The Numbers Add Up at Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech teaches math wholesale, so it seems appropriate that it has converted a former department store into a math emporium where students can study online 24/7 and summon personal help if they run into problems they can’t handle.

The winter issue of Crosstalk, published by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, has an article ( online) by author Kay Mills about the project, which got its start in 1997.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and University in Blacksburg, Va., was struggling to meet increasing demand for math courses. With the help of a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, it developed the emporium model and located it in space leased from a local shopping mall.

The emporium’s 531 Macintosh computers are arranged in groups of six individual stations. Help is available from faculty and graduate students who staff the emporium. “To summon help,” Mills writes, “all a student needs to do is place a very low-tech red plastic cup on top of the computer.”

Math helpers are available more than 60 hours a week when classes are in session, according to the emporium’s Web page ( There is also a one-on-one math tutoring lab open Sunday through Thursday afternoons.

Virginia Tech has 11,500 math enrollments, math professor Mike Williams told Mills, and 8,000 of them are in courses with an emporium component. Three beginning courses with a total enrollment of 4,000 can be taken entirely in the emporium.

Predictably, some students like it, some don’t – especially since the mall is a 10-minute bus ride from the center of campus. But it gets more than respectable results. “Student performance has improved since the emporium opened,” Mills reports. “In fall 1997, the first year for the redesigned linear algebra course, 68 percent of the students received C grades or better. By fall 2002, 90 percent were earning at least a C.”

That’s pretty impressive, even for a university with a strong focus on math, science and engineering. Math departments aren’t known for grade inflation, and first-year courses such as calculus and linear algebra often function – not by design – as a means of filtering out students who will probably have difficulty with more advanced math.

Students can take practice quizzes until they feel they’re ready to take graded ones. Instructor Terri Bourdon, who manages two of the beginning courses, said, “Most of the questions that the emporium staff answers come from the practice quizzes.” Regular exams, which are proctored, are also given at the emporium. Both quizzes and regular exams are covered by Virginia Tech’s honor code.

Bourdon told Mills she has more personal contact with students now than she did in traditional courses, “primarily due to the fact that students seem more comfortable asking for help at the math emporium than they do in a faculty office. And I enjoy explaining concepts in this environment since I am talking to students who have already worked through the materials beforehand.”

As to why the emporium works better than standard lecture courses, Mills quotes math department chairman John Rossi, who says, “I hate to use jargon but I think it’s active learning. We are forcing them to do the work. If they don’t do the work, they’ll flunk. It’s not like sitting in the back of a class of 500 and doing your e-mail.”

Students have flexibility to adjust the pace of their math courses around their other work, and because there are many different staff members, they have more opportunity to find someone who fits their way of learning.

Chuck Hodges is a former math instructor who now manages the emporium.

“Before, students had me 50 minutes, three times a week, plus my office hours,” Hodges told Mills. “If a student for some reason did not mesh with my teaching, he was sort of stuck. Here, there is an enormous opportunity for different styles of help.”

But the emporium has been a practical benefit for the university, too. Having thousands of students taking classes in the off-campus space has freed up dozens of classrooms needed for other purposes.

The emporium model has been copied elsewhere, including at the University of Idaho, whose math department chairman, Monte Boisen, helped start it when he taught at Virginia Tech. Boisen emphasizes that it requires strong commitment and takes a lot of work.

I can readily believe that, having been around when projects to increase students’ success in math were being developed. One difficulty is that it’s not enough to design a new program; you also have to redesign the people who will be teaching in it, who are sometimes not happy about the idea. With a software-based course _ even one with plenty of Math Helpers at hand _ it isn’t necessary for every university to start from scratch. They can adopt a course they know works, and if they find a way to make it work better everybody benefits. It’s a plan.

(Contact Linda Seebach of the Rocky Mountain News at