Students who have had me for at least one class are familiar with my alter ego, Lamar. If they were to describe him, they may say that he is the poster child for what not to do in mathematics. They may speak to Lamar’s tendency to arrive at the wrong conclusion by making erroneous assumptions and/or using faulty logic. When a mistake in class is made, it is not unusual for someone to say, “That’s totally a Lamar move to make.”
You may wonder how Lamar came to be. Let me take you back to a chilly spring day in March inside a proof-based linear algebra class. When I first saw this material several years ago, it took me a nontrivial amount of time to understand the difference between a scalar 2 and the identity matrix scaled by 2 when performing matrix algebra. In my current Linear Algebra class, this difference is emphasized through the eyes of Lamar as he tries to prove that a square matrix A is invertible if A^2 – 2A + I = 0. Once Lamar’s name leaves my mouth, students become more alert as they watch for the inevitable misstep that Lamar will make. Indeed, for the example mentioned above, Lamar finds that the inverse of A is given by 2-A. The identification of his misstep leads to a fruitful discussion on Matrix Algebra and I mentally pat myself on the back for what I think is a job well done.
A few weeks before Lamar was concocted, I was trying to emphasize the difference between matrix inversion and division. I purposely erroneously tried to define the inverse of a square matrix A by taking the reciprocal of every entry inside the matrix—a classic Lamar move to make. I was hoping that someone would call me out on this mistake and perhaps chastise me (lightly) for having gone down this forsaken path. As I paused on the board to let my mistake permeate into everyone’s head, a student in the back rolled his eyes and questioned my ability to lead the class. He wondered (out loud) if I had the knowledge necessary to teach such a demanding class and that perhaps they should find another TA. He was quick to point out that I could not make such a definition and was offended that I would even offer such a definition.
In that moment, I felt the need to prove myself as a mathematician and to show them that I did indeed earn the right to help guide them through their mathematical journey. To protect the integrity of genuine mathematical inquiry, I would need to wear two hats—the “Terrance” hat and the “Lamar” hat. When I put on my Terrance hat, I am the mathematician who is an expert in this field and who knows all that there is to know about the topic of interest. The development is effortless in hopes of earning their respect and trust. When I wear my “Lamar” hat, I try to humanize the activity of doing math by emphasizing inquiry and how mistakes can be used to develop sound mathematical ideas. I wanted them to experience the same process that I use when I am engaging in mathematical research. I want them to see how important mindset—as opposed to initial ability—is towards reaching the promised land of mathematical understanding. I wanted them to truly experience what being a mathematician is all about.
For the reasons mentioned above when I work with students on novel research projects, I try to be Lamar more than Terrance. No matter their mathematical journey, I invite any student to participate. Because of that policy, I attract a diverse range of students – from those who haven’t even taken a math course at Drake yet and are wondering how math can inform someone about hurricanes all the way to students who have taken every advanced math class that we offer. I try and discard the notion that you must satisfy a bunch of prerequisites to unlock the gates of mathematics (i.e., engage in math research) and I try to involve students in research as soon as possible regardless of where they are in their journey.
I also purposefully pick problems that are outside my area of expertise (though to be frank, students pick these problems) because I want to join them in this area of discovery and showcase a vulnerability that I cannot really show in class (i.e. when I’m wearing my “Terrance” hat) – as a young pre-tenure Black mathematician at a majority institution, I do not want to invite students to question my right to be there, as is sometimes the case. I want students to really feel what it is like to be a mathematician, to question everything, to get stuck, to try again, to revise rough drafts repeatedly until an answer is found if possible. I never really thought about the multiple roles I play at Drake – from the bearer of all knowledge in an analysis class to the guy who had no idea how to “mathematize” a hurricane. I think it helps students to see me as a human and to embrace the questioning and mistakes. Furthermore, I am using this same process of integrating research to recruit students of color and other underrepresented groups by creating a space where mistakes can safely occur.
There is a certain tension that comes from the many hats that I wear as I help students navigate their own mathematical journeys. I find that I am constantly negotiating and renegotiating my identity in the process of learning and teaching through inquiry. On one hand, I do not want to assert so much of my own expertise that it prevents students from developing their own expertise and identities, however; I want to assert enough of my expertise to prove my ability to help students navigate their journeys. I try to walk the line between being an expert in my field in the classroom and the mathematician who sees an interesting problem but does not know what the answer will end up being—assuming of course that there is an answer to begin with! This is in sharp contrast to when I first began my career. My first research project with a student involved a problem that I already knew the answer to. Rather than creating a space for which the student could forge their own mathematical identity, I carefully crafted an experience that I knew would lead to a satisfactory conclusion. Because of the tight control in this experience, I was able to artificially correct their course whenever I felt they strayed too far. That is, I prevented this student from having an authentic experience of what it is like to really be a mathematician—how to think through and reason through a problem of interest.
Nowadays, I purposefully pick problems for which I don’t know what the final solution will be. I don’t exactly know where the problem is going to go or what mathematical tools I will need to acquire in order to reach a satisfactory conclusion. But now, it is tricky, and it does make me nervous sometimes when I do it. I go in and I’m like, “Well, let’s see if we can brainstorm together because I’ll admit I have an idea or two, but I don’t know if they’re actually going to work out.” As part of this experience, students get to see the real me. Here is a mathematician that doesn’t really quite know how these answers are going to work, but he has some ideas and can use his training to help inform his position. I think it’s kind of nice that I can humanize this experience, and they can see like, “Oh, he knows all this stuff, but he still has to figure out how to use the stuff to inform his next steps and his positions,” and things like that. I think that experience is just as important as somebody who is in front of the class, who’s giving them all of this context, who’s an expert in his field, and who’s whipping all this stuff out and weaving all of these different ideas and concepts together that tells this really beautiful story about why things work the way that they do in calculus or linear algebra, or some other math course. Thus, I’ve latched onto that without focusing too much on any possible ramifications. For instance, I wondered if students would think of my classroom persona as a farce. Like he knows all this stuff, but then when it gets to research, he’s clueless. On the other hand, perhaps the response would be something to the tune of “I feel okay now going in and not needing to know the answer because he doesn’t either, and he’s an expert in his field.” So, I have embraced this duality between being this content expert in the classroom, and then being this humble mathematician, who sees this really interesting problem, latches onto it, and then works it out like a mathematician. Thankfully, it’s been a pretty great experience thus far in creating these research spaces for early mathematicians.
Part of this experience is supported by an NSF grant which investigates the ways in which mathematics research projects conducted early in students’ college mathematical careers spark students’ engagement and interest in mathematics. The students had the opportunity to pose questions themselves and then develop skills in building innovative quantitative solutions to complex problems. There is a particular focus on students who have been historically excluded from mathematics majors. Participating students were recruited from non-major or pre-major mathematics courses, with a particular emphasis on recruiting students who are people of color.
This past semester, undergraduates pursued two strands of authentic mathematical research, based on their interests:
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grants DRL1821444 and DRL 2021161. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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We often think about our classes starting on the first day of the semester. But some of our students log on to course management systems and look at the course materials before classes start. I contend that we can start to build relationships with our students well before class begins — with the way we write our syllabi, an initial email to students, and a short first assignment that can be completed before the very first day of class.
A little bit about my own path through college: I went to college right after high school, dropped out in my first semester, went back a year and a half later to finish my first year at a college near home, and then transferred to Colorado College where I (finally!) finished my bachelors degree. To say that my path was bumpy is a gross understatement. I struggled with feeling “behind” my classmates (although, looking back, I doubt anyone realized I was a couple years older than my peers). I had a lot of anxiety about classes, and I often felt like I didn’t belong. (You can hear me talk about this in a pep talk that I recorded for my classes this semester: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kenf8E1RuoA)
I’m keenly aware that many of the things I experienced — that I thought I was alone in experiencing — are becoming more common among our students. Student stress and anxiety levels are rising every year. With that in mind, I’ve been working on centering the humanity of my students in my classes. In this blog post, I’ll share a few things I do before the first day of class.
Nancy Wrinkle shared Syllabus Review for Equity-Minded Practice with me (h/t @wrinkle_nancy on twitter). This guide is published by The Center for Urban Education in the School of Education at USC Rossier.
From the guide, here are a few introductory ideas:
What is syllabus review? Syllabus review is an inquiry tool for promoting racial/ethnic equity and equity-minded practice. To achieve this goal, the syllabus review process promotes faculty inquiry into teaching approaches and practices, especially how they affect African American, Latinx, Native American, Pacific Islander, and other racially/ ethnically minoritized students; facilitates a self-assessment of these teaching approaches and practices from a racial/ethnic equity lens; and allows faculty to consider changes that result in more equitable teaching approaches and practice.
What is in the guide? The Syllabus Review Guide is comprised of six parts that provide the conceptual knowledge and practical know-how to conduct equity-minded self-reflection on an essential document in academic life: the syllabus. Throughout the Guide are examples that illustrate the ideas motivating syllabus review, as well as opportunities to practice inquiry and to reflect on how to change your syllabi—and your teaching more generally—so are more equity-minded.
If you’re into Universal Design for Learning (https://udlguidelines.cast.org), you’ll find this resource very helpful for making your syllabi clear, useful, and — my favorite — human. The guide reinforces the idea that you can write stuff in your syllabus specifically to support and encourage students. It doesn’t have to be a boring contract. It can communicate a lot more about the class. For example, it can address:
- The classroom environment (“joyful exploration”)
- Support systems (office hours, campus resources)
- Your values (Federico Ardila’s axioms)
This kind of syllabus review seeks to make the hidden curricula of college visible to students. It’s about transparency as much as it’s about what’s going to be covered and how grades are going to be calculated.
The guide also helps put racial equity front and center. Before using this resource to rework my syllabi, I had not intentionally grappled with “affirm[ing] the belonging of racially/ethnically minoritized students in higher education by representing their experiences in the course materials and by deconstructing the presentation of white students and white experiences as the norm.”
One of the changes I made to my policies specifically addressed this equity-minded competence from the guide:
Views the classroom as a racialized space and actively self-monitors interactions with students of color
(in contrast to “[v]iews the classroom as a utilitarian physical space”). Although I knew I would be teaching remotely when I did my syllabus review, I reflected on the ways a Zoom class space (a ClassZoom, if you will) can be racialized. The previous spring, some of my Black students had confided that keeping cameras on because of professors’ policies felt like it highlighted that there were so few Black students in class (sometimes exactly one). My “aha!” moment was understanding that a “cameras on” policy heightened the stereotype threat that students of color already feel in predominantly white classes. With that in mind, and with the goal of making it clear in my syllabus that active and engaged classroom participation doesn’t require cameras on, I added Remote Classroom expectations to my syllabus, including the following:
Cameras: Whatever you feel comfortable with. I like to see your faces but that’s no reason to require it! If you don’t have your camera on, I request that you make liberal use of Zoom reactions so I don’t feel so alone up here…. I will tell jokes during class (to help you out, I’ll often tell you that they are jokes). This is a great time to use a Zoom reaction.
If the reader is curious to see my entire course policies packet, you can find it here (with the caveat that I still have a lot of homework to do as part of the syllabus review!): https://people.hamilton.edu/cgibbons/files/syllabi/Math325-Policies.pdf
It’s not news that students carry a lot of math anxiety. I like to give them a chance to let me know where they are in their math journey (what classes they’ve taken, what they have liked, what they feel anxious about) by having them complete a Math Autobiography before the first day of class. I also invite them to tell me a little about themselves and about what makes them feel like they belong (or don’t belong) in the classroom. I like to end the survey with a math question we can talk about together on the first day of class.
