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Conquer Math Phobia by Helping Students Analyze a “Burning Question”

Help even the most fearful of students understand and apply abstract concepts of mathematics with confidence. Here is one professor’s approach.


Jose Vidot, PhD

Curriculum and Activity Specialist, Columbia Basin College

PhD in Education, Administrative Leadership for Teaching and Learning; MA in Mathematics Education; BS in Applied Mathematics

Columbia Basin College instructor Jose Vidot, PhD, teaches statistics at a community college with classes made up of students of diverse ages. Recently, one of Vidot’s students, a mother of two teenage boys, had a severe case of math anxiety, Vidot recalls. “She felt actual, physical pain because of the anxiety she felt taking a math class.”

Fortunately, Vidot has a strategy that can make math more relatable for students from all walks of life: He helps them apply mathematics concepts and analysis to something that matters to them. This woman, for example, had been gathering data since her older son was 5 years old, simply because she and her husband had kept track of the boys’ progress in wrestling. “She had the information already, and it was about the most important thing to her: her kids,” explains Vidot.

Under Vidot’s guidance, this mom decided to analyze whether the amount of time spent on the wrestling mat corresponds to success. Ultimately, she wound up with a B+ in the course, and during her final presentation, she demonstrated a confident mastery of the statistical tools presented over the quarter. Read on to learn how Vidot says he helped her get from point A to point B.

Challenge: Everyday distractions, mathematics fears

Many of the students in Vidot’s classes are studying statistics because they have to—it is a prerequisite for many of the social science disciplines at Columbia Basin College. While the student body is diverse, they share an all-too-common fear of mathematics. Many of them come to class believing that they are not good at math and feeling overwhelmed by the idea of having to deal with statistics—a math concept they may not have been exposed to yet. At the same time, as adult learners, many of them are juggling real-life distractions of jobs and family responsibilities. It all added up to some strong barriers that needed to be removed before real learning could begin.

Vidot decided that it was time to experiment with less conventional teaching methods, to see if he could find a better way to serve students.

Innovation: Adding relevance with a burning question

When Vidot was pursuing his PhD, his academic advisor showed him the importance of having a passion for his research. “My mentor kept asking me, ‘What’s the burning question that’s going to guide your research?’” Vidot recalls. After becoming an educator himself, Vidot realized that this idea could be applied on a more micro level, which led to what he refers to as the Burning Question Technique.

Simply put, Vidot presents each student with a dilemma. “I try to get them to think about a ‘burning question’—something that they really care to know,” he says. “That becomes an anchor for the course for each individual student. They apply all the concepts that we are learning to that question, over the 10 weeks of the class.”


Course: MATH 146 Introduction to Statistics
Frequency: 4 hours of class meetings per week in 1-hour or 2-hour segments
Class size: 30–35
Course description: A course especially suited for the nonphysical science major such as business, medical professionals, behavioral sciences, computer science, etc. A study of both descriptive and inferential statistics, including: measures of central tendency, random variables, probability, probability distributions, sampling methods, confidence intervals, hypothesis testing, estimation, linear regression, and correlation.

In his words: “Statistics 146 is a gateway math class, leading into various different career-focused pathways. It’s the adopted course for the state—it’s taught at all the community colleges in the state of Washington. It’s intended to give students an appreciation of the value of statistics in their own lives and their careers and to make them more sophisticated consumers of statistics.”

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Lesson: The Burning Question Technique

Vidot’s Introduction to Statistics course is organized into five distinct phases that take place over the course of the 10-week class. He offers this advice to educators who are seeking to adapt the “burning question” technique to their course:

Phase 1: Coach students on choosing a burning question

Setting each student up with a chosen “burning question” to develop over the 10-week course requires some up-front investment of time on Vidot’s part. “I have to guide and facilitate to help each student come up with that question,” he explains. One of the simplest strategies for choosing this question is to ask them to think about their intended career. “I encourage that,” he says. “I have a lot of nursing students, and they deal with very interesting issues. One of them analyzed the degree to which vitamin D deficiency is affecting the health of the community. She came up with very interesting results.”

In this preliminary phase, Vidot also asks them to reflect on where they would look for data to help answer their question. Then each student uploads a document with this information to Google Drive, where Vidot reviews it and provides feedback.

Phase 2: Help them find and collect good data

In phase 2 of the Burning Question Technique, students are taught the basics of data collection and organization. They generate their first sets of data in tabular form. “It’s one of the harder phases for me,” Vidot says, “because I often have to ask them to go back and fill the gaps in their data. If they are gathering [data] through a survey, I have to coach them on how to create an effective survey. There’s a lot of back and forth.”

Phases 3: Encourage them to make inferences

“[Students] usually don’t see the continuity of the project until the third phase,” Vidot says. “At that point, they have their burning question in a document that they are developing. They have [collected] their data, and they are describing how they [did that]. They have provided a viable explanation [for the results]. In the third phase, we start to get into the inferential statistics—regressions, the Z values, normal distributions, and so on.”

Phase 4: Help them form and test a hypothesis

Having applied the formal inferential techniques in phase 3, the students are ready to develop and document their hypothesis and test it in phase 4. “We restructure the burning question into something more formal,” Vidot says. “The students draw conclusions and measure their confidence in their inferences.”

Phase 5: Require them to present their conclusions

The culminating project, worth 25% of the grade, is a report in which students refine their conclusions and present them in PowerPoint form.

Throughout the course: Check students’ comprehension

Occasionally, Vidot also administers what he calls “exit tickets.” At the end of the class time, he will assign the class a brief problem related to the concept they just learned. The student is expected to complete the problem and drop it at the classroom door before they leave. The exit tickets (when combined) are worth 5% of the course grade. “If I see a pattern of gaps in the exit tickets, that guides my development of instruction for the next class,” Vidot says.

He also uses the Plickers app to poll students in class, to see how concepts are sinking in. He asks a multiple-choice question, and the students hold up shape-coded cards to indicate their answers. Vidot scans the class with his smart phone, and the app recognizes the cards and generates a graph of the distribution of answers. “It makes for some lively discussions,” Vidot asserts.


Vidot has refined the Burning Question Technique several times to make it a bit less labor intensive. For example, he began using Google Docs and Google Drive, which provide a way of giving students quick feedback.

Other math professors have taken notice, but Vidot is still a department maverick: He is the only one using the burning-questions concept in statistics. “I lot of the others think it sounds like a lot of work,” he says. “It is. On Saturdays, I hold study table at the public library—off the books—and about a quarter of the class shows up for that.”

Student feedback

Frequently, students are confused at the outset of the course. “They hate it,” Vidot asserts. “The first comment I get is, ‘Where’s the math?’ Because the first things you have to teach are more conceptual: [What are] data collection methods, what is a population, those kinds of things. These students have just come up from an algebra class where everything is symbolic and numeric. But the final comments are mostly positive. People say the Burning Question project is difficult, but they get a lot out of it.”

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