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Month: May 2016

Using Folders to Learn Student Names

Using Folders to Learn Student Names

I have been listening to a great podcast lately named “Teaching In Higher Ed” and it’s a great combination of teaching advice, new trends, productivity tips, and technology recommendations. You can find it on iTunes here, or go directly to the web site. I was listening to Episode 12 which dealt with ways to learn student names and it reminded me of a blog I shared in my old WordPress blog and I thought it was time for an update. Enjoy!

Day One

On the first day of class, especially in a developmental math class, our students are full of fear and anxiety. They feel that math is their worst subject and it’s beyond their reach. They know few, if any, of their classmates. This is not the time to start lecturing. This is the time to start building a community of learners!

I do not lecture on the first day of class. (As a rule, I teach classes that meet 4 times a week for 50 minutes at a time.) I start in a pretty traditional way – I take roll, read through the syllabus, and make sure that everyone understands how the class will go. Then I give my students a survey that allows me to collect information about them. Most of the questions are designed to help the students understand their strengths and weaknesses, and alert them to future potential problems such as working full-time while taking 18 units and taking care of 3 children. (If you would like a copy of my survey, just let me know.) I also ask my students to tell me something that is special or unique about them – it’s a great way to show your students that you are truly interested in them (and their success).

Once the surveys are complete I form groups of 4, giving each group a folder. I ask each group to share their stories with each other, including their response to the special/unique prompt. I then ask them to put their names on the front of the folder and to come up with a group name. It may sound a little juvenile, but it really encourages students to talk to each other. Some groups will sit there and stare at each other, but when I let them know that I will name their group and that they will most definitely not like the name I choose they start talking.

I use these folders to take roll during the semester, and find that it really helps me to learn my students’ names quickly. My goal is to memorize at least one student’s name in each group each day. Some groups have a 3:1 gender ratio, which also helps to learn the name of that one student. Within a week I know everyone’s name and I address them by their name whenever I can. I also refer to their surveys as I take roll, so I get to know them.

The goal here is to get students to be comfortable with at least 3 other students in the class. As I figure it, connection to classmates leads to connection with the class as a whole, which hopefully leads to a connection with me and the material.


This technique really helps me to learn student names in a quick fashion. How do you learn your students’ names? How important is community to you? Please leave a comment or reach me through the contact page at my web site –


Do It MY Way? No, Do It YOUR Way!

Do It MY Way? No, Do It YOUR Way!

I was at a session at a small math conference last fall, and the presenter was going through their list of things students must do to learn mathematics. When the presenter said that students had to do things according to the instructor’s method (“They have to do it MY way!”), I am sure my jaw fell to the floor. In my experience you have to let students think and experiment in order for them to learn and understand mathematics.

As the years have passed I have tried to allow students time to think in class, especially how they think they should solve the problem.

When I tell them how to do it I rob them of a chance to think mathematically.
When I tell them that this is the only way to do it I am telling them that they no longer have to think.

For students who have struggled with mathematics this approach takes away motivation and inspiration.

Last semester, in an intermediate algebra class, we were reviewing for a final exam and were discussing solving absolute value inequalities. This is a topic where I only teach one method: convert the inequality to a compound linear inequality and solve. As I reminded students of the strategy we used in the past, one student asked if we could solve this type of inequality in the same way that we solve quadratic inequalities and rational inequalities. (Find critical values and test intervals.) I was so proud of that out-of-the-box thinking and praised the student for being able to tie the concepts together. Even better – several students used this approach on their exam.

I observed a colleague last semester and he was having students come to the board to factor polynomials. One of the polynomials to factor was x^2 – 4x. Many students quickly confuse this with the difference of squares x^2 – 4, missing the fact that there is a factor of x that is common to both terms. The student who went to the board surprised me by adding on “+ 0”, rewriting the expression as a trinomial. He then proceeded to factor it as (x + 0)(x – 4), and ended up writing the factored form as x(x – 4). I loved that the student thought of such a unique way to factor the expression instead of just working their way down a checklist.