There are many ways to create a pre-class survey. I’ve chosen to keep the survey class-related (broadly) as a way to let students tell me anything they might want me to know about themselves, their math experiences, what they understand about how they learn best, and their expectations for the class. I’ve gotten the feedback that this survey helps students feel less anxious about the first day of class — especially because they’ve also done a math problem to get ready! Not every student completes the Autobiography before the first day of class, but in my experience over half of students do. (This also helps me with my first day of class anxiety — it’s nice to know a little bit about the students before the class meets!)
The specific questions I used this semester for my Modern Algebra class are:
- What is your name?
- Tell me a bit about yourself.
You can tell me anything you’d like me to know. If you’re having trouble getting started, the following questions might help spark some ideas: Do you have a nickname you’d like me to use? What are your pronouns? Where did you go to high school? How did you decide to attend Hamilton? What have been your favorite subjects in school? Favorite activities? Hobbies?
- Tell me a bit about your relationship with math.
Again, you can tell me anything you’d like to know. For example: What math classes have you taken and when? What have your experiences in math classes been like? How do you feel about math? In what ways have you used math outside of school?
- Tell me about yourself as a learner.
For example: What makes you feel included (or excluded) in a class? Do you learn best from reading, listening, or doing? Do you prefer to work alone or in groups? What do you do when you get stuck? Do you take notes? Do you procrastinate? Do you read the textbook? Prefer videos?
- Tell me about your expectations for this class.
For example: What do you expect from your professor? What do you expect from yourself? What do you expect from your classmates? How does this course fit into your educational and life goals? What makes you feel comfortable in a class setting?
- Last question: Tell me how you would solve for x given x^2 – 3x + 2 = 0. (If you’re really bored, tell me instead how you would solve for x given x^2 – x – 1 = 0.)
This isn’t a quiz; this is where modern algebra picks up from things you might not have thought about for awhile, so it’s a very gentle review for you. Plus, telling me about your thinking helps me know how to start class on day one.
Now that you have a revamped syllabus and a first assignment that lets you get a peek at your students’ identities and experiences before the first day of class, it’s time to give the students a glimpse of you before the semester starts.
I like to let the students know the syllabus is available for them to read (along with some incentives for reading it: the grading policy is not strictly points-based, and I want them to ask questions about it on the first day; there are some important dates to put into their calendars; etc). I also like to fill out the Math Autobiography survey as a way of introducing myself to my students and as a way of introducing the assignment to them.
Most of all, I want the first email to convey that I’m excited to begin the semester with them as their collaborator in learning.
Many scholars have written about rehumanizing mathematics (see, for example, Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez’s Why We Need to Rehumanize Mathematics). What I hope to accomplish with my pre-semester relationship-building is twofold. First, I genuinely do want to build relationships with my students; that’s one of the reasons I wanted to teach at a small liberal arts college. Second, I want to convey to my students that they belong in my classroom as their whole, human selves — and that I will also show up as my whole, human self!
]]>All authors contributed equally to the preparation of the document.
How do students typically engage with new definitions in undergraduate mathematics classes? Are students provided with a definition, and then instructors help students make sense of it? Do students have opportunities to create their own definitions? Often when instructors choose to involve students in the process of creating a definition, the role of the instructor may be to encourage students to structure or word their definitions in a particular way, with the goal of leading students toward a definition found in a textbook. This can be a daunting task. After all, enacting this kind of lesson means anticipating what students may do or say, deciding when to let students keep talking and when to interject, and responding to unexpected contributions. Designing a lesson that is mathematically substantive but also provides opportunities for students to do a lot of the talking (including students providing feedback to other students) is really hard! Even with the most well-laid plans, surprises can still happen.
One way to take on this challenge, and have support as the unexpected arises, is to collaborate with other instructors. The authors of the post are all instructors of geometry courses for prospective high school teachers, who participate in a “GeT: a Pencil” community meeting every other week, and sometimes more often. These community meetings gather university geometry instructors from across the country to collaborate on issues related to the teaching of the geometry course primarily taken by preservice teachers. Among us are mathematics and education faculty, whose academic backgrounds range from mathematical physics to difference equations to hyperbolic geometry to student cognition to teacher education. We saw a pandemic-era opportunity to co-plan and co-teach a common lesson. On Zoom, we can be more than 3000 miles away and learn from each other in the same room. While practices involving the design of lessons (such as the Japanese “lesson study”) have been established for decades in some K-12 settings, it is still rather rare in undergraduate settings, though there are some exceptions.
In this post, we share our experience of developing a lesson that could be taught in any of our courses and how this lesson did not go according to plan. We intended the lesson to focus on creating a new definition. Although the class did not reach a consensus on a definition, the process opened many mathematical questions.
We first show the key example of the concept to be defined. Then we describe why we chose to use this example, how we built a lesson around it, and the unexpected outcomes. Finally, we discuss what we learned (and hope to continue to learn) about collaborative planning and teaching.
Consider the following image:
Figure 1. Boa Me Na Me Mmoa Wo Adinkra symbol
How would you describe the aesthetic appeal of this figure, mathematically?
(source: https://csdt.org/culture/adinkra/geometry.html)
Boa Me Na Me Mmoa Wo is an Adinkra. Adinkra are symbols created by the Ashanti people of Ghana to represent concepts. Its name in English is “Help me and let me help you”.
Our activity to engage students in constructing definitions focuses on the mathematical properties of this Adinkra symbol that make it visually appealing. Often, as mathematicians, we think of “symmetry” as a way to describe aesthetic elegance. Yet the only standard “symmetry” here is a single reflection. Intuitively, it seems incomplete to describe the “symmetry” of this Adinkra as merely a single reflection. The ethnomathematics educator Ron Eglash suggests that Boa Me Na Me Mmoa Wo exhibits mutuality: “The upper triangle is missing a square, but has an extra circle. The lower triangle is missing a circle, but has an extra square. Each has what the other needs to complete [itself].” Our main task focused on how one might define mutuality. At this point, we encourage the reader to attempt to create a mathematical definition that describes salient aesthetics of the Boa Me Na Me Mmoa Wo symbol.
We had several reasons for co-designing a lesson around mutuality. At the onset, we wanted our students to learn from each other and talk about geometric concepts, definitions, and axiomatic systems in productive ways. We also wanted a lesson that would allow students to compare definitions, and do so in a way that could be connected to secondary geometry from a transformation perspective. We considered several task ideas related to secondary geometry standards for transformations, such as comparing definitions of glide reflections, or identifying symmetries of frieze patterns. We ultimately decided to focus on an activity exploring Adinkra and mutuality because it provided our students (and us) with an opportunity to expand our knowledge about connections to mathematics from non-Eurocentric cultures. Furthermore, because “mutuality” is not a standard symmetry (i.e., described by rotation, reflection, or translation, or a composition thereof), and because it does not (yet!) have a commonly accepted mathematical definition, we saw an opportunity for students to experience genuinely open mathematical inquiry.
We also note that we use Adinkra with the implicit permission of at least some creators of Adinkra. All resources on the site Culturally Situated Design Tools, from which we learned about Adinkra, are disseminated by Ron Eglash with the explicit permission of people he visited to learn about their designs, and knowing that students and teachers may take mathematical directions not necessarily directly aligned with a culture of origin.
We decided to open the lesson with a sorting task, completed individually by each student:
Figure 2. How might you sort these twelve Adinkra symbols?
(source for symbols: https://www.adinkrabrand.com/blogs/posts/african-adinkra-symbols-and-meanings)
We designed Google Jamboards with the arrangement shown in Figure 2, featuring the same set of symbols on each, and prompting each student: Group these symbols by their aesthetic; put each image in exactly one group; then identify names for each group.
We next put students into teams and asked them to review the individual classifications and discuss: What did the groupings have in common? How were they different? These questions had two purposes. First, they could elicit discourse needed to create a definition; for instance, articulating properties, handling disagreements, and coming to consensus. Second, they allowed the instructor to hear students going through this process, to give support as needed, and to adapt later parts of the lesson as needed.
In choosing symbols to include, we included several symbols with rotational and reflectional symmetries, the Boa Me Na Me Mmoa Wo symbol (Figure 1), as well as symbols that we anticipated students might group with it. We hoped to plant a seed for students to see a need to define (and refer to) the standard mathematical symmetries with precision.
Next, we planned for students to formulate a definition of mutuality based on Boa Me Na Me Mmoa Wo, first individually, then in small groups, and then as a whole class. We note that in the end, students formulated and revised individual definitions after reading Eglash’s description quoted above.
We asked the students:
Figure 3. If you had to create another symbol with that same aesthetic, what would you produce? How would you define an aesthetic category for the Boa Me Na Me Mmoa Wo symbol?
To prepare for this, we started by brainstorming some potential definitions and experienced for ourselves the uncertainty of what interpretations might arise. For instance, one of us defined mutuality as:
Consider a figure A. If there are two subsets of B, C of A, and two isometries f and g, such that A U f(B) U g(C) has more symmetries than the original figure A, then A has mutuality.
For example, in the Boa Me Na Me Moa Wo symbol, we might take B to be the bottom square, C to be the top circle, f to be an isometry that maps B to the “empty” square, and g to be an isometry that maps C to the “empty” circle. Then A U f(B) U g(C) has a line of symmetry. A second among us defined mutuality as requiring the requirement that the rigid motions used to relate part of the symbol to each other be an involution and yet a third among us defined mutuality as requiring at least one line of reflective symmetry. A fourth among us pointed out that developmentally, students may look at concrete visual features, such as whether a figure has a vertical or horizontal line of symmetry, or whether a figure includes spirals or polygons. We wondered whether students would describe mutuality as the existence of a sequence of actions or operations on the entire figure, or as something that two sub-figures exhibit, and whether they would reason about the black/white contrast as a presence/absence of points or as different colors.
We planned to close the lesson by debriefing the lesson with students, discussing how the process they engaged in might apply to defining activities in secondary geometry classrooms, and providing resources for them to explore Adinkra, including their origins, names and meanings.
Dr. Boyce and Dr. Sears co-taught the first iteration of the lesson in a 150-minute class with six students who were enrolled in a masters degree program in mathematics education. Three of the other co-authors attended as observers. We were fortunate that this class had already developed a warm, welcoming, and supportive environment. This was due in large part to emphasizing “The Five R’s” each class session: rigor, relevance, collaborative responsibility, cultural responsiveness, and authentic relationships. “The Five R’s” represent a point of view that Dr. Sears has emphasized within her classes to support the development of rigorous mathematics and a sense of community in which everyone works collaboratively to co-construct mathematical meaning and develop a conceptual understanding.
Here was our first surprise: None of the students sorted by symmetry! Instead, students had categories such as “ovals”, “stars”, “swirls”, “thick lines”, “4’s”, and “2’s”. Figure 4 shows some of the students’ groups.
Figure 4. Some groups of symbols created by students
And here came a benefit of co-teaching: making collaborative in-the-moment decisions. An observer noticed that the students, working in groups of three, were focusing on types of polygons required (i.e., that it should consist of triangles, circles, and squares) in their definitions and we were concerned that the discourse might be headed away from our goal of eliciting transformational reasoning.
Dr. Sears predicted that if Dr. Boyce asked the student who had used the phrases “4’s” and “2’s” to speak up earlier about their reasoning behind their categorization in the whole-class discussion, then this may invoke transformational reasoning for the rest of the students in the class. Dr. Sears observed students in one group come to immediate agreement on “4’s” and “2’s” as a characterization, perhaps because of the practical nature of the description: the number of apparent pieces in the symbol. The students in this group then talked about specific locations of bolder lines and thinner lines in the designs. Noticing the emphasis on concrete visuals, Dr. Sears suggested that Dr. Boyce could ask a question such as, “If I were to reconstruct the grouping, would you know how?” By “reconstruct the grouping”, Dr. Sears meant re-sorting the symbols in a way that would replicate a particular grouping of symbols. Her instinct was that these students would think in terms of geometric transformations to describe relationships between figures. These tactics worked: students then talked about symmetry with respect to x- and y-axes and envisioned lines of reflection on symbols.
