Guest Post: My Path Through Math

There is an administrative assistant at AcerPlacer who loves sharing the story of her journey through math with students. Today, she was kind enough to write her experience so that everyone could see it.

If you think back to your very first day of college and the first classroom that you walked in to, how did you feel? Excited, overwhelmed,​ ​or amazed you made it to the right classroom? As you searched for what will be your unspoken assigned seat and looked around the classroom, what did you notice first? For me, I realized on the first day that there is nothing like the feeling of dread when you realize the class has 30+ students all in one space. How is the teacher going to help you if you have questions about the material, or just need some extra help?

While this may not have been your first college classroom experience, it was for me. I double-checked and even toured the campus before the semester started to make sure I knew where I was going (still got lost), I bought all my books early, and was ready to start my classes. I ended up in the engineering building and wandered into an advanced math class that made me run for the hills like the room was on fire. After what felt like an eternity, I eventually found my first class of the day — math. As if that wasn’t alarming enough, I walked in late and had to pick a random seat next to a stranger. At least my best friend was three seats down and looked just as panicked as I felt.

His expression and my feeling of alarm seemed justified. Just about everyone we knew had enrolled into a similar class or the class just one level higher. “Two-thirds of the students at community colleges, and 4 in 10 of those at four-year institutions take remedial courses. Math is a much bigger sand trap than English: Far more postsecondary students fall into remedial math than reading, and fewer move on to credit-bearing courses” (Gewertz, 2018).

Knowing that I wasn’t a mathematician, I thought to myself, “Here we go.” I was enrolled in the lowest level of math offered on campus. Could I do this? I could do this, right? As I sat down and unpacked my new school supplies, I looked around the room. I had an idea of what the college classrooms looked like, and it didn’t look like this room. What alarmed me the most about my new math class was that there were easily 35 students. All in the same room. With one teacher. In a math class.

Adelman (1999) states: “Of all pre-college curricula, the highest level of mathematics one studies in secondary school has the strongest continuing influence on bachelor’s degree completion. Finishing a course beyond the level of Algebra-2 (e.g. trigonometry or pre-calculus) more than doubles the odds that a student who enters postsecondary education will complete a bachelor’s degree” (p.vii).

Based on the study referenced above I was in big trouble. Math in high school was easy for me because I wasn’t required to take it during my junior or senior year. The last class that I was required to take was Algebra 2, and to be honest, I had no idea what was going on during the entire class. It was a miracle that I passed. Starting out in a new class, I felt that I could finish my math and avoid the so-called “sand trap”. I was going to do it. At least that was what I thought. I was in for a very rough semester.

Math was proving to be very difficult for me, and it was the class that I found myself dreading. In the upcoming semesters, I tried everything from traditional classes, computer-based classes, and even sought help from resources offered at my university. I just could not wrap my brain around this math thing. I had amazing professors who would help when they could, but I started to feel like a burden. I just could not understand what they were telling me or why we were moving “x” to the right side of the equation. What was factoring and why is this 3 all the sudden a negative number? I stopped asking questions. I came to the conclusion that I hated math. I hated all the rules, classes, material. All of it. It was the class I hated to attend, and even register for.

I learned that anytime I asked my family or friends for help that it only caused me more confusion and frustration. I found that not everyone who is wonderful at doing math can actually teach math. After a handful of math classes (13 to be exact), I found myself with a degree that was completed but out of reach because of my math requirements. How could I enjoy and pass higher level courses but not pass my math classes?! I felt defeated and hated to admit that math was again a class I had to repeat.

“Large numbers of students have been prevented from pursuing careers they’re interested in because of the math,” said Briars, a math consultant who was the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics from 2014 to 2016. “They’re underprepared, but they’re put into the typical course sequence anyway. And we’ve done this at the expense of other mathematics, like quantitative literacy, or statistics, that is vitally important, and maybe more important for some careers” (Gewertz, 2018).

