Tag Archives: Education

You Write Really Well for Someone Who Studied Math

writing-828911_1280A few years ago, I had written an email to a teacher at my child’s school. The response I got was quite unexpected: you write really well for someone who studied math. When I first read the response, I chuckled. Over time, I became more and more aware of the same reaction from others.

What does it mean to write “well” anyway? As a person who is a self-proclaimed math geek, do people expect me to make grammatical errors or use simple sentence structure? Do we have different expectations of writing competency for those who are strong in the maths or sciences? Should I expect gifted writers to have trouble with basic calculations?

There is a big difference between writing well and being a creative writer, in my mind. I am not sure that I would ever be able to weave a story togetheronce-upon-a-time-719174_1280 like some of my favourite authors. Robertson Davies could paint a picture with the details in his stories. John Irving captured my imagination with A Prayer for Owen Meany. If you haven’t had a chance to read that novel, I recommend that you do. He truly weaves together an amazing story. While I can put sentences together and communicate ideas, I don’t have the gift of storytelling. However, according to some, I can still write well.

I always credit my ability to write with my love of reading. Yes, I love to solve a math problem and I still find calculus exciting and fascinating (I am sure there are those of you who shuddered at my reference to calculus), but I also love good writing. I was the kid who had the flashlight under the blankets because I HAD to finish the novel. I would become so immersed in the stories that I would forget about everything around me. I would laugcrying-146425_1280h. I would cry. I would finish the story and then read it again. I loved new words, and I tried to write like some of the authors I read.

Just as with most math skills, I think writing (especially good writing) takes practice. In high school, I took an English credit that focused on grammar and writing. At the time, I hated it. There was no reading in the course. We had to learn grammar rules. We had to edit. We had to share our writing. Looking back now, I know that I learned a lot in that class, but at the time it seemed like torture. I wonder if I should thank Mr. Winterkorn for his patience with me. Probably.

So go and write. I hope that I can continue to write “well”, even though I don’t consider myself a writer (or a mathematician for that matter).   I will also try not to hold any preconceptions about writing ability based on math skills. How about you?

Sue Guesuenther
Special Projects Coordinator, Academic Zone Resource Developer and “Math Guru”
A-Z Learning Services, Student Development Centre, Brock University

Entrepreneurial Thinking—Student-Centred Learning with a Grown-Up Twist

I’ve been thinking of another session I attended during the Cowordlennect 2015 conference: Think like an Entrepreneur by MARS, a member of Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs .

Entrepreneurial Thinking: The conference session was for K-12 teachers, but I found the strategies exciting and relevant for any learning environment. Why? Well, I thought about student buy-in, excitement, and engagement. Students sometimes resist student-centred learning: Can’t you just tell me what to do? This just seems like more work. What’s the answer, the formula? 

Fair statement and questions. Essentially, I think students just want to know WHY. . . an important question. Renaming student-centred learning as  Entrepreneurial Thinking gave me an answer to the question, “Why student-centred learning?”. . .  an answer that makes sense to university students because it has real-world application–inherent in its very name.

During the session, we participated in a Design Thinking activity.

Step 1: In groups, we explored a general problem (our “problem” was student engagement). We were given sticky notes, markers, and a large paper divided into three sections labelled classroom, administration, and national.

Step2: We explored the “problem” from the three  perspectives, writing our ideas on the sticky notes and placing them in the related sections.

Step 3: We clustered the sticky notes according to theme and their relatedness.

Step 4: We identified one underlying “problem” that we felt we could address, and then we explored potential solutions. To guide us, we watched a video of  Clay Christensen’s Milkshake Marketing strategy which frames products (or solutions) as doing a “job” for people. For example, as a teacher choosing an instructional strategy, I might ask myself, “What job am I hiring this Design Thinking activity to do for my students?”.

Download a copy of the activity template

Hopefully you’re getting ideas.  Personally, I thought of our programming for our at-risk students (i.e., students who are at risk of being on academic probation). Using this Design Thinking strategy, students could explore a problem (like social networking and  privacy) in a way that not only develops their research skills but also builds their confidence–confidence that they can  make a real difference in the world.

I also thought of our academic-zone.com online programming and asked myself, “What job did we hire academic-zone to do?” . . . for students, for teachers, and for administrators. To our clients: “What job did you hire academic-zone to do?”. To our future clients: “What job would you hire academic-zone to do for you and your students?”.

The question is direct and focuses on outcomes.

