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How to Teach Math Using the Stock Market (and Vice Versa)

In Robin Rufatto’s class project, students must work together as Wall Street analysts.

Educator

Robin Rufatto, MA

Assistant Lecturer, Mathematical Sciences, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana

MA and BA in Mathematics

Robin Rufatto, MA, has been teaching math for 40 years. And she knows that it is not always easy to get her students at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, really interested in statistics, quantitative reasoning, and complicated Excel spreadsheets. But she also knows that nearly every student is somewhat intrigued by the stock market.

So she merged the two ideas. Now her calculus students spent eight weeks in a group project learning how stocks work; how businesses seek out investors to scale their growth; and the differences between stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.

“I introduce the project after about a month, usually after the first exam,” Rufatto says. “By that time, I have gotten to know the students and feel comfortable introducing new materials.”

She says her students tend to be most successful when using an active learning approach, so the stock market project is a perfect fit. While the groups are finding out about the Dow Jones and NASDAQ, tracking eight stocks and two mutual funds, they also learn about making graphs in Excel and how to do percent-growth calculations.

It is an experiential journey that works. “Not many other people I know do this long-term project, for several reasons,” she says. “First, it’s extra work on top of the regular curriculum.” But more important, she adds, is that you need to adjust your mindset to teach mathematics differently—diving into statistics and finance, topics not typically part of the syllabus.

Educators must also understand the intricacies of group dynamics, see how students’ work and study habits interact, and be able and willing to guide group projects and oral presentations.

Context

“I’ve been teaching for 40 years. This type of work keeps me from getting bored! I get to learn and teach new material.”

— Robin Rufatto, MA

Course: Math 125 Quantitative Reasoning

Description: A diverse course including statistics and other topics such as mathematical modeling, problem solving, finance, geometrical concepts, growth patterns, and applications to the physical sciences, social sciences, and economics.

See resources shared by Robin Rufatto, MA

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How to launch a stock market project

Professor Rufatto has created a stock market project to engage students in her Quantitative Reasoning course. Here are some lessons she has learned about how to use a similar exercise in your classes.

Begin by teaching collaboration

Because the project involves groups working together, Rufatto says it is essential for students to know each other. She conducts what she calls group “prep work activities”: a ball throw where students must call out a name before they toss it to a classmate, completing a 100-piece puzzle, creating a web with yarn, or putting eight pictures together without speaking to anyone else. “Essentially, these are all icebreakers,” she says.

The assignments help show the importance of collaboration. “When creating a web out of yarn, sometimes it’s too tight. If there is too much tension, it won’t work. With people, the same thing applies: If there is tension, someone must step outside of the web,” Rufatto says. “Or conversely, if someone doesn’t hold up their share and do their work, the web will collapse. These visuals are vital to the process.”

For the exercises in collaboration and work styles, Rufatto recommends books by Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and the Carter-Bishop-Kravitz assessment tool.

Choose group members carefully

Each group has three to five students. Rufatto says she chooses group members based on their individual learning styles. She also separates friends. Group work is a learning exercise in personality and work style: The students get to learn something about themselves within the group, says Rufatto. “They start to realize that they like organizing, or that they tend to stand back as they collaborate on the project.”

Teach stock basics

Rufatto teaches the students about investing by first having them pick stocks to follow in class. That gives them a handle on the fundamentals: what a public company is; what the Dow Jones 30 and NASDAQ are; why certain stocks, such as Nike or Target, are not valued as high as students might expect. (She explains that they may not be experiencing growth at the time, which is important to investors.)

Each group then chooses their stock portfolio, using the computer lab in the library for research. Students tend to pick stocks of public companies that they are familiar with—for example, a brand of shirt or computer that they use. “Sometimes a student will choose a stock by a name that they like—and quickly learn, for example, that Fannie Mae isn’t a candy company,” Rufatto says. “There is a lot of negotiation over which stocks the group will pick, and I often provide a checklist of what they should discuss to help them,” she says.

Have students follow closing prices

The groups spend the first week researching why and how stocks are valued, using Morningstar, Standard & Poor’s, or Value Line reports. They follow the closing prices for six to eight weeks. For each stock, the students are required to track on an Excel spreadsheet or Lotus Notes the name of the stock, its ticker symbol, whether it pays a dividend, its closing price as of a certain date, and 52-week highs and lows. Rufatto requires the name of the group of funds, the fund the group is following, and the closing price as of a specified date. They must record the closing price and the Dow Jones Industrial Average for each stock or fund every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Go beyond the data

Rufatto gives each group one day in class to work on researching one large question, which must be answered in a three-page written report. (There are eight questions; she usually has eight groups). “The purpose of a ‘big question’ is to give students a broader understanding of the history and key players in the stock market, both now and in the past,” Rufatto says. Sample questions include: Who is Warren Buffet? What is the history of the stock market? She also hands out a guideline sheet to standardize the project—it includes requirements such as having a table of contents and writing out all the stock details. “That leaves less room for error,” she says.

Clarify the important elements of the project

Sixty percent of the grade is based on written and oral group presentations. The students must explain how the group chose its stocks, at least three things they learned about the company that they did not know before, what each member of the group did on the project, which stock they would sink money into, and which they would not. (Many students say this helps them learn how important it will be for them to choose a 401(k) and make decisions about how their retirement funds are invested. Doing these valuations is a good example of when math is more than math, Rufatto says.)

Rufatto’s grade is based on how thorough the project is, whether the entire group participated, and the appearance of the overall project. The 10- to 15-minute oral presentation must involve every member of the group. Creativity and appearance—even of group members—are judged.

Have students evaluate each other

Rufatto explains that 20% of each student’s grade is assigned by their fellow group members. She asks students to rate their peers on how well they worked with the group, their attendance and promptness, their preparedness, and how well they fulfilled their individual responsibilities. All answers are confidential.

Students learn to value their learning differences and strengths and gain an appreciation for what is needed to work well with each other. She often asks, “What did you learn about your group, yourself, and how you work?” The answers turn the stock market exercise into a lesson in measuring roles, as well as an in-depth look at the marketplace.

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