Conversations with UCC Math Instructor: Math is more than just adding up X and Y

Published by Sophavid Choum-Starkey on

A UCC student’s math homework
Photo by Sophavid Choum-Starkey

Conversations with UCC Math Instructor: Math is more than just adding up X and Y

Students often delay college math and writing classes which can tend to be a bit of a roadblock. However, completion of college-level math and writing in the first year of study is a metric that is a strong indicator for student success.

Information from UCC Mission Fulfillment and Institutional Effectiveness Annual Report 2019-2020
Chart created by Sophavid Choum-Starkey / The Mainstream
Graphic created by Kacy Buxton / The Mainstream

“First, math courses are foundational. They’re supposed to provide tools that are going to be useful to students throughout the educational process. If you want to take advantage of the tools, you should have them early; then you can apply them throughout,” UCC math instructor Stuart Kramer said.

“Some of those tools are just the mechanics of doing math, tools like adding and subtracting and basic algebra facts. Some of them are the process of thoughts. Some of them are about the way you approach problems and the way you analyze things. Those aren’t specifically the things people tend to think about when they take a math class,” he added.

Kramer emphasized that what students learn in math are patterns of thoughts. Those abilities to do analysis translate into all kinds of applications. So, getting those foundational ideas earlier is better.

Kramer also suggested that, if students take math classes early, they get their prerequisites taken care of. And if they decide to branch off in different directions, it makes it easier. It just helps to open up more opportunities.

Stuart Kramer explains why students should take math classes earlier in their college career.
Video created by Peyton Manning / The Mainstream

A strong correlation exists between college completion and students taking their foundation courses early in math and writing composition. For students who tend to put them off, the correlation shows that they are not as successful.

What is the biggest risk of putting off math courses?

According to Kramer, the biggest risk is forgetting what you already know. This is a common issue: people come into their math classes at the very end of college when their math skills are rusty.

In the 25 years Kramer has taught, he has seen many types of students. He said that the challenging students are the ones who come in a little belligerent because they don’t think there is any value in math. They are being forced to take these classes. He said that those are often the students who wait until the end.

Stuart Kramer is an associate professor of math at UCC
Photo provided by Stuart Kramer

It is like bad medicine; they put it off. Sometimes they’re actively resistant; they fight against learning. This makes it hard for everybody, according to Kramer.

On the other hand, some students are very interested and eager to learn. Most of the students are in middle. 

Whether students are resistant or excited about math, the pandemic has made taking math courses more difficult.

“If there is one piece of advice that I would give to students, it is to ask for help early and often,” Kramer said. “Many students are hesitant to seek out one-on-one help. I am not sure exactly why. They might be embarrassed to admit to not getting something. There is so much help available at UCC. I want them to take advantage of it.”

When should students seek help?

“Any time that you have a question that you have difficulties with and you are struggling with, you should be talking to your instructors, tutors or somebody. There is no reason to bang your head against the wall by yourself,” Kramer said.

Stuart Kramer, associate professor of math at UCC, shares his advice about math classes
Graphic created by Kacy Buxton / The Mainstream
Q&A About Math Class
Stuart Kramer UCC associate professor of math shared his advice
Q: Is it fair to say challenging in math courses can be one of the reasons students drop out?

A: Yes. I think sometimes students become intimidated by courses that they need to take, and they avoid, and they put them off. Then, they drop out and they might not prepare mentally. That is very unfortunate. Give it a shot; give it a try. And be willing to keep working at it
Q: What are the challenges for math instructors have in helping students?
A: The main challenge is to get students to ask for help when they needed. Sometimes students are quite willing to. And that’s great. I haven’t quite figured out what I did or said to those people that make them willing to come in. And then I have another group that they don’t seem to want to contact and they don’t let the instructor know what’s going on. They don’t let instructors know that they have difficulty.
Q: What challenges have instructors at UCC faced during the pandemic?
A: Instructors have the same general challenges that students have: managing time and getting everything done. We have a very heavy course load as well in addition to doing services for college. All faculty serve on committees and do other outside work. In addition to just presenting the class, we also have to prep what is going with it [class], designing the way we want to present the material, choosing and working through examples, doing homework, grading homework and putting together tests.
So, instructors and faculty members put almost as much time or maybe more time into class as students. We have many of the same challenges as a student does; it is just on the other side of the desk.
Q: What can student peers do to help students who are struggling with math?
A: Peers can help a lot. It starts with students who have difficulties reaching out. Many times, students don’t ask instructors or tutors; they don’t even go to their peers either. But if they do, peers can work very effectively to help and learn the material and explore it. Working together on homework is a great way to get start it.
Q: What else can advisors do to help students succeed?
A: Advise students to take foundational courses such as math and writing early. Take math and English composition courses right at the beginning. Do it while it’s fresh as possible. Do it to provide the foundation for later courses.
The advisors can help influence attitude as well as times for students. For example, reassure students that it might be scary and you might not want to do but you would be better to do it early and maybe it is not bad as you think it is.
Q: What else can math instructors and departments do to help students?
A: We do what we can. We keep doing our best. We always look for things that will make our teaching more effective
Q: What else can UCC do to help the math department support students better?
A: The administration wants us to succeed. We are working together on improving the advising. We’re working on encouraging students to get into early courses, the foundational courses. We’re looking at alternative ways to present courses.
We are always reviewing placements. We make sure students get into the right course and get started. We started experimenting with the co-requisite model; we have been doing a course where faculty provides tutoring assistance. There are more co-requisite ideas that we are looking at as well.

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