When you tell students to find the maximum/minimum value of a quadratic function that they must complete the square, you rob them of trying to find the most efficient way to find the vertex for that function.
When you tell students to graph lines by first rewriting the equation in slope-intercept form, you rob them of perhaps finding a more efficient way to graph the line, such as finding intercepts.
When you tell students to solve a system using the elimination method, you rob them of the chance to think whether the elimination or substitution method would be more efficient.

Let your students try to solve new problems before you tell them how to do it. Thinking leads to understanding and growth. Don’t restrict them to only one approach to a particular type of problem. Don’t tell them the technique to use on an exam. Try changing MY way to YOUR way, and watch your students flourish!

Letting Students Choose What They Want To Learn

Letting Students Choose What They Want To Learn

After 22 years at my college I finally took a bank leave this semester. Although there has been a lot of relaxing and traveling, I used my time off to do some reading and thinking about how I wanted to improve my math and statistics classes. In particular I wanted to help my students grow, learn to think, and take away skills that they would find valuable outside of the classroom.

One of my ex-students (who I respect a great deal) shared a photo on Facebook about how students learn about the Pythagorean theorem but not about anything practical that they can use in their lives like how a mortgage works, how expensive student loans can be, how to do their taxes, … . I am not sure that these life skills directly fit in with my algebra classes, but I can definitely help shed some light on them. So I will.

In my algebra classes I start the semester with a survey that helps me learn about my students, their goals, and the struggles they face. It helps me to get to know my students and identify stumbling blocks that they may face. I am in the middle of reworking that survey for the first time in a long while, and I have decided that I will ask my students to tell me which mathematical/numerical/financial topic they would like to learn about. I want them to have some ownership over at least one thing they learn in my class. Although not directly related, I am sure that this will also have a positive impact on my students’ learning. At the very least, having some control over what they will be learning should help with their motivation for the class.

I will work this self-chosen topic into my grades. I am leaning toward counting it as equivalent to one of my six exams. I am trying to decide whether I will prepare materials (worksheets, web links) for each topic for students to work through, take a few minutes out of class each day to address one of their topics, or ask the students to make a presentation about their topic.

So, if there was a math-related/quantitative topic you wish you had learned about in college, what would it be? I’d love to hear what you think. Please leave a comment or send me an email with your topic. I have asked some of my Facebook friends and their responses have been very interesting!

Math Education Lesson at the Museum

Math Education Lesson at the Museum

Last month my wife and I visited the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. We saved their Pop Art collection for the end because it’s a light way to finish a day at the museum. We were admiring an Andy Warhol piece on Elvis when a guide walked up to us and asked us if we’d like to learn about a piece in the next room. We love to learn, so we took her up on the offer.

It did not go as I had thought. The guide started by saying “Rather than me telling you about the piece, I’m going to give you five minutes to look at the piece and then have you tell me about it.” At first I felt sheer panic, and I immediately thought about how I am sure that I have many students that feel this way in my math classes. Then I did what I suggest to my students – I thought about the piece. I looked for patterns. I looked for symmetry. I looked for parts that stood out. I tried to figure out what the artist was trying to say.

The guide asked for our thoughts and my wife went first. As she spoke I was impressed that she mentioned different characteristics than I had thought of. I shared my observations. The guide acknowledged our contributions and mentioned that she hadn’t thought about the things we mentioned and that they were good impressions. She then told the story of how the piece was created and told us of several other themes that could be found in the work.

It was a great learning experience because she let us do our own discovery first, then she helped us build upon our own observations. I try to do the same in my math classes. Math, like art, needs to be experienced. It should not be something that happens to you, you have to play an active role and become engaged in the process to learn and truly understand. I think I will share this story with my students on the first day of class next semester.

One of my goals for next semester is to encourage my students to think more and for me to “instruct” less. We will be discovering together. It took an unexpected learning experience in an unexpected place to make this all crystal clear to me.