When you reflect on your previous classes, what made the class enjoyable? What made you successful in the class? Was there something in particular that stood out? For me, that answer is simple. I needed a small class that allowed me to ask questions and receive personalized help. I needed to be one of a handful of students, not one of 30+. I needed a class that had an uplifting, positive feel to it that encouraged mistakes and provided hands-on learning with an instructor who was invested not only in the topic, but also my success.

After what seemed like a never-ending nightmare of failed math classes, I had a degree that was one class away from being 100% completed and a job that only offered advancement if you possessed a degree. I had no idea what to do. I felt that I was out of options. I did the best thing I could have ever done for my math education. I discovered a new way of learning and really understanding math! So long, YouTube tutorials!

I was able to jump into a class that offered small classes, personalized help, out of class resources, and teachers who had the time to invest that had a real interest in my personal success and struggles. It is amazing how my view of math changed because I was finally able to get a grasp of what was actually happening. Why “x” moved to the right side of the equation, why that 3 becomes negative, and even how to read the trig wheel. Commonly I hear from students looking in to AcerPlacer, “Now I know that you work there, so you have to tell me that this program works, but will this program really help me test out and understand math?” I love that I can say, “Believe me, I know first hand that math can be a very difficult educational hurdle, but you are in the right place!”

AcerPlacer instructors have math-loving hearts of gold. They take the time and are truly invested in getting to know your learning style, your educational goals, and are always a great math support. They provide encouragement, comfort, math jokes, and bring not only their math experience, but also teaching methods that can unlock and help students grasp concepts. Each class is capped at 8 students per room so that it was easy to get the help I needed while in class. I could ask my instructor to repeat the material, say it a different way, and associate it with a story. The best part was that I never felt like a burden and I never felt out of place asking questions. I was completely comfortable admitting my wrong answers and thought process. For myself, it was the invested staff of instructors and the small personalized classes that helped me unlock so many math doors.

This program was the change that myself and many struggling students need! AcerPlacer was a game changer for me, and I love that I get to be a part of a team that helps students finish their college math requirements! So as the AcerPlacer t-shirts say… “Math is nothing to b² of”!


References:

  • Adelman, Clifford. (1999, June). Answers in the Tool Box. Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor’s Degree Attainment. Education Publications Center (ED Pubs). Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED431363.pdf
  • Gewertz, Catherine. (2018). Avoiding a Remedial-Math Roadblock to a Degree. Education Week, 37(32), 14–15.

Additional Reading:

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Guest Post: Valid Grading Measurements Continued

Today’s guest post comes from Madison Hodson, an instructor at AcerPlacer who studies mathematics/statistics education at Utah State University. This is a continuation of her previous article, which can be found here.

As described in my last article, I discussed the two principles necessary to produce a valid knowledge measurement (question on assignment or exam). This article will go into more detail and will provide examples for reference.

The validity of a measurement is broken up into two parts; one of those parts is measurement relevance. For a measurement to be relevant, it must reflect the unit goal or objective. That means for a question to be relevant it must pertain to the correct mathematical content and learning levels for each specific goal. If a measurement is relevant, then educated decisions and evaluations can take place based on the results.

In this example, let’s assume that the unit objective is, “When confronted with a real-life problem, the student determines whether or not computing the area of a surface will help solve the problem.” Listed below are three separate questions that could be included in the assignment. We need to determine which question is the most relevant.


Question 1.
Computing a surface area will help you solve one of the following three problems. Which one is it? (Circle the letter in front of your answer.)

  1. We have a large bookcase we want to bring into our classroom. Our problem is to determine if the bookcase can fit through the doorway.
  2. As part of a project to fix up our classroom, we want to put stripping along the crack where the walls meet the floor. Our problem is to decide how much stripping to buy.
  3. As part of a project to fix up our classroom, we want to install new carpet on the floor. Our problem is to decide how much carpet to buy.

Question 2.
What is the surface area of one side of the sheet of paper from which you are now reading? Use your ruler and calculator to help answer the question. (Circle the letter in front of your answer.)

