a Faculty of Engineering first year mathematics course for the Bachelor of Technological Education (BTechEd) degree at the University of Glasgow. For these students, the purpose of their mathematics learning is to acquire manipulative skills, rather than high theoretical understanding. The level aimed for approximates that of first year engineers. Before 1992, the class was taught separately, with close cooperation between mathematics teachers and technology teachers. Then partnership changes and timetabling problems put the students in with 200 first year engineers and spread the (lecture-based) course over two years.


The BTechEd students struggled, neglecting other subjects, and 29% (6/21) failed the course and dropped out. The problem had been recognized during the session by the staff and was highlighted by the quality assurance system. The teaching dilemma was how to simultaneously motivate the students by applying mathematics learning to real life problems of concern to them, and help them to gain quickly the basic skills to do the necessary mathematics manipulations almost automatically.


We acquired CALMAT, a computer based mathematics course that provides 50 modules of drill-and-practice tutorial exercises, with self-assessment tests and a built in diagnostic exam. CALMAT has a clear and easy-to-use interface, has evolved over many years use in higher education institutions with students much like the target group, and is supported by a mathematics teaching team. CALMAT, is available through Jean Cook, Department of Mathematics, Glasgow Caledonian University, who developed the package with colleagues.

At the beginning of the course, all students took a diagnostic test of 20 multiple choice questions. This allowed the instructors to schedule individual programs of work for the first term. We timetabled a weekly three hour (non compulsory) class in the computer lab for the year's teaching period, with at least one tutor present. Students were free to use the computer lab at other times during term or vacation, with teaching assistance available, often on demand, but always by appointment.

Students could purchase copies of the software for home use. We ran no formal lectures or tutorials throughout the year, except those that reviewed class outcomes. We recommended two textbooks to complement coursework. Students took a repeat of the diagnostic at the end of the first term. During the second term, all students followed the same work program at their own pace. Poor achievers, who reported themselves as falling behind schedule, received more tutor support.

A degree exam halfway through the third term assessed the course. Students could gain exemption by achieving an average of 60 % or above in each of two class exams, held at the end of the first term and the beginning of the second term. A summer retake exam was also available.


The TILT Evaluation group conducted an evaluation of the course, surveying students' attitudes toward computers and their knowledge and experience of basic computing. Informal interviews, a focus group meeting, confidence logs, task experience and questionnaires addressed feelings about learning mathematics and preferred teaching methods, and at the end of the course, shortly before the exam, there was a second focus meeting, to study the year's assessment grades.

There were also interviews of teaching staff, who had collaborated in both the planning and the implementation of the evaluation exercise, as well as in the interpretation of interim findings.

Student Attitudes

Questioned at the end of term one, students' experience with CALMAT was positive, with some criticisms. The human computer interaction presented no problems. For the majority of students, three hours (with coffee break) at the computer screen was not a problem. For a few it was; these students would spend some time at the machine, then work through paper exercises in the relevant handbook. Students very much liked working at their own pace, though there were still some fears of getting lost or falling behind. We had encouraged students to complete their recommended exercises on schedule, but many did not do this. In general, students rated themselves more confident about mathematics principles and practice as they went through the course, and most students actively liked the working environment, which they felt included a lot of peer support.

Teacher Attitudes and Changed Roles

Discussions with teachers during the course and afterwards showed them to be even more positive than the students. The feedback from the evaluation exercises fitted in with their own perceptions. Inasmuch as the software was already a product, its acquisition was not expensive in comparison to a custom created package. There was a considerable savings in lecturer's time since there was no requirement to prepare and deliver lectures. Consequently, the lecturer's time could be used in individual attention to students who were experiencing difficulty in mastering the content. The situation was felt by the lecturer to be less stressful and more conducive to efficient support for students' learning. The lecturer thought that the skills acquired in the course would improve the students' practical application of mathematics in other courses.

Exam Results

In the first class exam, which included the original 20 questions from the diagnostic test, there was significant overall improvement in the scores when compared with the diagnostic test given at the start of the course, though the improvement was more noticeable in some topics. The first year degree outcomes were acceptable in that they were on a par with the previous year. Although the assessment procedures, of necessity, differed from those for previous years, the same external examiner's criteria had been satisfied. It is not, however, possible to make any direct comparisons between the exam outcomes of 1994-95 and the previous year, apart from being encouraged that the number of failures after retaking the exams fell from six (after normative scaling was applied to the raw marks) to four with no normative scaling. In 1995-96, the improvement in performance was marked with a considerable increase in the exam average score and only one failure.


Initially, the results of using a CAL package were no worse than they would have been if the course had been delivered using traditional lectures. Both the students and lecturers preferred the CAL method. Students responded well to self-paced learning; peer self-help groups developed spontaneously; staff found it less stressful to supervise the computer labs than to prepare and deliver lectures; staff devoted the time remaining to students who were slow and struggling with the work. We made several changes during the 1995-96 academic year and achieved a considerable improvement in results compared to the traditional lectures.

Discussion with colleagues in other disciplines has helped them change to similar kinds of tutor-supported flexible learning. These other departments have recognized the benefits of using a course team approach, with lecturers, tutors, technician and evaluator. Formative evaluation of these changes, in an action-research mode, has substantially assisted the integration of IT into teaching and learning in many parts of the university.


M. Pollock, McAteer, E. Doughty, G. & Turner, I. (1996). Conversion of a mathematics course to CAL: A case study of a large-scale rapid change of resources and organization. Alt-J 4(1), 28-34.

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