Teaching the “Unteachable”

by Melanie Laffin

The first teaching assignment I had was for a course called “Calculus for Life Sciences.” This course was a baptism of fire in basic calculus, studying limits, derivatives, integrals and their applications, and the students who took this course were biology, business, forestry and exercise science majors. Once I read the assignment, the anxiety hit me like a freight train; my students are going to absolutely hate me. It has been my experience, through friends and tutoring, that people who choose to go into these fields abhor math and all possible application. Before my first class started, my office mates who taught the course wished me luck with my students hating me. This feeling was exacerbated by the fact that when I walked in on the first day, I felt that I was the devil to many of my students.

Within the first week, I had a revelation. If I assume my students hate math, then I am given a blank slate as to how I can make it fun for them. Further, I found that many of my students simply had anxiety while they tried learning math, made worse by the instructor being inflexible and unapproachable. Thus, I made it my goal to make my classroom a very relaxed setting where I allowed students to make up quizzes freely, ask questions openly, and to allow time during the class to work on concepts in the lecture through worksheets. The worksheets in particular, I found, helped many students since they could work collaboratively and have instant feedback on their understanding. It also helped that I usually made worksheet problems a blend of problems from the homework with a twist that the reason to solve these problems were to help Batman, Hello Kitty and other cartoon characters solve these problems for some ridiculous reason. I also gave frequent short quizzes as a mean to gauge the retention of material from the day before. This model worked rather well as the average grade in my course was an 83%, and my teaching evaluations were the best in the department. Instead of the devil, I was an angel to many who felt they otherwise could not grasp the material covered in the course.

Even though teaching Calculus for Life Sciences was quite successful for me, especially as a first time teacher, I was saddened by the fact that most students still would not want to have anything to do with more mathematics. So, I was elated to be assigned a Calculus II course that the main majors are engineering, mathematics and computer science. I entered the course confident that my students would be eager to learn. In particular, I assumed that the Calculus II students would have a better recollection of algebra and precalculus. Within the first few weeks of the course, my students crushed most of the joy had for teaching. I had retained the same methodology as Calculus for Life Sciences; a little bit of lecture, “fun” hands-on practice, and frequent quizzes. While the first exam went very well for my students, I cannot say the same for my midterm evaluations. The vast majority of my students wrote about how they hated my teaching style and preferred a more traditional lecture with one quiz a week, as well as how lax I am about making up quizzes. Further, since approximately 70% of my students were mechanical engineers, there were many comments about how the examples I choose to show in class are not relative to mechanical engineering in anyway, demonstrating a lack of knowledge about the field, and that the addition of cartoon characters added nothing but annoyance to learning the material. I felt defeated and lost, and slightly peeved at the notion that I should be expected to have a working knowledge of mechanical engineering. I turned to lecturing for 50 minutes straight and having only 1 quiz a week, and watched the exam scores plummet 10% per exam. I had become the devil to them.

Many GTAs and professors talk about how teaching engineers and other majors in the sciences is the best because they “like and understand math better.” This is a devastating misconception and insulting to those who choose other fields to work in. In my very short experience teaching, you cannot have expectations on how much your students will enjoy your class or your teaching style. You must be prepared to be either a devil or an angel at the beginning, and try your hardest to finish the course as an angel to as many people as possible.

What are your experiences teaching different majors? Any helpful hints? Please post in the comments.

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