Math Education Concepts

Inspiring Motivating Empowering


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The Teacher is Nervous

It’s that time again.  That time when I’m preparing for the 30 or so students eager to get it over with: my class, precalculus.  Every semester for the past two years, I say this is my last semester teaching and I say it with conviction.  It’s not the students, the administration, the workload, or the working conditions.  It’s that nervous feeling, anxiety if you will.  Yes, I am a college instructor and I get nervous and experience intense anxiety on the first day of class, every semester.

My heart races, my palms get sweaty, my voice quivers…  I always give the credit to some random epiphany: this isn’t for me, it was only temporary, I should be doing something else, and whatever other excuses I can conjure up to justify wanting to quit so I don’t have to have a quasi-anxiety attack.

Then I go into the first class, take a few deep breaths, and begin to speak.  Yes, my voice still quivers for about 3 – 5 minutes.  After a while, I calm down, get into the lesson, and go into my “zone.”  Last semester during office hours one of my students told me I go into a zone when I’m teaching.  She said it’s interesting to watch, because I look as though no one else is in the room.  I know that feeling and I can imagine that look.  I feel it when it happens.

While I’m teaching, I become absorbed as new ways of teaching the same material emerges out of nowhere.  Every now and then I pull back, look around the room, and ask if there are any questions.  I can feel the intensity of their stares, so I smile, realizing they are more nervous than I am.  I remember that I am the instructor, they are the students.  I must be calm and confident or they will retreat.  I search my memory for a story that will make me seem human again.  Something always surfaces.  I share the story, they lighten up, and I go back to teaching.

It’s a little after 6 am and I’ve been awake since about 5 am.  I’m, probably anxious about the 30 or so students who will sit in my class next week waiting for that “aha moment” that happens later in the semester.  Some will sit there hoping I will take it easy on them, but of course I can’t.  It’s summer session and we only have 6 weeks to cram 14 weeks of material into their minds.  But they asked for it so here I go.

Writing this blog actually helped me relax a little, but I know this is temporary.  In about a week, I will be nervous, anxious, and ready to declare that this will be my last semester teaching, again.  Then this process will start over again 7 weeks later.


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Complacency, or not

As educators, we should not become complacent in our respective fields.  Many teachers only participate in required professional development activities, but refuse to go above and beyond unless additional pay is involved.  Is this acceptable?  Shouldn’t we continue to grow and learn as we expect of our students?  Or is this asking too much?

 How do you stay current in your field?

 How do you meet the changing needs of your students?

 Do you continue to teach the same way you’ve always taught?  If so, why?


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Take Your Own Advice

I was excited to finally take a graduate level math course.  I had taken so many math education courses that I just couldn’t read another article, analyze any more research data, or write another teaching platform.

 The course was abstract algebra.  On the first day of class the professor said “if you do not have a math background you should leave now.”  A student raised her hand and said she took calculus in undergrad, but she didn’t have a math degree.  The professor coolly responded “then you should leave.”  He was convincing; she left immediately.  He looked around the room.  No one moved.  He discussed the syllabus and informed us of the intensity that lay before us.  He warned us that it would take three hours of studying for every hour we spent in class (6 hours of class each week), just to get a C.  I looked on as my heart pounded in my chest, but I remained calm.  I had a degree in math surely, I could handle abstract algebra.

Boy was I in for it.  By the end of the first class, I was ready to withdraw!  By the second class, two more students left.  The professor said we needed to hang in there or the class would be canceled (it was during the summer session).  I really needed the course, but I wanted out!  As we all looked around the room wondering if we should go or stay, he assured us that everything would be fine.  It wasn’t.

By the end of that class, I called my friend, John, frantically sputtering words that were incoherent.  After I calmed down he encouraged me to go forward with the class.  He said “you can do this.”  I shook my head and agreed at the same time.  I told him I would see.  I was angry with him for making it sound so easy!

By the middle of the third class, I’d decided to withdraw.  I couldn’t take it.  The class was too difficult and I didn’t have enough time to master the material.  I didn’t for the life of me remember abstract algebra being this difficult.  I called John and told him I was finished.  He calmly asked “what would you tell your students?”  I stopped walking, or pacing.  I thought about what he asked.  I answered, through clenched teeth, “I would tell them to spend more time studying (the recommended 3 hours for every hour spent in class), create index cards, go to office hours, complete all homework assignments, and read the lessons in advance.  Huh!!!  It made sense.  I would put my own advice to the test!

I spent about 18 hours each week on this course.  I even took my books and index cards on vacation in West Virginia!  I had highlighters, pencils, pens, erasers, sharpeners, index cards, the textbook, my notebook, and anything else I thought I would need to study.  When I returned from vacation, we took the midterm and I got a B.  That was the first time in my life I was relieved to get a B on a math exam.  As the professor passed me my exam, he mumbled “I expected you to get an A.  Get an A on the final.”  I said “I will.”  And I did!    

After the semester was over, I emailed the professor about my grade.  He emailed me that I had an A on the final and in the course.  He also included that I did better than the other students, by far.  Yes!!!

