My solution to a panicked classroom

Coming into grad school, I had little experience communicating mathematics to students who were not already committed to learning the material and minimal background in educational pedagogy. This post is all about how I dealt with one problem this semester.

For the spring term, I led recitation sections for a calculus class designed for students in business or the social sciences. Things I anticipated: derivatives, integrals, students asking why they need to learn this material, and probably a general disinterest in mathematics. Things I did not anticipate: their extremely narrow zone between boredom and anxiety.

The problem:

When I gave a primer lecture before giving students a worksheet, they were bored and disengaged; their work was sloppy and incomplete. On the other hand, when I skipped the lecture and gave students the whole class period to work, their confusion quickly led to panic and they felt defeated.

I had students with a very small “struggle but not panic” window and that was the target that I wanted to hit.

My solution:

I asked for feedback from my students. I passed out pieces of paper and asked a few questions that boiled down to what they wanted recitation to look like. I was surprised to see how consistently the students stated that they wanted more tools and practice but also more time in class to work. I had one conundrum: intro lectures won’t give more time in class and extra work that isn’t graded won’t get done.

So I had many productive conversations and found a solution. I started sending out emails with either notes introducing a new topic or a short list of things to think about before recitation. This worked really well. It allowed for students who needed some extra support to be more successful and the students who didn’t need the help didn’t have to listen to a lecture on material they already knew.

My reflections:

Getting feedback from the students was crucial and I intend to implement this often so I can make changes in my classroom that the students find worthwhile. Hearing from the students helped me to identify what they needed from me and how hard they were willing to work if I asked them to and gave them some direction. One of the coolest parts about this whole process was how the attitudes of my students changed once I asked for their feedback. There was immediately a stronger interest in what was happening in recitation because they asked for it.

About Sarah K. Salmon

I am a graduate student in mathematics studying algebraic combinatorics flavored by Coxeter groups at University of Colorado, Boulder. I earned my B.S. in mathematics at Northern Arizona University in May 2014.
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