  1. 93.5 square inches
  2. 93.5 inches
  3. 20.5 square inches
  4. 20.5 inches
  5. 41.0 square inches
  6. 41.0 inches

Question 3.
As part of our project for fixing up the classroom, we need to buy some paint for the walls. The paint we want comes in two different size cans. A 5-liter can costs $16.85, and a 2-liter can costs $6.55. Which one of the following would help us decide which size can is the better buy? (Circle the letter in front of your answer.)

  1. Compare 5 x $16.85 to 2 x $6.55
  2. Compare $16.85/5 to $6.55/2
  3. Compare $16.85 – $6.55 to 2/5

In the example given only the first question is relevant to the objective of, “When confronted with a real-life problem, the student determines whether or not computing the area of a surface will help solve the problem.” It is relevant because the students were faced with various real-life problems and had to determine when finding the surface area would actually be helpful. Based on the class’ answers to this question, the teacher could make an informed decision on whether or not the students achieved the objective.

The other two questions were focused on calculations that were not relevant to surface area. The results from these measurements would provide no feedback on whether or not the students had achieved the objective regarding when to calculate surface area.

As math instructors it is important for us to not only teach how compute numbers and algorithms but to teach logic and reasoning. Many individuals today struggle with the application of mathematics in real life. Perhaps had they experienced relevant math questions (to unit objectives and to life), these feelings would decrease. Creating mathematic contact that is both relevant and reliable takes a large time investment— however, as educators, it is worth our time to properly educate and evaluate our students.

Guest Post: Strength in Numbers

Ryan Brown is an instructor at AcerPlacer and is working on a BS in mathematics with a minor in secondary education. He is also an avid rock climber.

After teaching various types of mathematics, I have been asked countless times by students, “ When are we ever going to use this?” This question is asked when trying to isolate specific variables, simplify rational expressions, or evaluate complex numbers. Some answers that are given are very arduous and stretching quite far. Some ideas and concepts may not have a proper answer to the student, but in the complex world that we live in all that we have was designed using mathematics. Everything from the car we drive to the cell phone in our pockets – someone performed innumerable amount of math equations to see the safest design of a car, or perform tests to see how to make the battery in our phones last longer. All around us is magnificent architecture that was not just imagined and then someone starting digging the hole. There was intense preparation that went into each structure before we ever see the physical building and foundation being built.

Taking another stance on the exercise that mathematics provides the human brain is extremely powerful! Learning mathematics helps your learning skills on many levels. It helps you learn deeply and focus on tasks at hand. It helps to keep you organized and learn complex concepts without giving up easily. The human brain’s frontal lobe is not done developing until about age 25; the more we learn by that time, the more we can retain and remember. Mathematics is one of the best ways to train our brain how to remember the most information in the shortest amount of time. Our brains retain about 90% of the information that is input when we teach someone or try ourselves to perform a given task. Why mathematics helps us learn this form of learning so quickly is because we are given instant results and answers back in math. The second we make a mistake, we often cannot proceed with the equation, or our answer is not provided as an option. We don’t like to make mistakes; that is why we often take the easy way out and try to do a form of studying where we cannot make mistakes, like reading and listening to audios, which has a 5% retention for our brain.

To finish up the point of this article is that we use math everyday. We see the benefits of math everywhere. Our brain needs complex problem solving to stay young and active. We can mimic the study plan with math with all other courses to help us save time and energy. I hope this article was worth your time! Thank you for reading!

Guest Post: Why Study Math?

Jodie Larsen has a BS in applied mathematics from BYU-Idaho with a minor in biology. In addition to teaching at AcerPlacer, she tutors students on several topics in math.

“Why did you decide to study math?,” and, “Were you always good at math?,” are two questions which we, as instructors, hear on a near-daily basis, and they may seem to have simple answers but I, when I really think about it, realize that that is not the case.  I will use myself as an example on how to answer those questions.

