Joliet Junior College is a community college in Illinois that serves more than 35,000 diverse students. Approximately 65-70% of incoming students are freshmen, many of whom are enrolled in a developmental math course.

Steve Zuro, a mathematics professor at JCC, has been using Smart Sparrow for about 3 years to provide interactive and adaptive learning for his students. I asked him to share more on his experience helping students understand “impossible!” material and why he chose to begin using the Smart Sparrow platform.

Interview with Steve Zuro, Math Professor

Can you share a bit about your background, role, and students?

Steve: Originally, my profession was in marketing and business. But I returned to school as an adult and continued my education. Eventually I earned my advanced degree in mathematics. I taught high school for five years before becoming a full-time faculty at Joliet Junior College in 2005. Courses that I teach at JJC range anywhere from developmental classes (these are non college-credit courses) to advanced courses in calculus.

This may sound a little vain, but I always thought of my role as a facilitator for critical thought. I try to get my students to think beyond numbers and calculations which seems driven into them through previous exposure. Mathematics is the perfect vehicle, in my opinion, to develop independent and confident thinkers. I always endorse to my students that future employers are not simply looking for the “smartest” person in the room, rather they want problem-solvers. Employers want to be assured that if an employee is consigned a task, any task, said employee will get it done.

“I always endorse to my students that future employers are not simply looking for the ‘smartest’ person in the room, rather they want problem-solvers.”

Because community colleges are district-bound, most students enrolled at JJC either live or work within the district. So nearly all students are local in some capacity and take great pride in the school. Apart from their level of mathematics, I teach a wide and diverse group of students. Most students come directly from “feeder” high schools, but there is also a large contingent of transfer students, returning (adult) students, and students earning credit via employer reimbursement. Any one of these factors can influence a student’s feelings toward mathematics. Keep in mind though, that more than 50% of first-time students (nationally, not just at JJC) need some level of math remediation. Their outlook on the topic is often apprehensive at best.

What pedagogical practices have you found most effective for your students?

Steve: I guess most instructors will have some form of “best practice” that they have used in their classrooms. For me, I have found that a best practice I have employed for one course may not necessarily work for another level of students. So it’s hard to pin down what works best. Consequently, many times best practices tend to change. One then wonders how reliable a best practice is.

I have been teaching a long time, and it seems every year there is some new “theory” on how to improve student learning/outcomes. There is a lot of cultural dynamic that influences student learning. As times (and students) change so must pedagogical practices. This seems especially so in the age of electronics. So as an instructor of mathematics, I have learned to adapt.

“As times (and students) change so must pedagogical practices . . . So as an instructor of mathematics, I have learned to adapt.”

The one “process” that I steadfastly stick to is reminding students to keep an eye on their future; persistently endorsing the importance that mathematics (or any course for that matter) plays in their future endeavors. This may not be considered a form of pedagogy, but students have to be constantly reminded that their future is theirs and education is the key to a prosperous tomorrow. I have found that this gives students ownership of their course work.

Why did you start thinking about different ways to teach mathematics?

Steve: When I was younger, I was one of those math students that would always wonder “why do I need to know this stuff?” I could never relate to the material… so I was disinterested. Unfortunately, most college students today view mathematics simply as a necessary evil. Thus, they desperately struggle.

As an instructor, I try to keep these thoughts in mind as I engage a class. Nonetheless, motivating students to excel with this simple foresight is difficult. So I started to examine other platforms of delivering course material that would help me enhance their student experience/ownership.

Free ebook on shifting content online

What motivated you to move to an adaptive platform like Smart Sparrow? What opportunities were you most excited about?

Steve: The premise of an adaptive platform is adaptability (this is key)! As I stated earlier, pedagogical practices change with the times/students. So I needed something that would allow me freedom to address certain aspects of the learning environment that I would have control over… adjusting, adapting, enhancing, and analyzing student progress. Smart Sparrow offered the most flexibility and support.

“I needed something that would allow me freedom to address certain aspects of the learning environment that I would have control over… adjusting, adapting, enhancing, and analyzing student progress. Smart Sparrow offered the most flexibility and support.”

I wanted to design a course that is graphically interactive and responsive, and would help coach students along in their progress. It was (and still is) exciting to know that I could design a course delivery process that I thought students would respond best to. It personalizes the learning experience with adaptivity that I control.

So then you created Discovering Mathematics. Can you give an overview of what it is and how you’ve been using it?