We then split students into two groups and asked them to define mutuality. One group wrote the definition: “should consist of an oval with shapes on the end”. The second group defined it as a “shape with one line of symmetry, where the line must be vertical, and where the shape consists of squares, triangles and circles”. The two groups’ definitions focused on what types of shapes could be used to form this particular Adinkra. Although there were opportunities to discuss precision (e.g., what does it mean for shapes to be “on the end”?) and come to a consensus on these definitions, we anticipated the discussion would stray from concept of mutuality as described by Eglash. So, we abandoned our plan for students to compare and revise these definitions. Instead, we decided to set up the task of defining mutuality based on Eglash’s description of the concept, by introducing an unplanned prompt for students to consider individually: “What properties make a definition mathematical?”
Students posted their ideas on a Padlet and then asked each other clarifying questions. The class came to a consensus that one student’s description captured their thoughts: “A definition is mathematical when mathematical vocabulary can be used and to create enough specificity to be proven.” They acknowledged that determining what constitutes “mathematical vocabulary” remained unresolved.
This prompt improved the students’ next attempts, though it also showed us places where we might need to continue building students’ mathematical language and reasoning. When students next read Eglash’s description of mutuality and constructed revised definitions of mutuality, they showed more attention to precision. For instance, one student wrote, “Translating the absence (complementary piece) of both shapes to create symmetry in the whole figure”. A second student wrote, “Two or more shapes are mutual if certain areas of each shape can be translated onto another shape, making all of the shapes congruent.” This student continued, “This applies to shapes that are monochromatic, but what about shapes with multiple colors or something?” A third student wrote, “Moving pieces of the same size, shape, and color around to preserve the symmetry of the original figure.” In these revisions, we can see an attention to geometric transformations and more precise language that was absent in their first attempts.
Finally, a student inquired about the candidate definition in a way that mathematicians would: Wondering about the boundaries of examples and non-examples. This student wondered: “Do areas of the translated pieces have to be equal? Can an exchange between shapes be mutual if one shape gives 100 cm^{2} and receives 1 cm^{2}? Just because an exchange is equitable, does that make it mutual?” The student sketched the figures shown in Figure 5, asking: “Are these two shapes mutual?”
Figure 5. Do these two figures exhibit mutuality?
This student’s comments relate to an observation that Eglash made in a recent talk attended by the authors. Eglash mentioned that the point of “mutuality” is that the exchanged objects are unequal, so that exchanges create a system of mutual obligations.
In a whole class discussion following these revisions, Dr. Boyce noted that students all wanted to work with the idea of “complete”, and suggested that some students thought about it in terms of geometric transformations, and others thought of “complete” in terms of congruence.
Two students then publicly debated the meaning of “complete”:
“It’s just an intuition, what it means to be complete.”
“Well, what about ‘whole’? Can ‘whole’ be a mathematical word for ‘complete’?”
“Well a whole doughnut has a hole in it, you know?”
“That’s a different whole, that’s ‘hole’.”
“But is a whole doughnut ‘whole’, is it missing a part, or is it complete?”
“Because it’s a circle without a center piece.”
“But for me, if I were looking for a doughnut, I don’t want to fill that in, I’d be cool with that.”
At this point, there were 5 minutes left to the class, and Dr. Sears pointed out that one might need to begin by defining the “whole” as a way to determine “complete”. Dr. Boyce then closed the class with a brief overview of Adinkras.
As this lesson unfolded, our best-laid plans went awry, with no class consensus on a definition of “mutuality”. Yet the lesson also suggested that areas with no consensus could be openings to further mathematical discussion. For instance, the meaning of “complete” and its dependence on a given “whole”, with the example of a doughnut, could be referenced later as an example of how some mathematical definitions depend on an ambient space. The question of whether mutuality requires “congruence” alludes to the idea that congruence is not the only way to conceive of equivalence. Similarity is also a way to consider equivalence. And ultimately, one might envision a new equivalence relation on shapes based on mutuality.
We met as a group the next morning to debrief after the lesson. What had we learned from the process of planning, facilitating, and reflecting on the outcome of the lesson? We had field notes and screenshots of student work that were collected by observers during the lesson. We were able to record both whole-class and small-group discussions for subsequent viewing, and we reviewed the video-recordings together and documented what we noticed.
Sometimes when teaching a collaboratively designed lesson, there can be pressure to “stick to the lesson plan”. But as our experience shows, instructors may have to make adjustments to the plan, even in the moment. Regardless of co-planning, instructors need to adapt lessons on the fly. When co-teaching, we have the opportunity to figure out modifications with a partner. When co-planning, we have additional opportunities to learn from previous modifications.
When making adjustments, instructors need to keep in mind their intended learning goals, and also whether different intentions might better suit a lesson. In the lesson’s first iteration, the students were able to compare definitions and also increase their precision. In the process of writing definitions with more precision, the students drew on the language of geometric transformations. We believe the improvement in their definitions was based on an in-the-moment modification: asking students to articulate the properties that make a definition mathematical.
One intention of this lesson was for students to come to consensus on a class definition. This did not happen, and perhaps it could not have in the time that we had. However, something arguably more important happened. Namely, the students began to see areas where a draft definition could be improved. The way that the students took up the mathematical ambiguity of “complete” has hallmarks of genuine mathematical inquiry. They drew on their mathematical knowledge to articulate properties of a new concept, they identified areas where equivalence could be interpreted in different ways, and they identified where their definition needed more precision. As we move forward to subsequent iterations, we will continue to reflect on how students take up precision, what might hamper precision, and what will support precision. Just as importantly, we will attend to where mathematical inquiry is happening and how to help students see the doors that they open.
It is a rare opportunity for multiple instructors to plan a lesson together, see the result together, and learn about teaching and learning together. Because of the need for online teaching, we were able to collaborate across six different states. We benefited from each others’ different experiences and expertise when planning the lesson. For instance, the Adinkra context was one that Dr. Boyce had previously used. The focus on definition came from Dr. McLeod, with support from others. The sorting task resembled a task that Dr. Lai had written in an entirely different context. The kinds of questions we planned to ask students, and the emphasis on collaboration through the “five R’s”, came from Dr. Sears’s experiences. Together we were able to envision a lesson idea that was more powerful than what we could have designed individually. In the coming months, as we see the lesson unfold in more of our classes, we will learn more about teaching and learning than we could have individually. Most importantly, perhaps especially in these times, we also found a teaching community in each other through this experience.
Acknowledgments. The reported work is supported by NSF DUE-1725837 and NSF DUE-1937512. All opinions are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation. We are grateful to Mark Saul and Carolyn Abbott for helpful comments.
]]>Many academics and teachers have been struggling with facilitating classes virtually. The 2020 global pandemic has brought many challenges and disruptions to teaching, but opportunities to explore and learn as well. This blog post discusses what we have learned so far, with the hope that these reflections are useful to other higher education instructors.
We teach in two very different university settings. Enes teaches at Drake University, which is a small liberal arts college in Iowa. Zach teaches at Utah Valley University, a public school that is the largest in the state (and open-access, as well). Since the spring of 2020, we have been collaborating on opportunities to use and explore some technological tools. Via frequent discussions over the past year on the new teaching and learning space, we shared some of the successes and frustrations throughout the experience. Specifically in this post, we share some of the highlights of facilitating synchronous class sessions using video conferencing tools. From what we have learned so far, most students enjoy real-time, synchronous, virtual interactions and perhaps prefer that over non-synchronous interactions. Like most instructors, we found Zoom (or likewise) to be a useful tool in facilitating online mathematics courses that is an experience shared across other institutions. The main motivation for this post is to share some of our experiences teaching mathematics online as well as talk about our thoughts on the possibilities of interactive teaching pedagogies.
First and foremost, providing breakout sessions during synchronous class sessions is a must. Our students have been enjoying breakout sessions. Students provided insights that these sessions are great opportunities for them to interact with their peers and learn from them. We design these sessions to resemble the small-group work of our face-to-face class formats. Students generally work on a specific class handout or activity and collaborate with each other during that time. But how to best lead this process? We often discussed the possibility of using online tools such as Google documents or Desmos so that we could facilitate class discussions better and get instant feedback from students.
Enes experimented with this strategy in his precalculus courses at Drake University. He created a Google document (see examples in Figure 1) that has a class activity on it (similar to class handouts including instructions), and this is linked to a Google Form where students access the activity. This is given at the beginning of each online class session (but also provided on a learning management system for those who miss the class).
After a quick check-in with students, and any other business that needs discussing, students are put into the breakout sessions of 3 or 4 students to work on the day’s activity. Students are encouraged to collaborate while working on the given activity with their group members, but are asked to submit individual answers to Google forms (see Figure 2).
We found using Google forms to collect student work to be the simplest when it comes to facilitating class discussions, easily collecting work, and getting instant feedback from the students. Whenever Enes pulled the class back from breakout sessions, he utilized the responses to these documents to shape the whole-class discussions (see Figure 3; the responses are instantly listed on a spreadsheet automatically created by Google). This was useful for bringing up issues about particular mathematical concepts. For instance, while looking at Column H in Figure 3, one can see that some students do not use ordered pairs for representing x and y intercepts. This issue can then be brought to the attention of the whole class.
Overall, we found this strategy to be helpful when facilitating not only small-group but also whole-class discussions in online environments. We are aware that there are some other tools that can be utilized for this purpose (e.g., Desmos Classroom Activities) but we found Google to be easier to navigate and manage data (student submissions).
Next, we would like to provide some insights into specific pedagogies that we have implemented during our online class sessions to improve student engagement and peer interaction. One such pedagogy is assigning roles to students during breakout sessions. This semester, Enes has assigned his students into groups of 4 or 5, and each group has a group captain and a timer. He has asked group captains to be in charge of groups when the instructor (or TA) was absent from the group, and to make sure that students remained on track. This responsibility is more of a motivational and informal role assigned to the participants, and doesn’t really have a formal assessment mechanism. The group captains ask questions to their group members and keep track of their progress through the group work. They also make sure that everyone’s voice is heard during these times. Timers make sure that there is enough time left on each task, and that the group has allocated enough time to each part of the assignment.
Another pedagogy we think is important is considering how to assign students into groups. Enes has been experimenting with Zoom’s pre-assigned group feature. With this, it is possible to automatically assign students to pre-arranged groups during each Zoom session. This reduces the time spent on assigning people into rooms during live sessions. Another advantage of this is that the instructor can decide to keep the same students in the same groups for a certain period of time or throughout the semester. This way, the same assigned roles can take effect each time students are put into breakout sessions. Enes has observed that when students get to know each other and work together, they prefer to continue to be in the same groups for the rest of the semester. One can simply upload a list of names to Zoom in advance and this way, once breakout sessions are activated, students are always assigned to the indicated rooms in the list (to learn more about this: https://it.umn.edu/services-technologies/how-tos/zoom-create-manage-pre-assigned-breakout).
We believe that breakout sessions provide more equitable and inclusive learning opportunities for all students. Math educators have long been advocating for including small-group portions for instructions to provide learning opportunities that do not typically occur in traditional classrooms (see Yackel, Cobb, & Wood, 1991 for just one example). We think that breakout sessions during online environments are a way to provide that opportunity.
While we previously were discussing some tools and pedagogies for breakout sessions including small-group work, we now want to shift our attention to large-scale classroom teaching practices, and we have experimented with a few pedagogies.