I would not consider myself one of those Good Will Hunting type of people where I come up with complex equations and proofs off the top of my head which I write on windows to confuse people.  Though I find those types of things completely fascinating… I am more of a learner and user of mathematics rather than a discoverer and prover. Granted, I learn it more quickly than many, but my brain just likes puzzles, and that’s what I consider math to be.  Giant, elegant, beautiful puzzles.

Why did I personally decide to study math? Many people can’t fathom that I would want to focus my attention there.  There are many answers to that question, actually. I would say the biggest reason is that I had incredible teachers throughout my years who taught me well and, therefore, inspired me to love the subject and want to do more of it.  When you have great instructors, the subject matter will be more enjoyable no matter what you are studying. I know many students say they hate math and when I dig into why they do, oftentimes it comes down to the fact that they had poor teachers or were pushed through a flawed system for various reasons.  Having good instructors is paramount, I feel, and therefore it makes me want to be the best instructor I can be. I want to instill a love for math in as many as I can. It hurts me a little every time someone says, “I hate math.”. It shouldn’t be that way and I try, every day, to change that mindset for students and when the students’ mindsets start to change, you can see it in their demeanor and in their eyes.  They want to learn. They want to understand and enjoy it.

Another reason I went into math is simply that I was GOOD at it.  I excelled and felt confident and smart when doing it, so naturally one would gravitate towards things which make them feel that way.  To be very honest, when I was about to start college, I wasn’t sure what my major should be as I felt I needed to know what I wanted to BE when I grew up and then tailor my major to that career.  I had no idea what I wanted to be, actually, which was a little scary. I declared math to be my major as I loved it, and I knew it was applicable in so many fields so I ended up studying applied mathematics for my major and biology as my minor and the subjects are so beautifully harmonious together that I thoroughly enjoyed all my classes.

Was I always good at math?  Well, that’s a complex question.  I’ve already addressed it a bit above, but really, it was simply that I caught on quickly and had fun doing so; however, I did need to be taught… by excellent teachers. Students sometimes think that we came out of the womb being math geniuses, but I had to be taught like everyone else. The difference is, I thoroughly enjoyed it and chose to make it my field of study.  I hope that, through our course, students will discover they enjoy math as well when they understand it, and THAT is the ultimate key.  “I like it when I get it!!!”

What is the moral to this passage?  Other than just giving my personal history, I think it can be wrapped up into the following:  I have a profound love of math because of excellent teachers and my |mindset| (positive mindset for those not familiar with absolute value notation).  I, and my colleagues, aspire to create a love, or at least an appreciation, for math and to assist students in seeing how it can be applied and in what instances.  The ultimate compliment is when we hear a student exclaim that they like math, even though they may look around guiltily like it’s some sort of taboo thing to admit.  🙂

Don’t be scared of math – embrace it in it’s beauty and complexity and know you accomplished something great by mastering it.

Guest Post: The Math Stigma

This week’s post comes from Andrew Petersen, who graduated with a BS in theoretical physics from Weber State University. He recently accepted a post at a company doing data analysis, making this his last guest post as an AcerPlacer instructor.

Struggling with the attention needed to do well in math in my elementary school, my friend nudges me, “Uuugh – I suck at math, want to go ride bikes?” I agree, knowing that I will never get anywhere with math, and riding bikes sounds immensely more entertaining. As children we develop into a social construct already in place, slowly built upon by thousands of generations of humans in our cultures. This social boundary subconsciously forces us to think and do certain things to fall within the norm. One of those things is that math, as a subject learned by a lot of people, is hard.

From birth and within our social boundaries, we are told that math is hard by our peers, mentors, and often times our parents. Those we look up to have labelled mathematics as the F-chord of our academics, and we probably aren’t good at it. After being told this, when attempting to learn math, we expect it to be difficult – we know it’s challenging – it seems like an impassible hurdle. This thought process and structure, I think, is entirely ironic. The only reason some people are inherently good at math, or anything for that matter, is due to their development and environment when growing up. This tells me that how we think of and structure things (math, baseball, reading…) is completely moldable. Then I also think – “Isn’t that how we learn…everything?”

