Improving College Mathematics Teaching [30min]

Comments on Robert Reys’ article in the Notices of the AMS on the possibility of improving teaching practices in mathematics departments.

In the August 2013 issue of the Notices of the AMS, contained an article by Robert Reys, titled Getting Evidence-Based Teaching Practices into Mathematics Departments: Blueprint or Fantasy? (pdf) In short, he discussing the need and challenges for changing the way mathematics is taught in higher ed.  And, in short, I completely agree with him. For this short note, I just want to address on suggestion he makes: (pg. 909)

One valuable first step would be to have an open and frank discussion about teaching among members of the department.

(Just to be clear, if you choose to not read the article, he adds some extras to this and previous discussed the challenges to making this happen, with the most critical, being about campus or department culture).

Do I believe this is difficult?  Yes, very much so. One anecdote: a colleague was assigned to teach a lower-level course that he had not taught before, and so he went around to various faculty that had taught it to get their insights. He didn’t ask the usual questions about the book or the pacing or the structure, but basically asked ‘What is this course about?’ (meaning, of course, what is the point of this course, etc.).  That’s a great opening line for an ‘open and frank discussion’, but it was received as if my colleague did not know the content of the course, and even when that was clarified, the question was often not answered.  So it is difficult because we don’t have a language for it, and we aren’t used to that sort of conversation. Another source of difficulty is that we have a teaching and learning center on campus. This should be a positive, but it often becomes a negative as anything about ‘teaching’ is associated with the center, and is considered part of some higher administrator’s (sinister) plan.

Can it be done? We’ll see. Some colleagues and I will be starting a teaching seminar in the spring, with one of the key goals of creating an opportunity for such discussions.  I’ve also proposed, but failed miserably at implementing, a similar seminar campus wide, but with more of a focus on celebrating innovations in teaching (or just neat ideas).  If I can continue this blog until spring, I’ll post about it then.


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