By Drew Lewis, Assistant Professor, Department of Mathematics, The University of Alabama
Like many mathematicians, the only formal training I have received as a teacher was in graduate school. After a one semester seminar on teaching, I was set loose on three recitation sections of unsuspecting calculus students and expected to improve my teaching primarily by trial and error, discussion with peers and mentors, and feedback from students and classroom observations. While I still use all of these to improve my teaching, I have found that social media has become an indispensable tool to helping me improve as a teacher. I use “social media” in a broad sense here — I would include any quasi-public interactive online discussion in my definition. This includes platforms like Facebook and Twitter that most people associate with the term “social media”, but also things like a discussion in the comments section of a blog, or a discussion board-based online community. Further, the key value of social media is not in the availability of information, but the interactions and discussions that are generated. In conjunction with trial and error, I have learned more about teaching through social media than I have through any other method.
The primary way you can use social media to improve in teaching is simply by using it to expand your network of peers and mentors who can discuss and offer feedback on your ideas and techniques. As someone who works at a large public flagship university with a very traditional student population, social media allows me to connect with people teaching at a variety of institutions — smaller universities, liberal arts colleges, and schools with a large portion of nontraditional students. Each of these settings presents unique challenges to teachers, and connecting with diverse groups of people and seeing how they overcome these challenges offers various insights I can take back to my own classroom. For example, I can safely assume that 99% of my calculus students have seen college algebra/pre-calculus in the last two or three years. Reading about the teaching experiences of those who often teach a larger percentage of nontraditional students has helped me to recalibrate my expectations of what a student is likely to retain from prerequisite courses five or ten years earlier, allowing me to more effectively teach the few nontraditional students I do have.
One particular group deserves special mention here, namely middle and high school math teachers. There is a particularly lively group of teachers loosely organized in the “Math Twitter Blogosphere,” with the primary medium of discourse being blog postings (and ensuing comments), and Twitter. I find reading their discussions valuable for several reasons. First, it gives me a glimpse of what is going on in K-12 mathematics classrooms. My own personal recollection of what and how high school students learn is becoming more and more dated, so I find reading what secondary teachers are doing helps me to understand the mathematical background of my calculus students better. Second, I have found that reading about the challenges these teachers face has altered my perceptions about what I should be emphasizing to the mathematics education majors I teach. One example here is a discussion among high school teachers about how to answer a student’s question, “Why isn’t zero the least common multiple of every number?” The confusion mostly seemed to stem to from not having clear definitions of terms like “least common multiple” and “greatest common divisor”. Our mathematics education majors learn these topics in an abstract algebra course, but now I place a greater emphasis on discussing these definitions, why they are the correct ones, and what would happen if we defined them in a different manner.
A more concrete way that social media has influenced my teaching is by exposing me to various pedagogical techniques I would otherwise be unaware of. One particular example is that I have switched to using a grading methodology called Standards Based Grading in my calculus courses. I have not yet met in person a fellow mathematician who uses this methodology, but fortunately several people who use it have shared their experiences in various blog posts. Moreover, I’ve found a number of people on Twitter more than happy to answer my questions as I tried this new grading system, and more recently a Google Plus group was formed where people can discuss their use of SBG.
I would like to re-emphasize that the true value of social media derives from the interactive nature of these discussions. Reading a single blog post is not that different than reading an article in a print medium. It most often offers some sort of summative snapshot of the topic. However, by learning about SBG on social media, I could read a series of blog posts, offering insight into the rationale behind the choices the author made in how to implement this in his or her classroom, and even watch their use of SBG evolve from semester to semester. The public nature of social media also allowed me to “eavesdrop” on discussions between various people using this in their classes, giving me a great deal of insight into the kinds of challenges I would face when implementing this, and how other people overcame them. And then, when I finally decided to try it out, I was able to bounce ideas and questions off of people who had already run into many of the same issues. These discussions gave me the confidence to introduce a technique into my classroom that seemed, at the time, like a radical change, especially in light of the fact that none of my colleagues in my department were doing anything like it.
Another important way I have grown as a teacher from using social media is that it has given me a greater understanding about the diversity issues facing the mathematics community. When I first started teaching I gave little thought to the topic of diversity in my classroom. Given no evidence to the contrary, I simply assumed my classroom was a welcoming environment to all. Since then, I have read (most often on social media) a number of experiences where mathematics students feel marginalized by well-meaning but perhaps oblivious instructors. This has allowed me critically assess my own behaviors in the classroom, trying to make sure I am not unwittingly engaging in any of those behaviors. For example, as a fledgling teacher, I gave little thought to the process of learning students’ names. I simply gradually learned them in an ad hoc manner as the semester progressed, paying little attention to which sorts of names I learned easier than others. After reading a discussion on the topic, I realized I was learning names that were familiar to me more quickly than others; now I make an extra effort to deliberately learn all students’ names as best I can.
I find people are often skeptical of the value of social media for professional growth, most often concerned that any useful content is difficult to find among the noise. However, I have found that following fellow mathematicians on Twitter or Google Plus avoids this problem; in fact, I find this is the best way to become aware of interesting articles and blog postings on various teaching and mathematics topics. Moreover, there is usually an interesting discussion that follows, which is often as worthwhile to read as the original article. The nature of these services allows you to passively read and observe, and only chime in to a discussion if and when desired. I would encourage every mathematician to explore how social media can help improve your teaching.