Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Math Task Force

Both Peter Gibson and I were interviewed for an article that appeared in the Excalibur today as a followup to the Toronto Star article related to the high dropout rate that we have been commenting about.

The interviewer asked me about 5 questions which I responded to by email. I thought I would post my (mostly) complete answers to the quotes that he extracted for the article. He asked, "what sort of skills (if any) are students lacking or what seems to be their primary weakness?"

My response was:

I know you are going to be disappointed with this answer, but I won't tell you that I perceive patterns of weakness in students. I am not convinced that anybody knows what is causing a high dropout rate from math courses. I know that people are trying to determine what it is and I will refer you to them to let you know what they found.

For almost any mathematics course we will assume that students have mastered basic algebra, trigonometry and arithmetic. This is true for the calculus and statistics courses and it will be true Math 1200 course that I will be teaching. There are other important implicit skills and mathematical notation that are harder to describe such as pattern recognition and manipulation of symbolic expressions. Students who have not mastered these skills will face more struggles than those that have.

The bridge we hope to provide for students with the Math 1200 course is to improve their of writing, logical reasoning and explanation. In order to succeed in some of the courses for their major, students will be required to explain why a statement is true rather than simply calculate or apply formulas.

One thing that I have found is that high school mathematics tends to prepare students to anticipate solving certain types of problems and look for a pattern or a set method that they can apply. This is an important skill that students must master, when they arrive at university they will also need and develop other skills and other types of reasoning. It is not unusual that students face a bit of a shock when they are forced to encounter problems that have open ended solutions and are perhaps designed to break all previous expectations of questions they encounter. A good example of this type of question might be something like:
if at a meeting of 10 couples everyone in the room shakes the hand of everyone except for their spouse, how many handshakes occurred at this meeting?
There is a period of adjustment to this type of mathematics.

In response to the question:
"And in your opinion is this a result of the education system, the curriculum, the teaching style, or some say it's due to technology?"

I answered:

There are larger factors involved than the education system, the curriculum or changes in teaching style. Although I do believe that these do change over time, I perceive that their effect is minor compared to social and economic factors.

There is a certain level of math phobia that exists in the general public and that sentiment spreads. Students are told from an early age that 'I can't do math' is an acceptable attitude while such a comment about basic reading or writing skills is unheard of. When they arrive at university, math then becomes the expendable subject.

I will say that technology has introduced a level of informality that did not exist in the past and could be causing serious harm. Across all disciplines we hope that incoming students to be able to write clearly with proper grammar and spelling, understand their basic algebra, arithmetic and science concepts. Technology has made it harder for us to assume that all students will have mastered these skills. What I fear is that it has taught students to give up after they are unable to find the answer on Google.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fall Term Registration Reminder

The Fall 2009 term, registration deadline is September 15, 2009, students who register after the deadline will be charged a late fee of $200.
For more information on registration, go to

If students have questions or require assistance, they may contact the Faculty of Graduate Studies, Student Affairs Office at 416 736-5521 or visit us in 283 York Lanes.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

U.S. President's Speech to Students

U.S. President Barak Obama made a speech to students yesterday and, other than partisan political objections (which I hope are mostly ignored because it is irrelevant to his message), the speech seemed to be well received. Part of his appeal to students was to work hard as a patriotic effort for their country, but mainly he appealed to students sense of responsibility. As educators we can do everything in our power to provide students with a good education, but unless they are also motivated to learn, everything we can do will remain relatively useless.

I especially liked this part of his speech (the full text is available here):

No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.

The attitude that I hear about math from a good portion of the general public is that you are either "born with it or you ain't." I think that we need to motivate our students to anticipate and believe that although mathematics is hard work, it is something that they can succeed and benefit from.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Back to school complaining about students

Welcome back to the Fall term. I mostly took a break from writing to this blog over the summer since I didn't think I needed to be posting when everyone was off for the summer. I started writing a few postings when a news article caught my eye but didn't post anything and may come back to them if I have fresh ideas.

I couldn't however pass up commenting on the latest headline in the Toronto Star "Internet teens failing math : Multi-tasking lifestyles, abolition of Grade 13, leaves 'i-generation' ill-prepared for university" from the September 6 paper.

The most interesting thing about this article were the comments online. Articles like these generate a ton of finger pointing: high school teachers, elementary school teachers, the university curriculum, the parents, abolition of grade 13, the curriculum, math itself, textbooks, politicians, standards for teachers, etc.

No short term fixes are going to change the situation. I am teaching a first year class that is supposed to be a bridge for students coming from high school and going into a university level math course (Math 1200: Problems, Conjectures and Proof). One thing I hope that I am able to convey to students in this course is that if they put in the work then they will learn and succeed and this is something that the article acknowledges is lacking with this generation. However I don't doubt that many of the problems with our education system identified in the article and the comments are real.