More on Maths Teaching in HE

Monday 31 July 2006 at 9:24 pm | In Articles | 1 Comment

Thanks to Gooseania for bringing to my attention a couple of interesting papers on teaching mathematics in US universities.

1. Teaching at the University Level by Steven Zucker explains how the student grading of course teaching can lead to dumbing down of courses. The teacher tends to please the student at the expense of covering the difficult parts of the mathematics course. The author believes that it would help greatly if students were to be told on arrival at university the huge difference in what is expected of them as compared to the schools they have just left.

It is unfortunate that in the UK it is so difficult to persuade non-mathematical teaching experts (so-called) that maths is hard and that I don’t expect students to understand it first-time round, which is why I spend so much time at the end of an A level course revising everything. It is true that at A level and beyond few students really understand the mathematics they have been taught until a year later (and after the exams) when they have to use it and suddenly the mist clears. I well remember looking back on a tough measure theory course that I didn’t really understand at the time, thinking ‘oh it’s obvious now’. It’s a natural part of learning mathematics and should be accepted as such.

2. Teaching Mathematics Graduate Students How to Teach by Solomon Friedberg is a paper on the usefulness of mathematical case studies for new university teachers who haven’t got the experience to judge how to pitch their courses. He gives a case study where a student argues that he should have got full marks in the following exam question (the italics are mine):

    Let f(x)=x^3 -5. Use the definition of the derivative to compute the slope of the tangent line to the graph of f(x) at the point where x=2.

The student questions why his answer only scores 5 marks out of 20. His answer was:

    f(x)=x^3-5, f^{\prime}(x)=3x^2. \text{Slope} = f^{\prime}(2)=12.

The teacher fails to persuade the student of the importance of the method asked for.

Reading the question carefully and doing exactly what is asked for is a skill I have always taught A level and University students. Sometimes I even resort to “mathematics is not a democracy – you have to do as you are told” :)

Mathematics Teaching in HE

Tuesday 11 July 2006 at 7:46 pm | In Articles | 2 Comments

There’s a fascinating letter in today’s Education Guardian which I’ll reproduce here. It is a reply to a previous article by Jonathan Wolff which claims that current university teaching is poor and that lecturers need time for training.

    The training is wrong
    Jonathan Wolff may be speaking from his own experience with his anecdotes about poor university teaching (Comment, July 4), but in my career, teaching mathematics at four of the UK’s leading universities, I have come across very little of it.

    At the London Mathematical Society we recently surveyed mathematics departments on the issue of training for new lecturers. We can confirm, with Wolff, that “barely anyone claims to having profited from it”. However, we would certainly not argue that “training is just an additional, unwelcome, burden”. Almost all our respondents agree that we need high-quality, fit-for-purpose training – but very few feel the current system provides it.
    Niall MacKay
    University of York

That’s precisely my experience in both HE and FE. Teacher/lecturer training in the UK is pretty awful and absolutely abysmal in mathematics, since the vast majority of trainers know very little about the subject and tend to assume that it is taught like any other subject. The word quality is over-used these days but fit-for-purpose training is exactly what is needed, but trying to explain the problem to non-mathematicians is like banging one’s head against a brick wall, so I’ve stopped trying :-?

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