Telegraph writer Danielle Curtis covers Nashua Community College’s use of Khan Academy in their summer math boot camps

NASHUA – Mathematics was never Emily Palizotto’s strongest subject, but she did well throughout her four years at Hollis Brookline High School.
So she was surprised when she took the Nashua Community College math placement test – twice – and failed to earn a score high enough for a college-level course, being sent instead to the option of remediation.
“I was in trigonometry last year, and a lot of what was on the test was algebra, which I hadn’t seen in two years,” Palizotto said. “It didn’t really seem fair.”
But Palizotto wasn’t about to sit around feeling sorry for herself. Instead, she decided to take advantage of a new program offered this month at the community college: Math Boot Camp.
The boot camp program allows registered students to review the basic math skills needed for success on the placement test, the Accuplacer, and in a college-level math course. The program began July 15, and runs for three hours each day Monday through Thursday for two weeks.
At the conclusion of the boot camp, students take the Accuplacer again in hopes of testing into a higher-level course.
Students watch You Tube-style videos from Khan Academy, a math instruction website. They practice problems on the site as well, working one-on-one with instructor Scott Holbrook when they need additional support.
There are about 30 students enrolled in the program, said Katherine Costa, associate vice president of academic affairs, and interest is growing.
“I was surprised,” Costa said. “I’m happily surprised. I’m glad that students took advantage of this opportunity. It’s a really big step for a lot of students.”
The community college has been working hard to reduce the number of incoming students who need to take remedial courses in math and reading.
Costa said she could not provide exact numbers, but that most students who enter into some type of remediation struggle with math.
The remediation courses cost hundreds of dollars, but do not earn students college credit. And Costa said research has shown that the more remediation a student needs, the less likely they are to complete college.
Math Boot Camp was developed with help from a grant, awarded by the New England Board of Higher Education. The charge of the grant: find out how effective Khan Academy is in helping students turn around skills gaps in mathematics.
Khan Academy has been used by schools around the country, but Costa said NCC had never used the program for a course before. After seeing the way students have responded, however, she said the college is hoping to incorporate it into other programs.
Students in the machine tool or automotive program need very specific math skills, she said. And using Khan Academy could help them gain those skills without having to take an entire math course.
Holbrook said he’s been surprised by how well students have responded to the Web-based math lessons in the boot camp.
“They can work at their own pace, and they can keep working at home,” he said. “A lot of students have math anxiety, or a pre-conceived notion of math being hard, but this is online. They can watch the videos over and over, practice with no threat of trying something once and failing.”
Holbrook said students have been very engaged in the work and in improving their scores on the Accuplacer.
For Palizotto and her friend Brianna Yeaton, some of the motivation is financial. Neither student, both 18, wants to spend hundreds of dollars on a math course that won’t earn them college credit.
“It’s just not worth it,” Yeaton said.
The two young women sat in the college computer lab Thursday watching videos and practicing problems in notebooks. They chatted whenever they had an issue, sharing problem-solving tips and discussing particularly hard questions.
Palizotto said she’s hopeful a refresher on the math skills she learned in her early high school years will mean a higher score on the Accuplacer.
Costa said the college is hoping for the same thing and will be tracking students’ success to see just how well the boot camp boosts performance.
The data will compare before and after Accuplacer scores for each student involved in the boot camp and likely follow those students through their first college-level math course.
The results, Costa said, will help determine whether the boot camp is offered every year, or even before the spring semester.
“The more we can do for students, to help them succeed, that’s better for everyone,” she said.
At least one more boot camp session will be held next month. The course is open to registered NCC students only, and is free.