First of all, we like to ask students to turn on their cameras and click the gallery view. In order to encourage camera use (but not mandate it, as most universities prohibit) we have made remarks such as: “It feels weird to talk to a blank screen,” “I can’t tell if you are talking to me or sleeping,” or “Is there anybody out there?” We noticed that students appreciated honest and natural comments like these, through their own responses. In terms of encouraging students to put the gallery mode on, Enes would even ask random students to comment and describe other students’ camera views to make sure they can easily see others. So far, we think we had great success in students turning their cameras on in his class, as around 80% of students participated (although this has declined towards the end of semester). However, we recently found out about a report of the environmental impact of people turning their cameras on during virtual meetings and the results were somewhat concerning (https://phys.org/news/2021-01-camera-virtual-environmental.html). This made us question whether to always require students to turn on their cameras or just ask on certain occasions (e.g., when speaking). This issue is definitely up for consideration.
Enes has been facilitating online class sessions in such a way as to reduce direct instruction (or lecturing) and increase student engagement and interaction. He is almost completely avoiding lecturing or directly talking. He provides pre-recorded videos and slides to provide detailed information before class sessions. He then mostly spends time on discussing key information and the bigger picture of concepts while letting participants discuss and contemplate important matters during live classes. This provides students the time and opportunity to think and reason about mathematical concepts.
One interesting practice Enes saw the mathematician Dave Kung (http://www.davekung.com; Twitter: @dtkung) use in a talk provided by Project NExT (https://www.maa.org/programs-and-communities/professional-development/project-next) was asking the participants to move their heads on the camera in certain directions to get visual feedback. We have tried that technique in our classes when posing questions or asking them if they are ready for a certain class activity. Most of the students found that super fun, although camera mirroring caused a great deal of confusion among the class!
Another interesting pedagogical technique that Enes recently found out about was during Maria Anderson’s (https://busynessgirl.com; Twitter: @busynessgirl) talk at the Project NExT meeting in 2020. She would pose a question and ask the participants to come up with an answer to be typed in Zoom’s chat box. However, she wouldn’t ask people to submit answers right away. The facilitator asked students to not answer for a couple of minutes in order to provide opportunities for the participants to compose an answer. Then, she would count down from three for everyone to submit their answers at exactly the same time. The participants were excited about this and the chatbox would become a constant stream of answers! (We have even heard of this being unofficially called the Waterfall Method, at times.) Enes experimented with this in his precalculus course recently and noticed that students would get super engaged about trying to come up with some answers. He has observed that even the students who wouldn’t previously have attempted to answer questions are now willing to at least try and come up with something to contribute, which increases the student participation overall.
In conclusion, we have found that online teaching is less than ideal and is something we are still learning along the way. However, we believe that there are pedagogies that exist in facilitating active learning environments. The key is that technology does provide opportunities for getting connected with students and having them interact with one another.
Yackel, E., Cobb, P., & Wood, T. (1991). Small-group interactions as a source of learning opportunities in second-grade mathematics. Journal for research in mathematics education, 22(5), 390-408.
]]>We—Emily McMillon and George Nasr—are graduate students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We implemented mastery based testing for two sections of a course on geometry for pre-service elementary teachers during the Spring 2020 semester, and found that our students
In this post, we will discuss what led us to try mastery based testing for this student population, how we implemented mastery based testing in our courses, and some student survey responses.
We first heard about Mastery Grading late in 2019 when Austin Mohr gave a talk at UNL on the topic. At the time, we were both teaching mathematics courses for pre-service elementary teachers. Hearing about Mastery Grading, we both, independently, thought this type of grading would be excellent for pre-service teachers. Hence, with permission from our department, we decided to implement mastery grading in two sections of the same course in the Spring 2020 semester.
Before describing what exactly Mastery Grading is, we would like to discuss some general learning goals we find valuable in a course for future elementary school teachers. Our first goal is to guarantee that our students fully understand most of the course concepts upon leaving the class. We feel that it is particularly crucial that students in an education program fully understand concepts, given that they are responsible for being able to articulate similar concepts to their future students.
A second goal is to encourage students to revisit and reflect on their previous work and mistakes. It is particularly imperative that future teachers understand that mathematical ability can be improved upon, as studies have shown that elementary teachers pass on their views of mathematics to their students.
Our third goal is to broaden the scope of students’ understanding of the purpose of assessments beyond a numeric score. As future teachers, it is important that they are at the very least aware of different styles of assessment, and, ideally, critically assess different styles of assessment to determine which is ideal for their own future students.
Overall, we believe it is important that elementary education mathematics classes are designed in a way that encourages future teachers to continue working on concepts until they have demonstrated understanding. We want our students leaving these classes feeling confident that they have truly mastered the concepts that they may one day teach for themselves. We also want assessments to be seen as low-stakes opportunities for students to show us the progress they have made, while also incentivizing them to look back at their mistakes and try to understand what it is they have yet to learn. We believe this can be accomplished with Mastery Grading.
Mastery Grading is a grading scheme by which students are expected to show complete understanding of course objectives. This is done by offering multiple opportunities throughout the semester to reattempt course objectives for all or nothing credit. There is no penalty for students taking longer to master a course objective. The goal is for students to eventually show that they understand the material, not for students to necessarily demonstrate complete understanding of material the first time it is assessed.
There are many variations on mastery based grading; our implementation as described below is but one example. Many additional resources are available online. We found the following blog very helpful and so pass it along to the interested reader: https://mbtmath.wordpress.com/.
We believe that Mastery Grading helps achieve the three goals we mentioned in the preceding section on our motivation. Mastery is designed to encourage students to revisit concepts to receive full credit for learning them. In a point-based class, students can earn partial credit for partially learning something and then may never have to revisit that concept again. In this way, students will ideally leave this course with a robust understanding of the course content.
Another feature of mastery is that it only rewards students points for a problem once they have shown full understanding of the underlying concept. This incentivizes learning from mistakes and has the potential to help students cultivate a growth mindset toward mathematics. We also feel that mastery provides students with another perspective on how to run a class and assign grades.
Geometry Matters is a required course for most elementary education majors at UNL. The course covers geometry and measurement and follows chapters 10-14 of Sybilla Beckmann’s textbook Mathematics for Elementary Teachers. This course is part of a three-course sequence that covers chapters 1-14 of the aforementioned textbook. The first course in the sequence is Math Matters, which must be taken prior to Geometry Matters, covers chapters 1-7 in the textbook. The other course in the sequence, Math Modeling, covers chapters 8-10 and can be taken at any point.
The course is taught by faculty, lecturers, and advanced graduate teaching assistants, depending upon instructor availability in any given semester. The course grade is usually determined by some combination of assessment scores, homework scores, and written project scores (so-called “Habits of Mind” problems). Students tend to do well in the course — in the last six years, pass rates have ranged from 79% to 100%, with most semesters having over 90% of students pass the course. Hence, grades and pass rates were not a reason we decided to implement Mastery Grading.
We divided the course content into 18 Learning Outcomes. Student grades were based 60% on mastery of these outcomes, with homework and project problems making up the remaining 40%. Grading for individual Learning Outcomes was for all or nothing credit, and homework and project problems were graded with a traditional points-based system. Our original plan was to test outcomes 1–7 on the first assessment, 1–13 on the second assessment, and 1–18 on the third assessment. The final would not cover new material but would be a final opportunity to master previously not mastered outcomes. In addition, we planned to offer occasional opportunities to take one to two outcomes as “quizzes” in class as the opportunities arose.
As these courses were taught during the Spring 2020 semester, we were forced to move the courses online in March of 2020. We chose to make some modifications to the course assessment structure to better work in the online, asynchronous format required by our university.
Before the move to online, we had given the first assessment as well as two mastery quizzes. The second assessment had to be taken online. We decided to eliminate the third assessment and instead replace it with weekly mastery quizzes that would each test a single new concept and offer an opportunity for students to reattempt up to two learning outcomes they had not yet mastered. Recall that quizzes were made up of exam-level problems—the only difference between these and exams was the quantity of problems. The final exam remained as previously scheduled, albeit online.
The following is a description of one of our 18 Learning Outcomes assessing areas of polygons other than rectangles, which spans sections 12.3 and 12.4 of our textbook.
That is, to earn points for this learning outcome, students would have to show mastery of both parts A and B.
Here is a sample two-part problem assessing this learning outcome, along with work from a student that did not master the concept on their first try. Students knew they may use the formulas for the areas of standard shapes such as rectangles, triangles, and parallelograms. Students also knew they were expected to express reasoning for their conclusions, and to substantiate their reasoning with ideas such as principles of area.
On part (a), the student was very close and would have earned most points for this part, but we would have liked the student to say that you can form a rectangle out of two triangles of equal area, and hence, half of the area of the rectangle is the area of either triangle. One can infer from the dashed lines the student drew on the triangle provided that they are thinking about this as two triangles forming a rectangle, but being explicit in their explanation was critical for us to ensure their understanding.
However, the work on part (b) is what really led us to feel it was critical to have the student spend more time reviewing this outcome. The point of this part was for the student to recognize the shaded region could be decomposed into a triangle and parallelogram, and that adding the area of these shapes would yield the area of the original region. The student’s attempt still showed some understanding of how one can decompose and move regions in an effort to figure out the area, which showed a desire to use principles of area. However, if one carefully checks, it is not possible to fit both triangles the student creates in the specified regions, and this is critical for the student’s method to work. (Though coincidently, they do get the right answer for the area.)
Recalling that each learning outcome was worth 15 points. We would say the student would have earned around 8 points on this problem had this been graded with points. However, due to the mastery grading system, this student had a second chance to demonstrate their understanding. Below, we show a second version of a problem for this learning outcome and the student’s response.
We recognize that part (a) has some unconventional notational choices, but we feel it is clear the student showed comprehension of the underlying concept being assessed. On part (b), we see clear improvement from the first attempt in the student’s ability to find the area of a large shape by decomposing it into smaller, familiar regions. This student earned certification of mastery on this attempt.
We would like to give a brief overview of how our students did. By the end of the semester, 37 of our 42 students had mastered at least 17 of our 18 learning outcomes, and no student mastered fewer than 14 learning outcomes. Many concepts were mastered by students on their first attempt, and the majority of students needed at most two attempts to master a concept.
At the end of the semester, we surveyed our students on their experiences in the course. There was no concrete incentive to complete the survey, but 41 out of our 42 students completed the form.
This survey consisted of two parts — a series of Likert questions, and a series of open-response questions.
We asked students to respond to the following three statements on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning “strongly disagree” and 5 meaning “strongly agree”.
Below are the results.
We noticed two students who wrote overwhelmingly positive things in the next part of the survey but responded with “strongly disagree” to these questions, so we infer that these responses to the Likert survey were the opposite of their intended responses.
We also wanted to give students a chance to share, in their own words, how their experiences with mastery grading impacted their experiences. We asked our students a few questions regarding their experiences with mastery grading. We also asked them to compare these assessments with points-based assessments they’d had in Math 300 (a prerequisite course also about mathematics for future elementary teachers) and to reflect on how these experiences would impact their future teaching.
Working through the responses, we found several themes that were shared among many students, which we now discuss, categorized into expected and unexpected results.
Content Understanding: As instructors, we noticed that the work being turned in by our students was of exceptionally high quality as compared to previous semesters of mathematics courses we had taught for future teachers. A few students remarked on their personal feelings that they had taken more away from the course than they might have under a points-based system.
Learning from Mistakes: We found that mastery grading encouraged our students to look back at their mistakes on their exams. Of our survey respondents, 16 mentioned learning from mistakes as a positive takeaway of the course in their open survey responses. Many commented that they would have never looked back at mistakes they made on exams in other classes. The following two quotes are representative of the types of responses in this category. Some students mentioned specific learning outcomes they learned best, while others gave more general responses indicating that looking back at their mistakes benefited their learning.
