The Missing Link

This semester, I am working as a TA for the math department at my university. Despite the fact that I am an English major and that numbers have not made sense to me since they thought it would be a great idea to through the alphabet into the equations in my high school algebra class, I help teach and tutor the Math 101 course offered to Liberal Arts majors to fulfill their general mathematics requirement. The math is simple (never using skills above basic multiplication, and even then, we have calculators for that), and the concepts are all such that anyone would use in a professional or even personal setting. I took the course last semester, and passed with ease. When my professor asked me to apply for one of the eight TA positions, I almost refused. I was already working three jobs, planning on taking enough credits to keep sleep at bay for the next six months, and I could not see myself teaching math. I applied anyway and was accepted for the position.

Despite what I thought walking into the job, I love teaching this course. It is all logic-based, which is something I have worked with for years and love. The numbers can get a little confusing, but I have learned the techniques and tricks to get around the obstacles. Having already taken the course gave me a base knowledge of what the students would be learning, but teaching it and working through the problems with questioning pupils have enhanced my understanding tenfold.

I was especially excited when we all got to start holding office hours. Finally, a chance to work one-on-one with students from a class with two sections and 330 students. I had taught portions of the curriculum in the lecture hall, but I believe real teaching happens in the personal sessions.

The first session was uneventful. I sat in an empty classroom with one of the other TAs, ate my lunch, and finished my reading for my Shakespeare course. No one came to say hello or even poke their head in to see what was happening. I left thinking how boring this would be if it kept up for the entire semester. However, when the first exam rolled around, the TAs became the most popular students on campus and our office hours were the hot new place to be. I was thrilled to finally be actually teaching and helping students. I was not prepared for what I would discover about teaching, though.

I stood at the front of the classroom as students settled into place. The other TA was gone for the week, so I was on my own. I asked the students what topics they wanted to cover or felt like they needed to go over before the exam. One student looked at me with a defeated gaze and said,

“All of it.”

“All of it?” I asked.

Most of the students nodded their heads. “We just don’t get it. The professor doesn’t explain it. I keep getting lost.”

Suddenly it hit me. Of course they didn’t get it. The professor, my boss, was a fantastic mathematician. She had been teaching math for nearly two decades and knew all the ins and outs that math can entail. However, she taught math to math students, to students who thought exactly like her. The students she was accustomed to saw the world in the same black and white logical terms that she did. She could explain half an equation and her students had the ability to jump ahead and complete it.

You can’t do that with English majors.

Not all the students in the Math 101 class are English majors, per say, but they are Liberal Arts majors. These students tend to think more abstractly than rigidly. They love to ask why and expect an answer other than “Because that’s just how it is.” They have to see the big picture and the details worked out before them before they can start making such huge mathematical leaps. If you throw a Liberal Arts major into an equation with not a speck of context, well, you’re going to have more than a problem. You’re going to have a catastrophe.

I thought back to when I took the course, how I stumbled through the homework until I could put the jumbled numbers into context. I remembered the tricks I had used to remember how to count votes using the Borda count method, or find the weight of specific players using the Banzaf power distribution method. And suddenly everything made sense.

These students did not think like mathematicians. They thought like me.

It was not that the students were not intelligent or that the math was too far beyond them. There was a communication link missing in how the information was being presented. Before we went any farther, I asked the students in my office hours that day what makes it easier for them to learn. They gave me answers like context, knowing why something was working or not working, going over things more than once, having multiple problems that used the same concept, but provided different types of practice.

I took these answers and, for the rest of the hour, used them to reteach the topics that would be on the test. I began to see heads nodding and pencils flying. Eyes lit up when they realized their answers were correct. As they left, the entire atmosphere of the room seemed more positive. I tried the same technique that night when I held a study session for the exam. I taught the students like I would teach any other Liberal Arts major like myself, and I watched as the barriers to their learning fell.

Most of them passed the exam the next day. Even more students have begun pouring into my office hours and coming to the study sessions I host because we think along the same lines. A student asked me how I “got to be so good at this crap” and I replied,”I found a new way to look at it.”

This made me think about the barriers of communication in education. When the teacher thinks a certain way and teaches in a way that lines up with that, there will always be students who do not get it, simply because they do not think like the teacher. Students often feel in this case that they are unintelligent. However, when a teacher is willing to step out of their conventional way of teaching to teach in a way that the student will best benefit, that is when the student is most likely to succeed.

This is not easy and certainly not always possible, but communication between teacher and student is essential for education to succeed. After our study session, several students when to the professor and asked her to teach in a similar way. They asked her to explain the context of the problem, such as when it would be used, and not just explain the equation. Upon hearing this, the professor, completely uprooted what she had been doing and started to teach in a slightly different way. She is still learning herself how to teach those who think differently from her, as I think most teachers will struggle in this way for most if not all of their careers. But she is doing whatever she can to help her students succeed, even if that means wobbling a little bit herself.

Communication in the classroom is everything. Is there something you need to speak to a professor about in your classes? Or is there something in your own classroom than needs to shift?

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One Comment

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  1. This read like a short story. Your Math 101 students are lucky to have you! (Psst…also, mind your step. Your touchstone beliefs in education are showing 🙂

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