Quicker calculations: FSU faculty change up classes to find best way to teach math

1 + 1.  2 X 3. The simple math learned as children serves as the building blocks throughout many people’s academic careers.

But for many at the collegiate level, math can be a stumbling block, especially for those wishing to pursue degrees in the hard sciences or engineering.

At Florida State University, teaching faculty in the Department of Mathematics, with the help of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching (CAT), have been working diligently over the past few years to find the best ways to teach math.

Anecdotally, teachers have gotten positive reports from students, but in some cases, the numbers are bearing out new approaches to teaching as well. The university tracks what are called DFW rates, meaning when a student receives a D or F grade or withdraws. Five years ago, trigonometry classes had a DFW rate of 45.3%. Now, they have a 7.5% rate.

“The spectacular reduction in the rates has been the result of great efforts covering 20 years,” said Sam Huckaba, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Because these math courses are embedded in nearly all degree programs, it is essential for student success that we move students through them effectively and efficiently.”

The movement to change the way math is taught, particularly at the undergraduate level has been infectious. Teaching faculty member Leah Hollingsworth, who teaches multiple sections of college algebra, specifically organized her class to break down into small groups with the help of undergraduate learning assistants to work on activities. Traditionally, she would have lectured for the majority of the class and then given students homework to reinforce the concepts.

Now, the class is partially flipped with students introduced to topics before class. Then, they do activities in class with the help of Hollingsworth and learning assistants. The learning assistants are previous college algebra students who excelled in the course.

“I wanted to have time to encourage the students to do the math right then and there,” Hollingsworth said. “I really believe every student who comes here can do the math. It’s about them figuring out the best way to learn it.”

Penelope Kirby, teaching faculty in calculus, took a slightly different approach. Though she also utilized learning assistants, Kirby opted to make her class interactive by having students divide into pairs and create posters showcasing a mathematical equation. They would then present it as if they were at a conference.

This allowed the students to talk through how they solved a given problem. Teaching others can often help an individual gain a better grasp of the material, Kirby said.

“It’s hitting a lot of different areas in how students learn and study,” Kirby said. “These students are forced to communicate and explain it to their classmates.”

Taking a calculus class can be a critical moment for many students, she added. Improving outcomes for that area can have long-term effects on a student’s academic career.

“For STEM fields, it is crucial,” Kirby said. “Almost everyone has to go through it.”

Both Hollingsworth and Kirby collaborated with CAT staff to incorporate teaching assistants into their classrooms and think through different ways they could format their classrooms. CAT staff members are dedicated to curating the latest research on how humans learn and supporting faculty members who are looking to apply new techniques in their classrooms.

Joe O’Shea, dean of Undergraduate Studies, said the collaboration between the faculty and CAT staff was a big win for students.

“I am so grateful to have colleagues in Math who are dedicated to giving every student a world-class learning experience,” he said. “Their ability to incorporate the latest evidence on teaching and learning is deeply impressive, and the resulting increase in students’ success is something of which we can all be proud.”