Math Confidence and Growth Mindset: As one may expect from our third Likert question, several students indicated feeling more confident in mathematics. Students mentioned how they were able to learn content they did not think they would have been able to learn at the start of the semester. We also found some encouraging comments about students’ development of their growth mindset. In total, 8 respondents explicitly mentioned math confidence or an increased growth mindset in their responses. A representative comment is:
One of the interesting results was that some students even commented on growth mindset oriented toward their future students, as in the comment that follows.
Stress and Anxiety: 15 students indicated in their responses that exams felt a lot less stressful since they could redo their mistakes. Several of our students admitted to struggling with testing anxiety and said that this grading scheme gave them some relief to that. It should be noted that several students commented that at the beginning of the semester, the “all or nothing” nature of these exams seemed daunting. However, all these students said that things improved once they became more familiar with the grading scheme and started passing outcomes.
Exams as Opportunities: Mastery grading also affected how at least 6 respondents felt about exams. In particular, they felt that exams were an opportunity to show their knowledge and understanding as opposed to a hurdle to be overcome. The following quotes represent these responses.
In our experience, students sometimes view mathematics exams as being antagonistic, unfair, or that our goal as instructors is to trick them or make them get a lower grade. To us, these responses show that students saw this grading scheme as being friendlier and more conducive to allowing them to demonstrate their understanding.
Student Learning: Our future teachers also demonstrated an immense capacity to think about their future students. It appears mastery grading encouraged some to think more carefully about what their concrete goals are as instructors, such as with the following student.
They also showed an ability to preemptively empathize with their potential students. In particular, many students who admitted to struggling with testing and/or math anxiety commented on wanting to try mastery based grading with their own students as a way to alleviate their students’ testing anxiety.
Other students perhaps did not struggle with testing anxiety, but still saw the importance of giving students multiple opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge.
Challenges: It is important for us to acknowledge that not all feedback we received was positive. There were two common themes among those that found issues with Mastery Grading. First, students did not enjoy having to redo outcomes when they thought they misunderstood only a small portion of the outcome or made only a small error. Second, students still wished they could get some partial credit for the ideas for which they did demonstrate a good understanding. A small number of students commented that having multiple chances led them to care less about any individual assessment, and so they studied less. We also noted a trend that students who had taken more “traditional” math courses, i.e., calculus sequences courses, seemed more frustrated by having to retake outcomes when they made fairly small errors.
We believe we accomplished two of our three main goals. Students seemed to be successful in understanding to course content. In addition, students appeared encouraged to learn the content and felt motivated to understand their mistakes. We even saw that students felt more confident with mathematics and demonstrated a growth mindset. However, we are less confident that we broadened the scope of students’ understanding of the purpose of assessments beyond a numeric score, although based on some student comments, it appears that our students at least started thinking about this.
There were a few less expected results that we were delighted to see. Students generally reported feeling less anxious about exams since they knew they would have multiple opportunities to show what they know. Students felt assessments gave them the chance to accurately show their knowledge. They also reflected on their experiences with mastery and how it might inform their future teaching.
We feel that future teachers were the most amenable to this style of grading as they themselves tend to value the opportunity to grow and learn.
More to this point, we have already seen evidence of how mastery has affected their future experiences. We highlight one piece of evidence here. During Fall 2020, the semester after we implemented mastery grading, some of our students took another math for future teachers class with our colleague, Kelsey Quigley. At one point during the semester, Kelsey offered an opportunity for her students to earn points back on their first exam. As she discussed logistical considerations with them, a student suggested that the way they should earn points back would be to redo the problems they individually did not do well on, as opposed to the problems the class did not do well on overall. They said, “It’s like you’re mastering the concepts you missed versus going back and doing the ones that you understood.” Kelsey had the impression that this student gained this perspective through their experiences with mastery based testing in our course.
The challenges mentioned in the previous section are important to address. While many of the challenges presented by the students are inherent to mastery grading, we feel that there are a few things that instructors can do to address the issues.
In conclusion, we found mastery grading to be a rewarding experience both for us as instructors as well as for our students. This testing style felt like a perfect fit for pre-service teachers, and we would encourage any instructors of pre-service elementary teachers to consider giving mastery based grading a try in their courses.
Acknowledgements
We wish to thank Allan Donsig and Michelle Homp for backing our desire to teach this class using mastery-based testing, Wendy Smith for her help in designing our study and methods of data collection, and Yvonne Lai for her helpful feedback and guidance in writing this article. Finally, we would like to thank Austin Mohr for introducing us to this testing method and inspiring us to try it ourselves.
]]>Due to the global health crisis, a huge amount of instruction that was happening in person a year ago is now happening online. One theme highlighted by this change is the question of control. When students are in buildings with us, we^{[1]} have a high degree of control over the environment in which instruction takes place and the materials the students have access to. We even have a significant level of power over students’ movements and choices, at least while they’re in front of us. This is most obvious in primary and secondary school, where there is usually a whole “disciplinary” administrative apparatus designed to support instructors’ ability to dictate the movements and choices of students. But even at college and university, where for example there is often no explicit rule against a student getting up and leaving the classroom or building at any time, physical and social aspects of the classroom setting serve as a mechanism of influence. Continuing the example, to leave a classroom in the middle of class you have to physically stand up and collect your stuff, which means everybody knows you’re not coming back, and then face everyone as you walk past them on the way out. The instructor will certainly notice, will probably be hurt, and won’t necessarily respond kindly. It’s very rare for students to do this—in fairness, this is probably (hopefully) mostly because they don’t want to—but it’s very rare even when they do.
A fundamental aspect of the switch to distance learning is its disruption of all the usual structures and processes by which this control is exercised. In our running example, you can leave a Zoom class just by clicking “Leave”, with no need to awkwardly face anyone and a reasonable likelihood, depending on the size of the class, that the instructor won’t even notice. To cover your bases, you can instead leave without leaving—just mute yourself, turn off video, and go about your business while remaining formally in the meeting.
For a different and much-discussed example, while we are used to being able to design students’ environments rather meticulously during exam proctoring to head off both distraction and temptation, there is no analogous form of control over the exam environment built into distance learning.
How are we collectively responding to the challenges this change presents?
One major approach has been to use surveillance technology to try to claw back the lost control. For example, “remote proctoring” of exams has exploded, with colleges and universities spending millions of dollars on software that monitors students via webcam. When colleges first moved to distance learning last spring, 54% of institutions surveyed by the higher education IT association Educause said they were using remote proctoring software, while another 23% said they were planning on or considering it.
This is not going over especially smoothly. Objections have been raised to the disturbing privacy implications of video-monitoring students in their homes—
Finished (hopefully) my last ProctorU exam and never thought I'd be saying I'm happy I don't have to be subjected to Black Mirror-like testing anymore where they track your eye movement, see all 4 walls of your room, and tell you to take off your "hair cap" in your own home :))))
— Jonté (@noturaveragept2) December 17, 2020
4. These packages allow an instructor to watch a student from up close, over a webcam, for the entire duration of an exam without the student's knowledge. The potential creep factor on that goes right off the scale.
— Carl T. Bergstrom (@CT_Bergstrom) October 31, 2020
—the inevitable glitchiness of the technology—
The fact that I have to put in my contacts to take proctorio is dumb. But what's extra dumb is that even with contacts, it still can fail to detect my eyes ?
— Shalyssa ? (@CallMeAlyssaD) December 16, 2020
I was doing a 120 min exam and 12minutes in the @ProctorU proctor wasn’t able to see my video. She put me through tech support for over 60min, got a new proctor and guess what!? I had 41 min when my exam resumed. Not 110 minutes. #fail literally
— suzsuzbar (@suzsuzbar) December 20, 2020
—its inequitable glitchiness—
The coordinated course I'm teaching has decided to stop requiring the use of Honorlock. It's not only an incredibly invasive surveillance system, but also discriminates against Black students by failing to recognize their faces & repeatedly locking them out of assessments. ? https://t.co/9CXLtTZxhE
— Dr. Marissa Kawehi (@MarissaKawehi) October 13, 2020
ExamSoft, Proctorio, & ProctorU must address the alarmingly long list of equity, accessibility, & privacy issues students are facing on their exam platforms. Students of color & those with disabilities must not be locked out of tests or wrongly accused of cheating. pic.twitter.com/Kp5Yb7sMRx
— Richard Blumenthal (@SenBlumenthal) December 4, 2020
—the stress and anxiety of having involuntary body movements scrutinized—
Yikes — schools are using 'learning integrity' software that tracks students' head and eye movements in an effort to deter cheating. Instructors are evidently dinging students for moving their heads and eyes too much. https://t.co/fUXnQ6yx93
— Christopher Ingraham (@_cingraham) September 11, 2020
—and needing to jump through extra hoops in the already high-pressure situation of an exam—
Here are the requirements for my math midterm next week. You tell me if these instructions are easy to follow and don't make you nervous. pic.twitter.com/WnW0YSXmhr
— Spotted At Laurier (@SpottedLaurier) October 22, 2020
—and the list goes on. This article in the Washington Post (also linked above) does some more comprehensive reporting, including revealing that law students who sat for New York’s first online bar exam in October urinated in their seats to avoid violating the online proctoring rules.
The pushback goes beyond individuals on Twitter. There is organized resistance from students and parents. The press has joined the fray. Nonprofit organizations have too. In some cases the decision to implement remote proctoring is being blocked or reversed by faculty. Lawmakers have gotten involved.
Nonetheless, usage of online proctoring services has continued to grow.
Why is this turning into such a fight?
From one angle, this question is entirely rhetorical. In preparing this blog post, I read a large number of tweets from students about their experiences with remote proctoring software. The main thought/feeling I was left with was horror that academia has embraced this Faustian deal. Surveilling students in their homes and subjecting them to suspicion based on automated interpretation of their involuntary body movements is transparently creepy, unfair, unreliable, and harmful to students. They are stressed out, and it’s making them do worse. Concerns about cheating are real, but they look petty and tiny in the face of these harms.
In view of this, I think students (and their allies in the professoriate, the press, etc.) are fighting back because remote proctoring is a travesty. What, are they going to take this lying down? They should be fighting back! It’s natural that they’re fighting back. I hope their fight grows. I’ve decided to join it by writing this. I hope you will too.
That said, I would like to proffer an additional explanation that I believe illuminates the situation from an angle that is useful to educators. Remote proctoring is meeting resistance because it is going against the grain of the situation.
The global health crisis has forced us online. The online format presents the institution of education with a new challenge—the disruption of its usual mechanisms of control. The wide-scale adoption of remote proctoring software during the pandemic is, in my view, an attempt to wish that challenge away rather than confronting it. Online proctoring companies are selling educational institutions the fantasy that it is possible to recreate the important elements of in-person testing online. It’s a transparent falsehood, but we want to believe, because the alternative—a deep and serious reconsideration of testing in view of everything that has happened—feels like too much. The changes in our own and our students’ lives already forced by the pandemic are hard enough to wrap our minds around! And we have to rethink testing too?
From this point of view, the pushback was to be expected because institutions implementing remote proctoring are straining against reality. Reality always strains back.
The reason why I think this angle might be useful to educators is that it seems—well, to me anyway—to point in a freeing, and expansive, direction. There’s some relief available for us in admitting that remote teaching cannot recreate a reasonable in-person exam environment. When we admit this, what can we start imagining instead? How can we work with the situation, rather than against it?
More broadly, I think that surrendering to the reality that we don’t have as much control over our students when they’re far away encourages us to ask productive questions about the functions our control was serving in the first place, and how else these functions might be served.
In Spring 2020, when we first went online, circumstances conspired to compel me to relinquish some forms of control I didn’t even fully realize I was holding onto, leading to an experiment in letting go whose results surprised me. I hope to describe this experiment in a future blog post. In the meantime, here are some other folks, from both math and other disciplines, investigating the sorts of questions I have in mind:
If you know of other writing addressing these types of questions (or have done some yourself), please comment with links!