Steve: In any given semester I teach an assortment of mathematics courses. One predominant course I teach is a liberal arts mathematics course. This is a course that would fulfill a general education math credit for students of non-STEM majors. I thought an adaptable, graphically interactive course design would work best for these kinds of students. This works especially well when offered as an online math course.

Liberal arts math courses are also facilitated to accommodate Corequisite Remediation. As I stated earlier, more than 50% of first-time students need some level of math remediation. Prior to corequisite remediation, new incoming college students would start their college career in math remediation; this is prerequisite coursework that costs thousands of dollars but doesn’t count toward a degree. Unfortunately, for most of these students, remediation will be their first and last college experience — a reality that is disproportionately true for low-income students and students of color. The idea behind Corequisite Remediation is to allow qualified students who need extra help (remediation) to learn alongside their college-ready peers. Thus, these students receive the necessary remediation as well as college credit. They are not trapped within a remediation “cycle.”

I methodically built Discovering Mathematics into a completely web-based course, filled with over 1,000 “pages” of creative instruction, dynamic design content, interactive graphics, and student-relevant assessment; all powered by the Smart Sparrow adaptive learning platform. Discovering Mathematics is excellent as an online class and especially suitable for Corequisite Remediation courses.

Carefully crafted problems and examples help motivate critical thinking and understanding. And because of the program’s adaptable nature, students are coached along when working on problems. This process slowly builds confidence in students’ ability. So an enhanced course design such as Discovering Mathematics complemented with a carefully implemented adaptable platform like Smart Sparrow can encourage students to persist in their academic and career goals.

I have been employing both formats (online and corequisite remediation) with much success!

Discovering Mathematics includes interactive elements and an on-screen calculator Example interactive screen from the Discovering Mathematics course.

Can you share a bit about your process for creating Discovering Mathematics? What was the most challenging?

Steve: I consider most liberal arts students to be hands-on learners, or what I like to call “lens” learners; they like seeing what occurs in order to understand certain concepts. So I always knew that there was something missing in the methods, practices, and material that traditional liberal arts math courses used. In my lecture classroom, I would often try to capture the concept of a scenario by demonstrating it. For example, I would demonstrate why the probability of rolling a six on a pair of dice is 5/36 by actually using dice and running the process in class.

Years ago, I started to develop my own course material and applications which eventually caught the eye of a major textbook publisher. Subsequently I was hired to develop a Liberal Arts Mathematics text. After several years of writing (and rewriting), focus groups, peer reviews, and finally a corporate acquisition, the publisher decided to cancel my contract… leaving my work unpublished. This was a blessing in disguise because soon after signing I lost command of how the original premise for my material was to be developed.

The most challenging aspect of developing my new Discovering Mathematics was to graphically enhance these topics and make them interactive for students to use on their own to help visualize. After many months of programming and graphic design I then created a tablet-based text that interactively demonstrated certain math concepts (such as rolling a six). After some use, I began searching for platforms/mediums that would bring my work to life as a web-based program.

This is where I discovered Smart Sparrow. I then started to reinvigorate my work and methodically incorporated my tablet-based material into the Smart Sparrow platform. Aside from course design and adaptability features, much of this process was cut-and-paste, however many of the tablet-based graphics had to be reprogrammed to work universally as HTML format.

What has been most exciting for you to see in your students’ performances since you started teaching with Discovering Mathematics?

Steve: For my courses, the word is getting out; students are becoming aware of the format and are now specifically requesting to be in my courses. As the success rates rise in the corequisite classes, this saves time, money, and — most importantly — it’s leading to more successful and accomplished students.

Overall, how do you feel about the move to adaptive learning? What plans do you have for the future to ensure continued success and student engagement?

Steve: I think the move to adaptive learning has been the solution I was looking for, for both my students and me. For those students who struggle with mathematics (and that’s most students), this format fills in the gaps where learning was typically lacking. That’s a huge relief!

“For those students who struggle with mathematics (and that’s most students), this format fills in the gaps where learning was typically lacking.”

To expand the opportunity of Discovering Mathematics and accommodate more schools, instructors, and a variety of topics, I am currently developing several more chapters. These chapters will contain the same kind of vibrant content, accessible and flexible learning environment, and promises improved retention and course grades.

Learn more about the Discovering Mathematics liberal arts mathematics course

You can read even more about Steve’s work and Discovering Mathematics here.

If you’re interested in using this digital math material with your students, reach out to us on our contact form or email