Monthly Archives: August 2009

Teaching Math

I haven’t posted for sometime because of a busy schedule — nine hours a week as an MA Economics student, and six hours a week as a Math lecturer at the University of the Philippines. I applied for a teaching position, and was accepted, because I wanted to try out teaching ideas which came to me while attending lectures as an MA student. I have written several posts about this.

I am now implementing those ideas. As usual, reality is much more complex than theory, although I believe I am moving towards a better teaching method and my students are responding positively to my novel approach.

Basically, I keep lectures at the minimum and make students spend most of their time solving problems. Instead of lectures, I give reading assignments, together with a set of problems to solve. I assign homework every class session and we do seatwork in most class sessions too. As I wrote in earlier posts, in swimming classes, it is the student, not the teacher, who stays in the water most of the time. In a Math class, the water is a blank sheet of paper. Lots of them. Instead of the teacher solving problems on the blackboard, I make the students solve problems on paper.

The advanced students caught on quickly. Among the low scorers, some have shown major improvements. But a few students still lag behind. I spend hours thinking how I can get the concepts across. At their current pace, they will fail the course. I (or, rather, they) need a breakthrough. We are nearly two months into the course, we have another two months. Sometimes, it simply takes time to sink in. I hope that is simply the case.

My biggest problem was that students tend to hide their lack of knowledge, instead of bringing it out in the open, so that we could do something about it. For weeks, we seemed to be playing hide-and-seek, with some students copying from classmates or using all the time-tested student methods for beating the system. The problem is grades. They have become a student fetish, separate from learning itself. Student will do all kinds of things, including cheat, to get better grades. It is not really their fault. The school system makes them do it. Instead of lectures, I simply explained on several sessions why it was important that students admit to themselves the lack of knowledge and to acknowledge it openly, especially to the teacher, instead of hiding the situation (unsuccessfully) from the teacher, their classmates and themselves. I think it took weeks for the message to sink in. But now, I think most have gotten the message, and we are ready for real learning.

Initially, I thought I could encourage my students to solve problems by using grades as the incentive: it was easy to get high scores in homework and seatwork because I encouraged them to ask for help from classmates, high scores which could pull up their final grades. I think it worked for some, but for others, the high scores became an end in themselves and some were getting them minus the learning that should have accompanied the high scores.

So, I’ve changed the approach. Now, homework are not graded by score but by effort. As long as there is an attempt to solve a problem, they get a point. If this creates another problem, maybe I’ll end up not grading homeworks at all. We’ll see.

In the meantime, it is gratifying to note that many students are responding to the method. What I need now is a breakthrough with respect to the few remaining low scorers. Just like swimming, maybe the breakthrough will simply come on its own time. I do hope it comes in time for their exams, not after.