Please share your thoughts.

Cheers,
Margaret

3c94c98Margaret Groombridge
Coordinator Learning Skills Instruction
A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

Superman, Spider-Man, and Me

I really liked Superheroes as a kid. Okay, I admit it- I still really, really like Superheroes. I’m one of those people who will stand in line for hours to catch a midnight showing of a new Superhero movie.   I like that they lead ordinary quiet lives, but when needed, take on their alter egos and use their powers to help people. My favourites are Superman and Spider-Man.

comics

I lead a pretty quiet “Clark Kent” life. I’m a design engineer for a small company that makes motor controllers for electric vehicles and am pretty much a “stereotypical” engineer: detail-oriented, analytical, and meticulous in my work.

Recently, I was presented with an opportunity to work a few hours a week as a Learning Services Instructor in a drop-in help centre offering help in Physics, Computer Science, and Technical Writing. At first, I was reluctant to take on this challenge. It’s been over 20 years since my own “university student” days, and I was concerned that I had forgotten how to study and learn, let alone try to guide others. But my spouse works in A-Z Learning Services at Brock, loves the job, and thought that it would be a good idea for me to get out of my comfort zone and share my knowledge, so I agreed.

I was pretty nervous the first day of work. What if I didn’t know how to solve a problem? What if students didn’t understand my explanation? What if they asked me about a lab I hadn’t done?

I have to say, it was a good learning experience for me (hopefully for the students as well). Here are some of the things I learned over the two terms.

  1. Physics and math haven’t changed in 20 years, but technology certainly has! With the software that professors have available, students can often get instant feedback on their answers. While that’s great, I find it leads to impulsivity. When students get three tries to get an answer, they tend to guess the first two tries and then read the hints before really starting to think about the problem.
  2. The problem solving techniques that got me through university and that I continue to use in my day job, still work. I’ve always approached every big problem as a bunch of smaller problems linked together. So if I can break a bigger problem down into its smaller sub-problems, then it seems less daunting. Solve the smaller problems, and the bigger problem practically solves itself, kind of like putting a puzzle together.
  3. Students don’t take the time to “show their work”. Since they often only get marks for the correct answer, they think it saves time to not put in units and show their work. Unfortunately, this often leads to the incorrect answer.   I tried to model problem-solving including all the units, showing all the steps, and explaining my thinking to help students see the value of showing their work, regardless of whether they got marks for it.
  4. Students are appreciative of the help, either from me or from other peers who had grasped the subject and were enthusiastic to share their knowledge.
  5. Offering learning support is an energizing and rewarding job!

Admittedly, I’m not “Faster than a speeding bullet”, “More powerful than a locomotive” or even “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”, but I can help students calculate the speed of a bullet, help them figure out when the locomotive will arrive at the station given its speed and distance traveled, and guide them to the formula to calculate how much time it will take for an object to land from a tall building. Not really superpowers- but I am happy that I was able to help students learn.

Now that my contract is over, it’s back to my quiet “Clark Kent existence”. I’d welcome the opportunity to take on the role of Learning Instructor again, a little wiser about what to expect.

For those of you who have more experience working with post-secondary students, what is the best piece of advice you would give to someone new (or relatively new) to this field?

SupermanIdentify withheld to protect writer’s alter ego

Part-time A-Z Learning Services Instructor (Physics, Computer Science, Technical Writing)

Preparing for Chemistry Exams: Get an “A” using one quick trick?

Sorry, it’s not that easy, and guess what, it shouldn’t be. Chemistry isn’t called one of the “hard sciences” for nothing.  🙂

At this time of year, I’m busy running exam review sessions for first-year chemistry students as part of our A-Z Learning Services support at Brock University. I’ve worked at Brock since 1970 as a lab demonstrator, lab coordinator, first-year chemistry instructor, and now (after retiring, ha ha) as an instructor for Learning Services.

A question I’m asked frequently: “Have students changed over the years?”

Pixabay

Sliderule – The precurser to calculators

In my experience, students have always had a tendency to skim information to“look for answers” rather than read for understanding.In the 60s and early 70s, there were no calculators, no cellphones, no online lecture notes, no Google for answers, and no internet (The Horror!).

So, rather than seeing a change in students, I’ve seen an increase in tools that facilitate this skimming approach. Learning can be work. Learning can be hard. Learning can be satisfying (when you finally get it).