[1] By “we” I mean the collective consisting of all educators, including instructors at all levels, administrators, etc., and the institution of education writ large. This is an intentionally broad and encompassing meaning. Some of below pertains to decisions individual instructors make in their classes, while some of it pertains to decisions made by people acting as part of institutional bureaucracies, but I hope it is useful to see either kind of decision (and everything in between) as informed by a conversation we are all a part of.
]]>Mathematics and mathematicians rarely make press. So it was a bit sweet, but mostly bitter, to read in the New Yorker of the deaths of John Conway, Ronald Graham, and Freeman Dyson, three great losses to our profession. (Yes, Virginia, Dyson published in ‘pure’ mathematics as well as in physics.)
And of course as soon as this article appeared, friends and colleagues wrote about others we have lost who were not mentioned in the press. It is likely that each of us has suffered some loss, some grief. I write here of my own, and what we can learn from it about our work.
My old and dear friend David Dolinko passed away last week, a final stab-in-the-back from the year 2020. His career can tell us something about our field. Mathematics is the heavy industry of the sciences, but also of other intellectual endeavors. The tools of thought that we develop are not apparent when a vaccine is tested, when an election is contested–or when a legal precedent is set. Mathematics is largely unseen by the public, and even sometimes by the people who are using it.
David started his intellectual life as a mathematics major, but became interested in logic, and earned his Ph.D. in philosophy. From there his interest ‘drifted’ (or progressed) to a law degree. He spent his career teaching the philosophy of law at UCLA until his recent retirement. He will be mourned by his students as well as friends and family.
David had a roving intellect, from the music of Mahler to the poetry of Eliot, from the history of Fascism to molecular biology. He became a prominent writer about punishment and the death penalty. In all of this, I think, his early training in mathematics betrayed itself. He had an uncanny ability to make intuitively clear ideas that were too often cloaked in formality.
Indeed, it was he who was responsible for my own initial epiphany in mathematics, a moment to which I can trace my love affair with the field. We were thirteen years old, in ninth grade. Our enlightened math teacher, Ms. Funke, spent her lunch period (and ours) meeting with interested students to form a math team. (At the time, competition was the only extra-curricular activity available for students interested in mathematics.)
Ms. Funke defined an arithmetic progression, providing us with the usual formulas for the nth term and the sum of n terms. Then she gave us a problem, straight from Hall and Knight, something like: “Insert three arithmetic means between 11 and 23.” I loved formulas. I could do this. David was sitting next to me, drawing some organic molecule he had been reading about.
“C’mon! Let’s do this! This is interesting!” I urged him. Anything that is fun to do is more fun to do with others.
But David wasn’t particularly interested: “Oh, I did that. It’s 11, 14, 17, 20, 23.” And he went back to drawing his molecule. It was at that moment, from my friend David’s answer, that I realized that algebraic formulas were invented to capture intuitions—here, that the numbers we seek are evenly spaced. It is unlikely that David had used the formula. Rather, he knew what he was looking for, the numbers were easy, and he found them without bothering with formulas. This astonished me.
For the purists among my readers: yes, intuitive methods are not general. David would probably not have inserted four arithmetic means as easily. But intuition drives formalization, seeds discovery, lends meaning to what we have discovered. And intellectually—putting aside the personal and emotional—it was through his lightning intuition that David taught me the most.
And not just me. His death has occasioned an outpouring of sympathy and recollection by lawyers and public figures who had been his students in law school. The same value of intuition, of making ‘obvious’ the meaning behind formalities, seems to have marked his teaching of the law as well.
And it is for students—David’s, mine, and yours, Dear Reader, for whom I write these thoughts. We all know that the year 2020 was an annus horribilis, a year of loss for all of us. As we plan our first ever Virtual, and last ever Joint, Mathematics Meeting, my wish is that 2021 be a year of renewal. For education is about renewal: e-ducare, to lead out. Out of darkness and grief, towards hope for the future. To renewal, to a passing of the torch to our students.
Somehow, sometime, whatever the cause, we all come to the Same End. As researchers, we advance knowledge in the present. As teachers, we build the knowledge of the future.
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It is 2020. You are taking a high school mathematics teacher licensure exam. Suppose you see these questions. What do you do? What do you think? (Warning: Your head may spin. These are not licensure exam problems from 2020. Further commentary to come.)
I own a horse and a farm. One fourth the value of the farm is four times the value of the horse. Both taken together are worth $1,700. Find the value of each. Write out a complete analysis.
A merchant gets 500 barrels of flour insured for 75% of its cost, at 2 1/2%, paying $80.85 premium. For how much per barrel must he sell the flour to make 20% upon cost price?
Perhaps you are thinking about proportional reasoning and percentages. You might also be thinking: How quaint. These numbers are unnecessarily contrived; and owning horses, farms, and flour barrels is unrealistic to most students and teachers these days.
It is 1895. You are taking a high school mathematics teacher licensure exam and you see those same questions. What do you do? What do you think?
You might still think the numbers are contrived, but the context may seem more realistic.
Context and mathematics have never had an easy relationship. For one thing, it’s virtually impossible to hit the trifecta of precision, accessibility, and truth to reality. Bring in specific standards to be addressed, and that is a perfecta harder to achieve than predicting what would have happened next in Game of Thrones. (Example: Try writing a set of realistic problems for standard CC.5.MD.2; what are data that make sense to interpret as fractions to the nearest 1/8 that also make sense to add, subtract, multiply, and divide?) And we haven’t even brought in whether the context is actually appealing.
In this post, I present a case that determining whether context can support learning and teaching, through humanizing mathematics, is neither a simple yes-or-no calculation, nor is it value neutral. It is a pedagogical and ethical consideration. Context can motivate mathematics; and it can also extinguish interest. Context can be part of the mathematics; and it can distract. Context can humanize mathematics learning; but humanizing mathematics is not exclusively about context.
In a course for prospective high school teachers, I often teach properties of exponents, with a focus on why definitional conventions make sense and on ways to lead future high school students to discover these conventions (such as defining b^0 = 1 for nonzero b). Year after year, I would reach some teachers but not others. It was hard for some teachers to invest in building up identities that they had been using for years. Then, two years ago, I launched the unit on exponential properties with Dan Meyer’s Three-Act Math Task, Double Sunglasses, which begins with a whimsical clip of Meyer donning one pair of sunglasses, then another pair, then both. In keeping with the Three-Act Math Task structure, I asked teachers after viewing the video, “What questions comes to mind?”
The teachers pounced. “What does he see?” “What’s the tint?” “What does tint mean?” “Would it be 100%?” “No, it’s 0%!” “Or 25%?”
I explained:
With double sunglasses, it is like Dan is wearing 75% tint sunglasses. With double sunglasses, there was suddenly an intellectual need to find the tint, and an intellectual sense for why 100%, 25%, and 0% cannot be right. Teachers in that class, and subsequent classes where I have used this video, speak with gusto to propose, critique, and defend their views. Teachers also almost all come to the conclusion that 75% is correct, even if they originally thought 100%, 25%, or 0% was correct, and they identify various exponential properties along the way. For example, a 0th power corresponds either to wearing 0 sunglasses or wearing sunglasses with 0% tint. In both cases, one sees 100% of the light headed toward your eyes.
Double sunglasses are not realistic. They are not practical. They are ridiculous. And in its concrete absurdity, teachers found a way into the mathematics more deeply than any naked math problem, or any more realistic scenario featuring compound interest.
Context can add to mathematics learning, even when the context is not perfectly realistic, because the context gives just enough of a flavor of reality to hold onto lived experience. When Freudenthal (1971) proposed that one should “[teach] mathematics related to reality” (p. 420), he did not mean that the context had to be practical, realistically messy, or even realistic enough to constitute applied mathematics. He meant that students should be able to draw on real experiences to explore ideas and make inferences.
Finding a right context for particular mathematics is hard. Deborah Ball (1988) and Liping Ma (2001) famously posed:
Write a story problem for 1 3/4 ÷ 1/2.
This task is hard for a variety of reasons. Crafting story problems, and evaluating their correctness, can help prospective teachers understand ideas more deeply as well as appreciate student difficulties. This problem was devised by Ball for her dissertation and then used by Ma in her cross-national study.
Sometimes, even when there is a mathematically accurate context, it still may be distractingly unappealing (Nabb, Murawska, Doty, et al., 2020):
(The Condo Problem) In a certain condominium community, 2/3 of all the men are married to 3/5 of all the women. What fraction of the entire community is married?
This Condo Problem was first proposed in Lester’s (2002) Making Sense of Fractions, Ratios, and Proportions. It can be a beautiful mathematics problem that can help students make sense of operating with ratios. In the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, though, the context is gauche at best, and offensive at worst.
In the changing acceptability of the condo context, Keith Nabb and Jaclyn Murawska, and their students found an opportunity. They asked their students:
How can you rewrite the Condo problem to be more inclusive? (Nabb et al., 2020, p. 696)
Nabb and Murawska report that over time, students in their courses had become increasingly uncomfortable with the problem. And so, their students appreciated the prompt to rewrite, and learned from this experience not only ways to rewrite it (with guinea pigs, penguins, college education rates, and jeans and shirts), but also the important lesson that they have the power to rewrite problems. I would also hazard that writing isomorphic problems also gave students more contexts with which to examine and understand the ratios. Mathematics gives us the power to describe the underlying structure of seemingly disparate situations. Recognizing this power, and wielding it, is part of mathematics learning and teaching. Imagining isomorphic contexts allowed these prospective teachers to confront discomfort about the original context, with mathematical integrity.
Coming up with contexts and then solving the problems with those contexts can be the mathematics. Explaining why contexts do represent a particular mathematical idea is itself mathematical work, and work that poses mathematical challenges beyond the underlying bare mathematics (Ball, Thames, & Phelps, 2008).
Contexts can also inspire mathematical inquiry because of their relevance. I have been struck by a story from Ricardo Martinez about teaching high school students about slope. They saw slope as a bare formula that was not consequential to them.
But when Ricardo presented data of their own school’s population over time, broken into racial and ethnic categories, these students, many of whom identified as Black, Hispanic, or Latinx, wanted to know more. Suddenly, slope was no longer italicized letters on a page but a concept with vivid and personal explanatory power. They asked Ricardo whether they could look up more data and compute more differences. They wanted to use the math to make sense of their life.
The Gerrymandering and Geometry materials, developed by Ari Nieh, use unit squares to model pieces of districts. Across the times I have used these materials, the results are similar: the teachers start with unit square geometry and end with fascination about area metrics more generally and questions about the political implications of any metric. These gerrymandering problems, despite the unrealism of exactly square land, have sparked more conversations about alternative metrics and their consequences than any lesson I have ever taught on hyperbolic or spherical geometry. The context of gerrymandering and its sobering consequences motivate earnest work with a simple model, and exploring the simple model inspires mathematical curiosity.
Turning back the opening problems, context can distract from the mathematics. If I were to in fact pose these problems today to students, I would predict that the second problem would be confusing because the language used is (no longer) commonly known jargon. (Footnote: These problems were actual teacher licensure exam problems in 1895 (Hill, Sleep, Lewis, & Ball, 2007). Perhaps the jargon was common then.) As for the first problem, it suffers from multiple problems, including a cantaloupe problem. Unrealistic context has the potential to teach a person to ignore previous knowledge, such as how much a house might cost, or how many cantaloupes an individual can reasonably purchase. The result can be mathematics as an idiosyncratic silo rather than as a discipline of beauty and descriptive power.
As Matt Felton-Koestler has written, “real-ish” problems, such as the Double Sunglasses task, or Gerrymandering tasks, have a place as stepping stones, but not as the only kind of context.
Exclusive use of real-ish problems, no matter how good they are, can teach students that in math, problems should always be well-posed: students should never have to seek out information, and the answer is always the operation-of-the-day with the numbers featured.