My lesson is now I know for sure that the advice I give my students actually works!!!  At times we are faced with unexpected challenges.  If we stop long enough and listen, we will hear the advice we would give someone else.  If we take our own advice, we will overcome that challenge.  Of course, provided the advice is good advice. 

 What was an unexpected challenge that prompted you to take your own advice?


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Placement Test Dilemma

It’s a stressful time of year for high school seniors: prom dates, graduation ceremonies, college orientations, and the dreaded college placement tests.  Most colleges require them, and some schools allow students to take them online.  My advice to high school seniors in this position is to resist the urge to have your tutor sit with you while you take the placement test or worse yet, have someone else take your placement test for you.  Yes, you may run the risk of prolonging registration for the required courses for your major.  But you also run the risk of struggling through your freshman year courses.

Imagine this.  You barely make it through math class your entire high school career, but you are accepted into the college of your choice.  You receive a letter in the mail with dates and instructions for taking your math placement test.  You are nervous, but excited that you can take the test online.  You decide to hire a tutor to help you through your test, or you ask your cousin, friend, brother, sister, aunt, or uncle to take the test for you.  You beg them!!!  They agree and you place into Calculus 1. 

 You get to class on the first day and can’t begin to decipher what the professor just said or what he or she just wrote on the board.  Your heart races and you begin to panic!  You can’t go to the department head and admit that you didn’t actually take the placement test or that someone helped you through the entire test, so you suck it up and see it through.  You get a D in the course, but you have to take it over because you can’t move on until you get a C or better.  You’re right back where you were before the first day of class.

 Many people come to me and request my help for the placement test and I refuse.  Students need to be placed where they belong, even if it prolongs their plans of pursuing a degree in their desired major.  Oftentimes, my college students have placed into precalculus and can’t even solve a basic algebraic equation, let alone understand the concepts of functions.  But they press through, get a D, and beg for a C so they can move on.  Unfortunately, my hands are tied (I have guidelines I must follow).  Although they never admit that someone else took their placement test or helped them through it, I know there is no way they were placed into precalculus based upon their skill level.

The best advice is to review and practice material you already learned and do your best on the placement test!


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So you want to pass my class…

10 weeks into the semester and they decide they want to get serious.  Emails, office visits, and after class stand-offs followed by “can I pass this class?”, “what do I need on the final to get a B?”, “what tips can you give me so I can pass?”  Unfortunately, by the time they ask, it’s already too late.  My first day of class speech usually begins with advice on passing my class, just in case anyone is really listening or paying attention.  My speech keeps them from saying “you should have told me” later in the semester; or at least I can say I did tell you the first day of class. 

So here we are near the end of the semester.  They are taking the last test before the final, looking confused.  I really feel for them and all other college students who make similar mistakes and hope to rebound from them at the end of the semester.

While they are sweating, I am writing: tips for being more successful and less stressed in college. 

1. Take difficult, challenging courses prior to your senior year, when possible.  This will reduce the stress of wondering if you’ll pass the course so you can graduate on time.

2. Ask questions in class.  This shows your professor you are interested in learning.  It also helps you to prepare for assignments.

3. Go to your professors’ office hours.  Sometimes professors are more approachable in person.  When teaching a large body of students, they have to stay focused on presenting the material.  When working with students one-on-one, they have more time to focus on the individual student’s needs.

4. Keep up with assignments.  It is easier to stay on track than to try to catch up with missed assignments.  When possible, complete assignments in advance and submit them to your professor for review before submitting the final version of the assignment.

5. Read assignments before the professor presents the material in class.  This will give you an idea of the material your professor will cover.  This will also give you an idea of the level of difficulty you will face when studying the material.

6. Join or form study groups.  Oftentimes, students can present material to their peers in a way that is more comprehensible than when the professor presents the material.  It is very important to join or form study groups in college.  This will keep you on track with your studies and give you more accountability for completing assignments on time.

7. Get plenty of rest and exercise, eat healthy meals, and drink plenty of water.  You will need to operate at maximum capacity in college.  Make sure you take care of your body, so you can be effective in your studies.

8. Join at least one club/organization.  This will keep you tied into your school with activities.  It will reduce your chances of getting homesick and help you stay focused on your studies and assignments.

9. Meet your advisor before registering for courses.  This will reduce the chance of registration errors and ensure that you stay on track for graduating.

10.  Buy all required books.  Resist the urge to save money by not purchasing your required textbooks for class.  When possible, reduce spending by purchasing used books or books at a discount (amazon.com, etc.).  Also consider renting books, when possible.

11. Get help before it’s too late.  Get help immediately!  Do not fall into the trap of thinking it will get better.  Most likely, it will get worse.  You know when you need help.  Seek it before it becomes critical. 

12. Be responsible, and proactive.  Know what you need to do and when you need to do it then get it done!

13. Have fun.  Make sure you plan time for socializing and having fun.  You will be very busy with school work and this can be stressful.  Setting aside time for fun activities will give you something to look forward to and provide an outlet from all the hard work and stress.

This all sounds like common sense decisions, but somewhere between senior year of high school and freshman year of college, common sense vanishes!!