When students ask me what they can do to do better in Chemistry, this is what I tell them:

1. GO TO LECTURE-because it is helpful to hear as well as see and write down information.

2. MAKE MINI FLASHCARDS-with definitions of terms, concepts, formulas, and symbols, and carry them around in your pocket. (You are learning while you make the cards, and it is fun.). When waiting in line (for coffee, bus, etc.) pull them out and test yourself (rather than texting). Put the cards you know back in your pocket. Those you miss go on the bottom of your stack. This is the fastest way to learn material.

3. KNOW YOUR VOCABULARY – because knowing your Chemistry vocabulary will make the rest of your studying much easier

4. REVIEW ALL YEAR – because Chemistry exams are cumulative. Your review should be ongoing starting from the beginning of the school year.

5. PRACTICE – because practicing calculations, understanding the use of units, studying with friends, turning in assignments and reading the textbook are important to do too. Remember, ten minutes per day is much more effective than one hour per week.

So . . . Enjoy the good feeling that you will get when you work hard and finally understand.

BRAIN OLYMPICS FEB 2009 033Gail Neff
Learning Skills Instructor
A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

6 Reasons for Student “Apathy”

Did I get your attention? Are you up in arms? Good!

If you’re a student, let’s hear from you. If you provide student support, please share your wisdom on this question: Why don’t more students take advantage of the resources we provide?

people-431943_1280This question has been bouncing in my head since last week’s Academic-Zone webinar, Supporting at-risk students transitioning to post-secondary: Study skills and writing focus.

During the webinar, I chatted with representatives from Loyalist College and Royal Roads University about our respective student support initiatives. The bottom line? We offer students many opportunities. We’re on-campus. We’re on-line. We’re creative, resourceful, flexible,  determined, and approachable. . . IMO 😛

The problem? Student engagement.  Don’t get me wrong. Many students use our services (approximately 5,000 last year); however, some don’t and those who don’t are often those who would benefit most. Based on my own experience at Brock University, I have listed several common reasons why students do not use  support services:

  1. Time management and self-regulation: Procrastination, over-scheduling, or an inability to break down complex assignments often results in poorly researched/written assignments or inadequate studying (let alone time to ask questions or explore support services)
  1. Independence: Many students see “help-seeking” or question-asking as a weakness rather than a strength. No judgement here: I think independence is an admirable quality.
  1. Self-Concept and Confidence: Students often make closed statements about their “abilities”, saying “This is how I write” or “I can’t do math” or “I am a 60s student”.  If I don’t believe that I can do better, why would I assess and revise my current strategies? Why would I invest more time and energy?
  1. Embarrassment: If students are unhappy with their work, they may not want to show it to anyone.
  1. Strategic Decision Making: Students make choices based on “value”. What value are we giving to the extra time and effort needed to improve assignments that require several revisions, like essays? Can we blame students if we accept poor quality?
  1. Motivation: Last, but certainly not least. Everyone is motivated to do what they’re doing, and to not do what they’re not doing. John Hope Bryant raises the question: Have young people “‘checked out’ of the traditional educational system”? Check out his post, A Bold New Approach to Education: Aspiration-Based Learning (ABL).

Our webinar session reminded me of a 2009 post on The Chronicle of Higher Education by Bob Kunzinger, Associate Professor of English and the Humanities at Tidewater Community College: “The $5,000 Approach to Teaching Writing”.

Obviocalculation-390319_1280usly, this post left an impression on me. In a nut shell, Kunzinger argues that many students basically decide to submit poorly written papers—that they know that their professors have to read it, regardless of quality, and that they “know there are usually ways to avoid putting forth a gallant effort on a paper.”

(Selection from Kunzinger’s post)

“What if I had a check on my desk for $5,000? And what if I rewarded the writer whose introduction most caught my attention, who most effectively made me want to continue because of a solid and clear thesis, with a check for five grand? Would your introductions improve even more?”

Cries of “Absolutely!” filled the room —to which I replied, “Then you always could do it. You just couldn’t be bothered.”

Silence followed.                                                    See full article

From my perspective, “you just couldn’t be bothered” is a complex statement and relates to reasons in my “why students do not use our support services” list. So what do we do? Unfortunately, I don’t have $5,000 kicking around.

One of the strategies we’ve employed at Brock University is to develop close partnerships between teaching faculty and student academic services, through which students are rewarded for successful participation in service skill-building activities (e.g., participation or assignment bonus grade for scoring over 70% on an academic-zone academic writing, numeracy, or lab report on-line quiz). Then, we draw students into other resources and supports that are available on a self-select basis, either on-line or on-campus.  This strategy provides an additional “value” to developing skills and increases students’ awareness of services.