Moreover, adding real world context can hurt a mathematics task. Consider the problem
How many different three-digit numbers can you make using the digits 1, 2, and 3, and using each digit only once?
Show all the three-digit numbers that you found.
How do you know that you found them all? (Ball & Bass, 2014, p. 302)
Perhaps there could be a reason that someone needed to arrange the digits 1, 2, and 3; or to arrange a particular three other numbers or objects. But this task needs no real world context to make it work. Ball has used this task for multiple years with rising 5th graders in a summer “turn around” program for students who have not been successful in mathematics at school (Ball & Bass, 2014). As her teaching demonstrates, so long as students understand the conditions of the problem (using each digit exactly once), it is a task that is highly accessible and engaging.
There is another way to think of this problem’s apparent lack of context and its appeal to students nonetheless. Sometimes, mathematics itself can be a context for other mathematical ideas, and adding more context than that would take away from the task. Curious phenomena themselves can be context for discovery and explanation.
One of my favorite classes in grad school was the day we learned about complexifying vector spaces. With apologies to that professor, I will use complexification as a metaphor here. When we complexify a real vector space V, we extend the vector space to have twice as many dimensions and we construct a complex vector space. It’s not just about tossing in more basis vectors; it is also about endowing the new space with a new structure that allows for working with complex number scalars in a way that is compatible with the original vector space structure in V.
When we add context to mathematics presented to students, we are not just adding a dimension to the mathematics. We are also adding potential interactions between the context, the mathematics, and the class community. These potential interactions can enrich learning while also complicating our work as mathematics instructors.
Suppose that you use a context with statistics about race, such as income (Casey, Ross, Maddox, & Wilson, 2018) or honors class enrollment (Berry, Conway, Lawler, & Staley, 2020). Discussing race can be uncomfortable, because it is so charged. But increasingly, Black scholars are calling for explicit discussion of race in the classroom (e.g., Berry et al., 2020; Love, 2019; Milner, 2017; Tatum, 2016). As Casey, Ross, Maddox, & Wilson (2018) wrote, “Race … is a reality in our cultural moment, and it too important to be ignored when discussing issues of equity in education.” (p. 84)
It is often said that one power of mathematics is to understand the world around us. There are powerful and important statistics and mathematics to be done with real world data. Avoiding charged contexts can also mean losing opportunities for our students and ourselves to understand the world around us.
At a local Math Teachers Circle a few years ago, teachers worked on the Midge Problem, which asked them to find ways to differentiate two kinds of insects based on antenna and wing length:
[Given existing data] How would you go about classifying specifies Af or Apf?
Suppose that species Af is a valuable pollinator and species Apf is a carrier of a debilitating disease. Would you modify your classification scheme and if so, how?
This context gave teachers a concrete entry into determining metrics, and spurred a lively discussion. When it came to defending points of view, teachers drew on data, and made precise connections to others’ ideas. There was also a sense, though, that this kind of sorting was all in fun and an academic’s hobby – until it was mentioned that cutoffs are something that happens with standardized exams. Context can change how mathematics is taken up. In retrospect, the midge context may have allowed for more play, which was important for exploring the math. But the standardized exam context was more convincing, to this audience of teachers at least, of real life consequences of mathematical decisions.
With issues of race, students may inevitably begin hypothesizing potential reasons for disparity, which raises the danger of accidentally reinforcing stereotypes. Whether you disagree or agree with these hypotheses, and whether other students do or not, it is in the spirit of mathematics and statistics, or any other disciplined inquiry, to consider counterfactuals. This opening of explanations is part of what makes teaching problems with charged context so difficult: How do you approach the explanations with integrity and sensitivity?
How to work with complex social contexts is an open question for educators, and a hard and important one at that. For the issue of race, Casey et al. (2018) propose one way that has worked for instructors using their materials. Students begin by discussing explanations for disparity in small groups. Then, students are asked to consider causes and separate them into causes from within the group and causes from outside the group. Then from readings, videos, and data investigations done throughout the semester, students are asked to constantly reflect on their lists of causes, adding and removing items from the list based on what they’ve learned, with encouragement to add notes to themself with respect to why they are making an edit to the list when they make it. The materials ask students to examine data sets related to various within-group causes, including ones that debunk likely potential explanations from within the group.
Organizing proposed explanations seems outside of mathematics, yet upon reflection is central to both the discipline and its teaching. As mathematicians, when we come up with potential explanations or theoretical counterarguments, we don’t stop at the proposal – we see the proposal through with proof and evidence. But doing this also takes time and energy that we may not have before our 9am class. I am optimistic that in coming years, there will be more teaching practices and materials that will make teaching with charged contexts more possible.
There have been calls to humanize mathematics. Humanizing mathematics has come to encompass many meanings, including finding joy in mathematics; finding utility in mathematics to explain and understand real world phenomena; seeing the role of mathematics in making the world a better place; and using mathematics as a resource for social justice. Context in mathematics problems is then integral to some definitions of humanizing mathematics, especially those with social agendas.
Context is one variable in humanizing mathematics because of pedagogical and ethical considerations. Pedagogically, context may or may not enhance a task. Ill-chosen context can turn people off from the mathematics. At the same time, carefully considered context can give students a foothold to discovery and joy, though context is not always necessary for this purpose.
Federico Ardila-Mantilla, in a Notices article, urged mathematicians to consider the question of what it means to “do math ethically” (Ardila-Mantilla, 2020, p. 986). Context is one variable in addressing this question. Context can challenge narratives about what “is” mathematics, who does or needs mathematics, and the consequences of using mathematics. As Ardila-Mantilla observed, mathematics can be used to improve lives, and mathematics may be used for harmful purposes. At the same time, there is a place for mathematics for mathematics’ sake, as emotional responses to the work of teachers like Jo Boaler or Francis Su suggest. Mathematics–like song, poetry, and art–can and should be a place to play, find beauty, and experience joy.
The calculation for whether, when, or what context should be incorporated is not simple. I do not believe that we should prescribe context as a cure for all educational disease, and I do not believe that for all instances of mathematics learning, there should be a fitting contexts. Improving mathematics teaching and learning, through humanizing mathematics, can have to do with context, but is not exclusively about context.
Acknowledgments. I am grateful for encouragement from Erin Baldinger and Younhee Lee to pursue this topic, and for critical feedback on this essay from Stephanie Casey, Andrew Ross, Paul Goldenberg, and Mark Saul.
Errata. Hyman Bass has pointed out that it was Deborah Ball who devised the “1 3/4 ÷ 1/2” problem in her dissertation, and Liping Ma who then used this problem in her cross-national study. The post has been corrected with this information.
References
Morgan State University, Baltimore, MD 21251
Prisoners are provided with a college education so that when they are released, they will adjust easily to society and won’t return to prison. I was fascinated by the idea so much that I wanted to be a part of it. As a result, I have been teaching in prison for two consecutive semesters. In this essay, I will explain how the fact that I am an immigrant from Iran having a single-entry visa helped me to get along with students in a U.S. prison and also motivated them to rely on themselves, focus on their successes and do better in math. I will talk about the challenges my students and I have gone through and, at the end, I will come up with some suggestions that I believe might help any prisoner attending math class in prison.
Introduction.
My name is Zeinab Bandpey, a graduate of the Ph.D. program in Industrial and Computational Mathematics at Morgan State University. I have been an adjunct faculty member at Towson University and the University of Baltimore. The University of Baltimore was selected to participate in the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Grant Program, and I was privileged to be a part of this program as a math instructor, to teach fundamentals of mathematics and college algebra.
How it started
My Ph.D. advisor was always looking for ways to help me survive financially in the U.S. A professor at Towson University had informed him of this program and my advisor passed the information along to me. I was fascinated by the idea and I wanted to be a part of it: “How cool is that?” I thought. “Prisoners are offered college education. It’s called a second chance.” I was curious: how many of them are going to take this chance seriously, and what is my role to motivate them to get into science? I had all these thoughts in my head when I attended the faculty meeting;. I was the only international instructor! And it freaked me out, because it was just a few months since I had moved to the U.S. I could not speak English properly, but I passionately wanted to do the program and I knew from the bottom of my heart that I could do it.
After being introduced to the students by my supervisor in the program, I went to each one of them to have a small conversation, asking for their names and a little more information about themselves: What do they want to study? Do they like mathematics? Why have they decided to participate in this program?
Although they answered my questions, sounding more determined than students in college classrooms, they were more concerned about my perspective of them, and they asked me questions like “Why are you here?” “Do you see us as a bunch of criminals who will never change and who will never have a bright future?” “Have you ever been afraid of being among 30 inmates who are mostly African American?” These questions made me think that they are afraid of prejudgments and they need to know their professors believe in them and trust the fact that some, if not all, of them are going to change their lives using the opportunity they have been given. I noticed that my attitude might change everything and I must prove myself to them first, that I believe in them and I am sure they are going to pass this class and any other classes they have taken perfectly.
It was not hard for me to come up with a response: I am an Iranian woman studying math, I have been down this road before, where people judge me because of my nationality or my gender. So, I could easily see their point: they did not want me to judge them because of their race or because of where they were born and grew up. I started to know each one of them individually and it helped to persuade them to go through the exams and classes.
It is worth mentioning that throughout the very first conversation I had with them, I found three of them very interested in math and computer science and I promised them I’d help them with learning basic stuff in these majors, as the University of Baltimore does not offer STEM majors through this program, and all of them essentially have to study other majors for now. One of the students, with notes I gave him, was able to write code to calculate Catalan numbers. This had certainly been done before, but he did not know this and did it all by himself. I saw this as a huge success.
Challenges in the classroom
It was beyond my imagination how small problems would make teaching hard and how student support and help would make things better. When we started, we did not even have a proper classroom with a board. There was a big room called the library with huge fans to keep the room’s temperature normal as it gets hot even on the coldest day of winter. Those fans made a horrible noise which made it hard for people sitting at the end of the room to hear me. Also, with the lack of a normal-sized board, it was harder to explain concepts because I had to erase things as soon as I wrote them down. Surprisingly enough, no student complained in class. They used to turn off the fans and sit closer to the board. They asked their supervisor afterwards to provide us with a bigger board, and after half of the semester we actually got one.
Another issue that I found challenging was that the students’ ages ranged from 25 to 65. Some of them have been away from studying math for more than 20 years and some others were young and quick learners; it was hard to arrange the pace of the class. If you go fast, those in their 40s and more would be left behind, and if you go slow, it would get boring to the other group. A normal pace would be also too slow for fast learners and too fast for slow learners. But again, they were so passionate and they wanted it to work out, so when I asked them to make groups and distributed students in such a way that in each desk there would be mixtures of those two groups. Fast learners could help slow learners to understand better. They accepted the arrangement, and it worked nicely.
Exam anxiety was another important issue, and I believe the most important reason for that was lack of confidence. The other reason might have been they did not want to disappoint their instructors, and that would put more pressure on them. One of my students had a very hard time during the first 3 or 4 exams. He was a good student and he never left a homework assignment undone, but he had test anxiety so that he used to sweat a lot—so much that I was concerned something would happen to him. He would get upset and express that he hates math. One time I sat next to him and asked him to do his exam and talk to me whenever he does not feel all right. He did, and explained he knows the concepts very well and he does not know what is happening during the exam so that he could not answer the questions properly. What I thought would help was to distract him from thinking about his not being able to answer the test questions by asking for specific definitions or concepts which would refresh his memory. He liked math at the end, and he said he felt much better now. He added, “I do not hate it anymore but I still do not love it.” He passed both classes he took with me with a B.
The students rarely had access to the internet and computers. Some basic problems were that they could not use “MyMathLab” or tutorial videos. They did not have graphing calculators for college algebra, and they could not reach me whenever they had questions using emails or office hours.
