Across the nation, math instructors and policymakers are trying to solve for x.
West Virginia University mathematics professor Vicki Sealey is one of them. And x is a way of teaching math that will allow it to stick with students long after they’ve left lockers and book bags behind them.
Sealey is part of a group in and around WVU using modern math teaching techniques to improve math education for their students and to develop training materials for other math instructors. Sealey, math professor Mike Mays, College of Education and Human Services professor Johnna Bolyard and East Fairmont High School teacher Brittany Vincent began the project this school year.
Remember those annoying word problems — Train A leaves the station headed East, traveling at this speed, at this time, and Train B leaves another station headed west at that speed at that time. When will they pass each other?
In the approach Sealey, Mays and others are suggesting, you get a group of students together, tell them two trains are headed for each other, one at this speed, one at that speed and ask how long do you have to keep them from crashing into each other?
“In the lab setting, after the students solve that problem we mention oh, yeah, by the way the first train is speeding up and the second train is slowing down—build that into your prediction,” Mays said. “We immerse the students in a situation and they have to invent the particular tools they need, using as background the course material.”
They are working with teams from three other land-grant institutions – Auburn University, University of Nebraska and University of Colorado, Boulder – to implement more active learning in entry-level math courses.
Their immediate goal is to make math more accessible to all students, especially math education students who can then use these methods in their own classes. The broader goal of focusing on math education is to raise math literacy in the general population by training future K-12 teachers.
Sealey says she focuses less on the lecture and more on putting students in groups to work out challenging problems and reflect on the process, which research says is more effective in promoting retention of the information. She and her teaching assistants work in the only math classroom on campus that has movable tables and chairs, and mobile whiteboards and laptops to promote in-depth team problem solving.
“I really became interested in teaching because of the way that math was taught by my mentor when I was a graduate student, and I strive to model those practices in my own teaching at WVU,” Sealey said.
She wants to show students math the way she learned to explore it, from a college mentor who inspired his students to think creatively through math concepts.
Mays said that when he teaches now, he’s often presents a problem and lets the students think through how they can reach the answer. It’s a process that allows them to incorporate new information into their existing understanding instead of memorizing information and not considering why that information is true. After they’ve thought through the problem, he’ll walk them through it.
Sealey says, “We want to make sure students realize that there might be several correct ways to solve a problem and part of the fun in math is finding ways that are efficient, creative, or even elegant.”
The techniques are very different from the mimicry that most of us participated in throughout our K-12 years that didn’t relate math to our thought processes.
Some of Sealey’s students have been swayed to become math teachers because they care about it more now, others are cemented in their interest to teach math or pursue it as a career, and still others are just better prepared for employment.
“I really believe that the students have the ability to [solve math problems] but not necessarily the interest to do it, and a lot of times in the way that math is often taught they miss the creativity that’s involved with math,” she said.
This is a different story about math than you’ve seen in the headlines. In a recent U.S. Department of Education survey, U.S. adults ranked below adults in 19 other democratic countries when it came to math skills. The most recent American policy to attack this problem is the Common Core State Standards, adopted in 45 states, including West Virginia.
That was when WVU entered the discussion. Mays, director of WVU’s Institute for Mathematics Learning, joined a group of faculty across the country that is interested in improving math education in light of the new standards. For the past few years he’s been part of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities’ Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership.
The first year, a National Science Foundation grant helped to create a network that now includes 69 universities, 87 school systems and nine community colleges. The latest grant this fall from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust for $1.05 million is funding groups, including the one at WVU to focus on active learning.
Mays, who is working to improve WVU’s upper-level math courses, said he’s grown from teaching college courses to taking on an active role in preparing the current crop of math teachers and becoming involved in the state’s math education planning. He sees the methods as a benefit to students, especially those who aren’t math nerds like he was.
“It’s changed the way I teach,” he said. “I find it easier to hold back and not just sort of show off and show them how much I know but let them think it through. I know that that’s where the benefit to them is going to come.
“It’s so easy for people to just take notes and be kind of passive about it. If you can make it so that you are getting them doing something and sort of struggling with it and then when they get through the struggle, they’ve got something that lasts longer than something they’ve memorized.”
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