Now, back to the list . . .

Your challenges? Strategies? Thoughts?

(I’d love to hear from students, staff, and faculty!)

3c94c98Margaret Groombridge, MEd, BEd, BA, OCT
Lead Designer, Academic-Zone
Coordinator Learning Skills Instruction
A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

Perseverance is the Name of the Game

JesseBarrazaOne of the most gratifying things about working with students at a post-secondary institution is seeing them achieve their goals. There is nothing more satisfying than suddenly being stopped in the hall by a student who just wants to say, “Thank You!”

Working with university students has definitely changed over the last few years. One main factor: Technology. I like to consider myself part of the generation that saw the birth of technology as an integral part of our every day life. I remember the first video game consoles and playwolfensteined very archaic PC games with very simple goals and streamlined objectives. I remember my copy of Wolfenstein that consisted of a case of twelve, yes TWELVE, 3.5-inch floppy disks. Floppy disk. How is that for “dead vocabulary”? I also remember my first cell phone and found a copy of my first cell phone bill from when I first moved to Canada in the early 2000s. There were no data plans or texting. You simply called someone and did it again and again if the line was busy.

Although the complexity of video games and the pace of communication have changed drastically, I still remember what inspired me to play thefootball-606235_1280 Pixabay http://pixabay.com/en/football-clip-football-boots-soccer-606235/se games or what drove me to call the girl I liked, again and again. Perseverance. I just kept going and going until I got what I wanted or until I got “it” done. Perseverance is a term I use often when working with our student athletes. It’s a term they understand well in their sport and that they strive to apply in their academics.

Now, I am part of a team that is proud to create technological resources for students. Resources that help them achieve their academic goals at university. I truly enjoy my work, and I observe students working hard to reach their goals. Although technology has changed dramatically, I feel that some things have not changed: Success means perseverance!

Whether the goal is to get into one particular class or to achieve the ultimate prize of their degree, I find that it’s the students who don’t give up who achieve academic excellence, sooner or later. You support students, either directly or indirectly through the resources you built. You may not see those students for days, months, or years. Then one day, they cross your path. You see their success and then you know that they never stopped. They persevered.

JesseJesse Barraza, Hons. BSc, MEd
Retention Programs Coordinator
Systems & Services Coordinator, Academic-Zone
A-Z Learning Services, Student Development Centre Brock University

Illiterate vs. Innumerate: Why is one okay?

mathematics-327488_1280 (1)Last week, a friend shared an article with me from the Globe and Mail. In it, the author stated that she was “never ashamed of [her] limited numerical skills”. Over the years, I have often ranted about the pride people take in saying that they were never good at math. I have a secret to share: while I love math, I wasn’t always good at it.

There. I said it. My secret is out. I have always found the patterns of mathematics comforting. There was also comfort that there was a right answer. While I worked at math problems, my stubbornness would kick in. I knew that if I worked at it, I would get it. When I did master concepts, I felt a certain pride in my accomplishments. My parents can verify my initial cursing over calculus. Most people think you need to be “smart” to do math. I think you just need to be tenacious.

I firmly believe that ALL people can do math. I also acknowledge that not everyone will enjoy math. However, in order to do math, some of us will require more effort than others. Some of us will have to work hard at addition and subtraction. Others will need to start working harder when algebra is introduced. There will be some people that only start working at math when they are doing graduate level research in a new number theory.   That being said, I think that most people, with a little effort and patience, can get to a point of competence with numeracy.

Admittedly, practicing multiplication tables or solving equations may not be as exciting as a team practice, a new video game or a good book. The excuses of “I will just use a calculator,” or “I am not good at math” don’t preclude you from still requiring math in life. Most people will wonder when they will need to find “x” in real life. However, almost all college and university programs require some type of mathematics course. With the basic numeracy skills, the courses become less of a struggle.

Let’s get rid of the notion that it is okay not to be good at math. We work hard to achieve literacy – let’s put the same effort into numeracy and abolish the idea that just because it doesn’t come easily means that you can’t do it.

Bayless, Maureen. (2015, February 12). A grave mathematical error. The Globe and Mail, p L6.

sueSue Guenther
Special Projects Coordinator, Academic Zone Resource Developer and “Math Guru”
A-Z Learning Services, Student Development Centre, Brock University