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Improve Math Skills by Thinking Like a Camp Counselor

To overcome a deeply held belief among students that math skills were out of reach, this instructor first got a little goofy.

Educator

Rebecca Streett, MS

Senior Instructor, Coordinator, Developmental Math Program, University of Arkansas, Little Rock

BS and MS in Applied Mathematics

If you are told that you are bad at something often enough, you will likely start to believe it. Overcoming that false belief can be a Herculean effort—unless you have a particularly insightful instructor.

Rebecca Streett, MS, senior instructor at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, has been teaching math off and on since she was a graduate student in 1991. One of her most memorable experiences occurred in 2014, when she helped design a three-week summer enrichment session for incoming UA Little Rock freshmen in need of remedial math instruction.

“A lot of these students had learning differences,” Streett says. “I don’t mean learning disabilities, but the traditional way of learning math just didn’t work for them. They’d struggled with math since kindergarten. Some of them insisted they didn’t have the gene for success with it.”

Streett felt that was a load of hogwash, and she set out to prove it to them.

Challenge: A negative balance of confidence in math

Streett says that students who are unable to grasp algebra are rare. “Math requires a certain persistence,” she insists. “Sometimes, you work your way through a problem and you realize that you’ve taken a wrong turn. You have to go back and try another approach. And that’s a really good thing, because that’s how you learn. But some students tend to give up.” Streett feels that tendency can be overcome but not without a struggle.

A key issue is that students’ negative thinking has been reinforced for years by mentors and role models—often including the students’ own parents. “I think sometimes parents give their kids permission to be bad at math,” Streett suggests. “A lot of students tell me their parents or their grandparents were terrible at math, and they’ve made up their minds that they won’t be good at it either.” She noticed this tendency to be greater in female students than in males.

Streett decided that supporting these students was going to require more than imparting a grasp of the actual math. She would also have to invest time in helping them overcome their phobia about the entire math domain. This may be true for many math students but particularly so for those in her summer preparatory course. “The challenge was to reach these students and give them some confidence in themselves,” she says, “so when they hit the college algebra class in the fall, they could succeed.”

Innovation: Take the camp counselor approach to math instruction

In the course of seeking a solution for these students, Streett had another realization. “A lot of these students are commuters, and they don’t have the chance to get to know each other,” she says. “It wasn’t like a literature class that’s really conducive to discussion. I’ve had students come into a math class, sit down, and never say a word to each other. It wasn’t a bad experience, but I think students really thrive when they have the reinforcement of their peers.”

That realization became the heart of Streett’s solution: To help these students overcome their fear of math, she would help them connect to one another, foster a sense of mutual support in the classroom, and focus most of her instruction on group work and discussion.

“I started incorporating goofy things I hadn’t really thought about before, except maybe as a camp counselor,” she says. “We did some get-to-know-you games at the beginning of the semester. I had them do little dumb puzzles at the beginning of each class. They needed loosening up.”

More important, she grouped the students into teams that would then work together throughout the duration of the course. “They came up with team names and little cheers and built their own little communities within the classroom,” Streett says. “I was stunned at the way this changed the whole dynamic of the class.”

In fact, it proved to be the ideal equation.

Context

“For many students, this is the only college math course they will take. Just as every science student should study Shakespeare, I want every student to appreciate the beauty of math.”

— Rebecca Streett, MS

Course: MATH 1302 College Algebra (with MATH 0102 College Algebra Lab)

Frequency: Two or three 3-hour class meetings plus a 1-hour lab each week

Class size: 30 (mostly freshmen)

Course description: [MATH 1302] is a study of functions, including but not limited to, absolute values, quadratic, polynomial, rational, logarithmic, and exponential; systems of equations; and matrices.

See resources shared by Rebecca Streett, MS

See materials

Lesson: Build teams for strong math skills

Streett’s peer-reinforcement program begins on the very first day of class, when she breaks the ice by asking students to share their worst math horror stories with the class. Once they find that common ground, the real work can begin. This is how Streett breaks it down.

Guide the conversation

For her icebreaker activity, Streett uses handouts that invite students to talk about themselves and their math experiences. “It’s a little like getting them to talk about their dating histories,” she says. “They all have these stories and enjoy telling them.” The exercise helps to set them at ease—especially once they realize that most of their peers have had similar struggles.

