by Greg Teachout

When you think of a math course, which words come immediately to mind? Personal? Evolving? Empowering? Those in STEM fields as adults may find those words resonate, but the majority of students taking introductory college math courses find the experience somewhere between frustrating and harrowing. 

Anxiety about math likely has origins as old as the study of mathematics itself. But the phenomenon has garnered recent attention under a predictable moniker -- math anxiety -- and been deemed a national liability and an impediment to the all-important sense of belonging that drives student success. Though recent efforts are making a dent, math students and instructors both have to grapple with a cultural narrative that math is difficult, unforgiving, and unpleasant for all but the few who are naturally adept at it.

How is it possible, then, that MSU undergrads of all majors are saying things like the following about a 900-student introductory math class? 

I have learned so much and gained so much mathematical confidence which is something that I’ve never felt before. I used to always avoid math like I was allergic to it, but now I almost look forward to sitting down and doing my assignments.”

Moving forward, I strongly feel that this class will be a part of the foundation that helps me think for myself- because math was my Achilles heel.

One thing I appreciated about this class is that it didn’t just focus on what math was, but it focused on what math could do for somebody - including bringing to light injustices.

I’ve had second thoughts on my opinions about covid effects on the rich and poor since we began class. When we began the COVID relation project I began writing on how I thought there was no correlation and then I realized a lot of my own life and people around me had changed a lot for the worse.

 Student feedback about the recently reimagined MTH 101 course is almost uniformly positive in a way that sounds a bit surreal. What are they putting in the secret sauce over at MTH 101, which Department of Mathematics Chair Keith Promislow calls “one of the greatest courses in the history of MSU”? 

 

Tackling Math Anxiety Head-On

Rachael Lund, MTH 101’s visionary instructor, knows that math anxiety isn’t just an aspect of introductory math for many. It’s the defining feature. So she and her team asked themselves how they might change the math curriculum to avoid panicking students while ensuring they learned everything necessary. 

“Almost the first thing any student will say is, ‘I’m not good at math,’ or ‘I don’t like math,” says Lund. “It’s hard for them to engage with the material because they’re anxious about the class.”

Lund and her team made a number of substantive changes to the class, as well as minor tweaks along the way. One of the most revolutionary aspects of the class is the centrality of the Undergraduate Learning Assistants, or ULAs. 

 

ULAs Ratchet Down Fear, Inform Course Design  

Lund knew that most students could succeed at a MTH 101 course with the proper support. But how to define “proper support?” She asked previous MTH 101 students to be ULAs in the course. Previous students would know better than anyone where challenges lay, and how to explain their math epiphanies in a way that would resonate with their peers.

“The ULAs are able to help students like them feel more confident because they’ve been through the experience and come out the other side,” says Lund. 

Lund and her team have also adjusted the diversity of ULA’s academic background to better reflect the students in the class.

“There were some issues before with students not feeling comfortable getting help because the ULAs were traditionally math majors or engineering majors. Now they are peers -- former students with really diverse backgrounds. You have political science majors, James Madison College, history majors, criminal justice, and so many more.”

On top of that, input from the ULAs mean the learning flows both ways, informing course design.

“Our ULAs being past 101 students totally changed the culture of the course,” says Lund. “It wouldn't be the class it is without any of those people. I think that’s part of the reason this class is having such an impact and feeling so personal. We’re recruiting students from within the class, and now they’re my teachers.  I’m working with former students every day. I ask them: what can we change for next year? What do you think students didn’t understand as well? There’s no better pool of people to ask questions than former students who were just in the class.”

 

Making It Personal

In the big book of things students in an introductory math course say, “I’m not good at math” ranks number one, but “When will we ever use this?” is a close second. 

Lund and her team decided they would create a class where they could say, in all seriousness, “Right now. Tomorrow. When you plan the next chapter of your life.”

“If a student says it’s not relevant, we dig and try to find articles, sometimes from that very week, from outlets like Pew Research Center or New York Times that refer to mean, median, mode, or that talk about percentages,” says Lund. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s part of the reason I’ve pushed against using a textbook for this class. Keeping things relevant up to the current moment means this class will never be ‘done,’ because we have to keep infusing it with new things.”

The greatest innovation in keeping students interested came in the form of projects. (Though the team is retitling them “investigations” after they found students were intimidated by the sound of “projects,” but “investigations” sounded exciting.)

“The investigations are one of the reasons the class feels so personal,” says Lund. “For example, the first investigation we call ‘exploring the cost of living.’ In this investigation, students have a hypothetical $50,000 in their hometown, and they use a cost of living calculator to investigate two other cities. This is tied into concepts like percent change, absolute or relative measures, and mean, median, mode. So they’re gathering city data, and determining what salary they’d need to keep the same lifestyle. This lets them figure out they might need $110,000 a year to live the same lifestyle they’re used to in New York.” 

Lund sees this personalization as a crucial ingredient in MTH 101’s great student reviews. Rather than doing calculations in the abstract, students are using the opportunity to research places they may want to move -- sometimes as soon as next semester. Answers to “When will we use this?” don’t get more literal than that. 

 

A Team Effort

Before saying anything else on the subject, Lund is quick to point out that she is not alone in the effort it takes to reimagine a class on the scale of MTH 101. 

“I have to give a shout out to the entire team helping with Math 101. We’ve had a handful of great faculty and amazing graduate students. Assistant Professor Shiv Karunakaran has been indispensable. And without the ULAs, of course, we couldn’t be doing this.” The team effort is not just a logistical necessity. It has allowed the class to be very flexible, virtual, and asynchronous. While the modality was borne of pandemic necessity, it ultimately resulted in something profound: empathy. 

“I’ve had so many students taking care of grandparents with health issues and other life challenges,” says Lund. “Before my life got turned upside down, it was harder to truly understand that some students live in the midst of so much stress all the time. To make our class asynchronous and virtual, with a flexible syllabus and lots of student input helps everyone, really. And that is only possible with our amazing team and the full support of the department and the college.”

Special thanks to the following people who have contributed to course development and student experience.  Math Department Faculty: Michael Brown, Shiv Karunakaran, Andrew Krause, Ryan Maccombs, Tsveta Sendova. Graduate Teaching Assistants: Samara Chamoun, Chloe Lewis, Rob Mcconkey, Christopher Potvin, Nicholas Rekuski, Anthony Sulak. Undergraduate Learning Assistants: Alyssa Bellini, Will Book, Marissa Boynton, Sydnie Burnstein, Malcom Charles, Gwenneth Clise, Jaylin Coleman, Charlotte Cox, Karolyn Davis, Matthew Emery, Oliva Heath, Anna Ludlow, Diamond Russell, Jordyn Schoonover, Clara Pater, Charlotte Scott, Samar Sheikh, Scott McWilliams, Leah Welch, Dorukan Yildirim