TTU faculty offer another way to teach, and learn, math

Posted by Lori Shull - Wednesday, August 31 2011
lshull@tntech.edu

A group of about 80 students will be learning the same mathematical formulas, but in an entirely different way this fall at Tennessee Tech University.

Two sections of a pre-calculus class will trade in some of their classroom hours for time spent in the math zone of the library’s Learning Commons. Instead of standing at the chalkboard lecturing, their professors will circulate among them, answering questions one on one and taking more time to address individual problems and getting to know their students.

“The plan is that they check out a computer, go to the math zone and work on their homework,” said TTU math professor Troy Brachey, who will be teaching the redesigned courses. “They have better access to Tommy (Elliott) and me, so they should have plenty of time to get their questions answered and get their work done.”

Brachey and Elliott will be teaching the two sections together, splitting their time between the classroom and the math zone. The course redesign, as well as laptops for students to borrow to work on, has been paid for with part of a grant from the National Science Foundation. If it goes well and the students show a marked improvement over their peers in the traditional course sections, the new method will be expanded to other courses.

“We intend to expand this into all sections of precalculus and then incorporate aspects of the redesigned classes into some of our sections of calculus,” department chairperson Allan Mills said. “We’re looking for a few converts.”

To measure student learning, all students in Math 1730 will be given the tests before and after the semester. Their course grades will also be tracked as they move through the mathematics courses required by their major.

In the math zone, which is a corner of the Library Commons with white boards lining the walls, Elliott and Brachey will circulate, answering individual questions. If they find that many students are having the same problem, they will pull the class together and go over the problem with the group.

“Math is not a spectator sport,” Elliott said. “I look to the team-building moments in the class when one of us will say, ‘Circle up. Take a knee. We need to clarify some things.’”

In addition to learning math and enabling students to move on in their coursework, the professors say they hope this will teach students to know how to recognize they need help and give them the confidence to ask questions.

“When I was a math major, I was by myself in a carrel. That’s not the way we’re designing this. We want them to work together,” Mills said. “We have high hopes.”

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