The handouts, which she distributes at random, are printed on different colors of paper. Students who receive like colors are on the same team. (Those with the yellow paper invariably choose a team name including the word “banana,” she notes.)

The teams also use these papers as get-acquainted guides, as they include non–math-related questions such as, “What’s the one material object you can’t live without?” (“Mobile phones” is the number one answer.) The responses and follow-up discussions help the students connect—a connection that will support them throughout the rest of the course.

Transform them into math teachers

Sometimes the best way to learn something is to try to teach it to someone else. That is why Streett encourages teams to venture beyond problem-solving and present their solutions in an instructive format.

All students have access to Blackboard, a learning management system that includes a wiki feature that teams use to collaborate on problems. Typically, they will break their solutions into steps, assigning one step to each member of the team. “The wiki tracks who enters what, so I always know who’s contributing,” Streett says. “They check each other’s work and edit it before the next lab session.”

Streett encourages creativity if it helps drive engagement. “I’ve had groups take pictures of the solutions they come up with and send them to me,” she says. “Some groups have made videos.”

Ensure that every team member is heard

Many students who are reticent about speaking out in class have an easier time talking about their work within the smaller groups, Streett finds. That said, she visits with each of the teams during class time to provide guidance and ensure that everyone gets the opportunity to contribute. “In every class, there are a few really sharp people,” she says. “It’s good if each team has a leader, but sometimes the really sharp people tend to bulldoze the other members. I try to control that.”

Focus on the concept, not the notation

For some students, the esoteric notation used in math is intimidating. Streett solves for this by relying on plain English. “Many instructors insist on using the term ‘numerator,’ which I refer to in class as ‘the top of the fraction,’” she explains. “A lot of things in math have official names, but without the context, those names don’t make intuitive sense. I’ve never criticized a student for using the informal terms for things, as long as they get the concept right.”

Encourage them to expand their math goals

“At the beginning, a lot of [students] will say, ‘My goal is just to get a C. If I can get a C, I’ve satisfied the core requirement, and I’m out of here,’” says Streett. “After a while, they start pushing each other to have higher goals.” Sometimes students need an additional nudge.

In Streett’s class, this comes in the form of a mid-semester “reflection”—a survey in which she asks students to assess themselves and their progress in College Algebra.

The students log on to MyMathLab (a cloud-based assignment tracking system), look up their midterm grade, and then reflect on how they have been working and how they feel about that grade. “Every one of these students is capable of making an A in this class, but that isn’t everyone’s goal,” Streett says. “I want to know why. Why are they happy with a B?”

The survey is optional, and Streett has been pleasantly surprised at the high percentage of students who not only participate but also ask to speak with her about it. “The survey gives the student a chance to form a plan to salvage the semester if he or she is not happy with the midterm grade,” she says. “It also reinforces that the student—not the professor—is in charge of his or her grade.”

Outcomes

Streett believes that students feel safer expressing themselves, thanks to the team dynamics, and their grades bear this out: About 90% of students who took the summer enrichment course were able to test out of remedial math classes in the fall.

“I know which classes are going to score higher on tests, in advance, because those students have been studying and have been asking the right questions,” she says. “In the classes where students participate in these team exercises, they get better grades—no question about it.”

Interestingly, the team approach has also improved the attitude of at least one student who was so bored with high school math that it negatively impacted his ACT scores, even though he did not find the subject particularly challenging. “Pretty quickly, I found that this young man was turning out to be a leader in his group,” Streett recalls. “That student just got accepted into a computer science graduate program,” Streett says. “A lot of factors were involved in that success, but I think it began with his realization that a lot of other students have had the same struggles in math, but he thought, ‘Hey, I can actually do this, and it might actually be kind of fun.’”

Student feedback

End-of-semester evaluations of Streett’s course reinforce that she is on the right track. Here is a sample of recent feedback:

“Ms. Streett was the best teacher I’ve ever had honestly. I have tried to take college algebra three separate times and this was the first time I’ve ever understood what was being taught to me. She raised my confidence and ability to function on my own.”

“I learned a lot. She explained everything so clearly, despite my graduating high school 24 years ago, and last math course being over 20 years ago.”

“I have never loved math and Prof. Becki was very on point and made it less complicated. She also helped resolve any doubts and was always helpful!”

“I have struggled with college math for several semesters but taking this class I have been able to understand the material and pass with an A.”

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