How could I relate my experiences to theirs?
I was a student under a single-entry F1 visa, which had taken me more than a year to get. Having a single-entry visa and studying for my Ph.D. meant I could not travel back to my country to visit my family because it was too risky. I might have lost the chance to finish my Ph.D., so I was kind of a prisoner in a big country. Because I was following my dreams, I totally understood the feeling that you do not appreciate holidays as you cannot celebrate them with your beloved family. I felt it strongly when they said they could not focus on class as they were missing a lot by being in prison (like birthdays, weddings, funerals, …).
In his speech on orientation day, one of the students, with tears in his eyes, told us how hard it was for him to stay focused and keep trying when prison staff always saw him as a prisoner and discouraged him from what he was doing in school. This touched me personally: in the same way, many of the students (and staff) could not understand how a woman from Iran could be Muslim but not practicing, was not a terrorist or terrorist supports, and in fact did work in mathematical counter-terrorism.
In my personal life since I moved to the USA I have tried harder than anytime else in my life to achieve my goals and to make it worth being away from my family. It went through very well. So, I encouraged them to use the time they have in prison to create something nice, study hard and make themselves and their family proud. I’d like to believe it worked, as out of 30 students in my class, 28 of them passed the class successfully and with passion.
At the end, what I think made this experience a successful one was we all believed, no matter how hard things worked out, that we were in the same group and we helped each other out through the challenges. Teaching math is not just instructing them to deal with numbers: it is building confidence in them to understand the logic behind each problem. They believed in me and I believed in them, and we had a great experiences there, in prison.
From a Handwritten Letter
May 31, 2017
Dear Professor Bandpey
Thank you for your patience, hard work, and dedication to teaching me to believe in myself. Before I started this class I not only HATED math. I was also horrible at it and didn’t believe that I could do math. However, you’ve taught [me] to have confidence in myself and with that confidence I began to get better grades. I can now teach my son math in the future… Thank you for making me believe in myself. I pray that you are successful in all of your future engagements.
Respectfully,
XXXXX
Acknowledgment
I would like to thank Prof. Jonathan Farley for his support in writing this essay.
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Montana State University, Billings
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit during the Spring of 2020, I’ve been nothing short of impressed and amazed at my colleagues’ resourcefulness and creativity in shifting their courses to an online modality. So when I was asked to teach an online Modern Geometry course this past Summer, I was eager to roll out an inquiry-based version of this course. But when planning this course I realized that I would face unique challenges that would make this difficult.
MSU-Billings is a comprehensive regional state university which serves central and eastern Montana and northern Wyoming, parts of the nation that are often very rural and distant from the physical campus. For this reason, the school has had a strong focus on its online course offerings even prior to the pandemic. In particular, Modern Geometry serves as the last course in a Math Teaching Minor, which certifies current teachers in the state to teach Mathematics in addition to their other certifications. Because this minor is intended for current working professionals from across the state, it is necessary for the courses in it to be online.
But this poses its own challenges. I know from previous experience that internet access in rural Montana can be spotty and unreliable, so I was unsure that a Zoom or WebEx based course would allow for equal opportunity amongst students to share and communicate with each other. Moreover, as working professionals, they would all be saddled with myriad other responsibilities, particular this year. Since our school does not designate a specified meeting time for online classes, I did not think it would be feasible to be able to designate a meeting time without excluding some students. I concluded that a synchronous model for Inquiry Based Learning (IBL) would not support the pillars of Equity and Collaboration.
I concluded that I would have to develop an asynchronous model for inquiry learning. I was highly skeptical about how this would go. IBL experts who generously lent me their time gave me advice in general on inquiry learning, but were likewise skeptical of the asynchronous approach. I didn’t see that I had any choice in the matter.
The Course Design.
I decided to use Charles Coppins Euclidean and NonEuclidean Geometries as the primary resource for the class. Given that we had an 8-week schedule, I thought that the layout of the course would match well with that of the text. We also scheduled a single synchronous meeting on the first day of the summer session to discuss the flow of the course. I encouraged them to think of themselves as a research team, uncovering the structure of neutral geometries together, and that the discussion board posts would serve as a replacement for the in person conversation and discussion they would have had, both in and out of the class.
The layout of the course was as follows:
My role in all of this, especially in the beginning, was to facilitate discussion and conversation. Each week I would grade each student’s participation based on a rubric, and give qualitative feedback for each student, including things they posted that were good, and suggestions for the coming weeks. The final grade was based on the final document, discussion posts, and Desmos Geometry interactives I asked them to create.
The Good.
Right away, I noticed that there were advantages to running a class in this format as opposed to synchronously or face to face. In face to face classes, conversations can be dominated by those who speak more quickly or more openly. Even in a class where everyone was willing to share, time constraints only allowed for so much conversation to be had. On the boards, I found that when everyone could take the time to craft their posts and responses, that there was far greater and deeper participation. During the ice breaker phase, I found students writing quite illuminating posts and responses to each other. On the other hand, I had the time to write detailed individual responses to each student, which other students could read and respond to. It was kind of a best of both worlds of one on one conversation and group discussion.
Hello,
My name is XXX, I live in XXX and teach 7^{th}, 8^{th} and Algebra 1 at XXX high school. I have three grown children and have lived in XXX 29 years – raised in XXX. I am returning to college to get an endorsement in mathematics. I taught 5-8^{th} grade at a colony school for the last 13 years and was asked if I would come into town to teach just math. I wasn’t sure I was up to the task, but working with XXX and creating a fantastic math program has been a lot of fun. My goal with mathematics is to reach tohe struggling students and encourage them to trust me and we will understand math together. Most of my students are terrified of math (As am I – just a bit) and hopefully when they leave our school they will feel mor secure in their math skills. I feel like I will learn to ask better questions and I like the fact that we are working together as a term to reach our final solutions. I think it will free us up to explore and take risks. Thank you for taking the time to read this and I look forward to working with everyone.
I don’t know if I’m more blown away with how geometry relates to all math or that I didn’t realize this years ago! These videos weren’t very long, but they started to open my mind about how geometry relates to algebra and calculus in ways that I’ve never thought of before. The math concepts in the videos were not new, but the way the information was presented is a different way of thinking.
Hi,
I know exactly where you are coming from…. Math does not come easy to me either and I truly feel it is to our advantage – we understand the “not understanding” and I do believe that we have great empathy! I am like you – for some reason I really like working my way through a problem – I never would have guessed that one day I would be a math teacher.
XXX,
I too was blown away with how all other math subjects seem to have stemmed from Geometry! I really didn’t know the history of math at all and never thought to explore it any. Like you said, the videos really opened my eyes to the connections between all the disciplines of math that I didn’t actually see before!
Likewise, there were unexpected benefits of the discussion board for collaborative proof writing. The asynchronous format allowed for wide flexibility in responses. Students could write long detailed posts, or short quick responses. They could also include pictures, videos, or links to interactives such as Desmos in their responses to help illustrate their ideas. Having a written record of the collective conversation also made it easier to reach back and pull from an earlier idea, or make minor edits to someone else’s argument.
Here are my initial thoughts on Problem 5, which reads:
“Problem 5. Prove or disprove the following: Each point belongs to a line.
I think you would agree that any geometry that contains two points not belonging to any line is not interesting. Therefore, we need the next axiom, Axiom 4. If A and B are different points, then there exists at least one line that contains both A and B.”
I felt this statement could be proven.
It makes sense to me that any point either has to be on line L (since A3 says at least one line exists) or
outside of line L, in which case A4 says that point has to make a line with one of the points on line L. Thoughts?
Problem 18: Suppose ABC and ACD.
Q1: Is it possible that two of A, B, C, and D are the same?
Initial Thoughts: By A5, A, B, and C are different points and A, C, and D are different points. It could be possible that B and D could be the same point. Suppose A, B, C, and D are all points on a circle, where B and D are the same point. ABC results from going clockwise around the circle and ACD (which equals ACB) results from going counter clockwise. This would prove that it is possible for B and D to be the same point.
Edited to add: I’m not sure this would satisfy A4.
Q2: Do they all belong to the same line or is it possible that A, B, and C belong to one line and A, C, and D belong to a second line?
My initial thoughts: if a line exists, do all of the points need to be notated. For example, if there are points W, X, Y, Z on a line, would I need to list all of them? Or could I say WYZ – X would still be on the line, just not listed?
So for this problem, if I had a line ABCD… would it be appropriate to say within ABCD, there is ABC and ACD? If that’s the case, then it is possible that A, B, C, and D belong to one line.
XXX: I like your circle for matching points for question 1. I was thinking of an analog clock where 12 am and 12 pm are the same point but different times.
This is what I imagined for question 2…
XXX:
Initially, I thought the same as XXX. Then after rereading AB(b), I think there exists a point between A and B (labeled “D” in AB).
I think AB could apply to intervals (it doesn’t specifically mention lines). Based on Abb, I think an interval must contain at least three points.
[reply]
XXX:
I approached this in terms of AB (b) as well. If two distinct points exists it makes sense that there have to be points in between them. Part of Definition 3 says that interval AB is “the set of all points between A and B inclusive.” That, combined with A8(b), which says there has to be at least one point between any two distinct points, makes me think that any interval has to contain at least 3 points.
[reply]
Here is another run at it from the top, considering A9’s role in forcing location of points. I’m still not sure that I am properly applying A9 though.
https://www.desmos.com/geometry/ohgnzbybvs
I found that the students were active and engaged, treated each other with respect, and worked diligently towards the goal of solving each problem. At the start of the course, I was very active on the boards, responding to each post right away, asking questions, prodding or challenging them. This was mostly to model the type of interaction I wanted to see in the course. As the class continued, I was able to step back as they took on these roles themselves, prodding and nudging in them occasionally. It was great to see them come into their own as mathematicians!
At the end of the course, they turned in a beautifully written document, including several proven conjectures, that they wrote together in Overleaf, coordinated by a student driven effort on the discussion board. Their feedback, both on the boards and in evaluations, were overwhelmingly positive, I could not be happier or more proud.
The Ugly.
I had vastly underestimated the number of students who would be in this class. I ended up with 16 students, and in some weeks there would only be a handful of problems. The result was that there would be sometimes redundant or disjointed conversations, which could be confusing to peruse. Even within a thread, discussions would grow quite long, and after a few layers of replies, my learning management system no longer kept track of who was replying to whom, making conversation difficult to track at times. In the future, I plan on assigning small groups, either per section or through the semester, so that conversations can be more streamlined and tractable.
I had not planned on having the final document be written collaboratively. I don’t regret acquiescing to the students, as their argument was cogent and I believe it gave them a greater sense of ownership of the course. I do wish I had built a collaborative writing component into the course from the ground up, following the ideas of Wikitextbooks by Brian Katz and Elizabeth Thoren. As a result, there was quite a bit of inequitable work distribution by the end of the course. With the classes permission, we resolved this by having some students write bookend introductions, summaries and conclusions in the document, which did improve the final document, but it was an ad-hoc solution, and could have gone badly.
The Future.
I found the Discussion Board format to be an extremely effective way of delivering an inquiry course, and in fact the only way I could have reasonably delivered one this Summer. I’ve incorporated the boards in other classes, incorporating the “Investigate!” sections of Oscar Levin’s Discrete Mathematics text into my Discrete course, and in lieu of face to face office hours due to the pandemic. This coming Spring, I plan on teaching a Linear Algebra using Drew Lewis and Steven Clontz’s Team Based Linear Algebra, adapted for discussion board conversation.
Some advice I would offer is:
In an uncertain and precarious time, most of us have already delivered courses in modalities we may never have considered. Many of these modalities may work very well for most students, but not for all. Depending on the needs and limitations of your students, know that it is possible to design a rich, engaging and meaningful inquiry experience for students in an asynchronous format.
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