Often I thought being good at math was due to a higher intelligence and a crafty creativity that I simply didn’t have. After years of studying and graduating university, I finally have the realization that an inherent intelligence was not the key – persistence and good habits were. A lack of this realization manifests into students often misdirecting their blame and anger. Every once in awhile I will have a student who struggles through the whole class even while working hard, retakes the class, then repeats. That student then begins to blame the institution – “My instructor was at fault, the math at my school sucks.” Yet this is misdirected anger, because those students don’t lack the intelligence, they lack the habits when writing and learning mathematics. They don’t work problems top to bottom, they skip steps, and they just get lazy. It’s understandable, all of us are lazy at some point, but this is the skill that needs to change.

We all learn differently, and many times while sitting in class I have struggled to keep up with my notes. For a long while I would finish writing out my thoughts, then move on with what the instructor was at next – but I am behind at that point, and continue that progression for the rest of the class. In most classes, no matter the subject, the instructor must get through a set amount of material. Due to time constraints, that often means they must teach faster than the students are comfortable with. As a student, I would blame the professor, until I realized this was misguided. It took years to discover that I need to listen, regardless of what I get written down. It is far more important to absorb what the instructor is saying through my senses, then fill in the rest later.

To break this stigma, we need to instill a social construct around our children that math is like any other subject, we just must learn how to learn. First though, we must do this to ourselves, and redefine how we think of mathematics in the first place – it does not take a especially smart person to learn math, it takes persistence and good habits.

Editor’s Note: An F-chord is a particularly difficult chord to play on a guitar.

Guest Post: Ownership in Education

Kramer McCausland is an instructor at AcerPlacer. He is working on a double bachelors in mathematics and philosophy at Weber State University.

Student success is often on my mind. My hope is to find some simple equation that I can then offer up as the easy solution to the question of, “How can I learn this? How can I succeed in this class?” I often push myself to learn better techniques, to find better strategies, to practice being more clear. In short, I think that if I can be the perfect teacher, then every student I teach will succeed. Now, it is useful for us teachers to improve, but that’s only half of the puzzle, the other half is the student. I’m currently a student as well as a teacher and what I want to write about today is how to be a better student. What follows are the things I tell myself on the first day when I start a new class. And the tips and tricks I use to be more successful at learning.

The class I’m about to take is my class.

The knowledge I’m about to learn is my knowledge.

The responsibility to succeed is mine.

These are what I remind myself every time I take on the challenge to learn something new. The truth is that education is not passive. Too often, the student is portrayed as this empty bucket that the professor is there to pour knowledge in to. The sage on the stage. But, I’m afraid, that’s not how we learn. Education through osmosis is a nice fantasy, but the reality is different. It takes work, it takes patience, but most importantly, it takes ownership. It takes a firm conviction that this education is yours. The truth is that there are going to be bad teachers, there are going to be good teachers that have bad days, and there are going to be days where good students aren’t feeling like themselves. So how can we as students insulate ourselves against these misses in our education? By being truly responsible for what we’re learning. What I’ve compiled are a few tips for the proactive student.

  1. Take good notes, review those notes, revise those notes: Make sure you’re jotting down the key points when learning something new. Then, check those points against a secondary source. In the day we live in, every part of education can have a corollary online (for instance, I just double-checked on google how to spell “corollary”). Very few people in this world can “learn” something after just hearing it once. Learn it in class, learn it again later, revise your notes on the subject as your learn more.
  2. Communicate with your instructor: It may be surprising, but teachers are people too. They may gloss over, overlook, or entirely forget to mention something in class. If you’re unsure of what something means find an opportunity to meet with your instructor and talk about it. In the perfect world your teacher would clearly and concisely explain exactly what’s troubling you, but in this world it may take some leg-work on your part to get the best education.
  3. Be patient with yourself: As cliched as it sounds, we all learn at our own pace. If I have one major qualm with the education system most of us find ourselves in, it’s the ideas of deadlines. I’ve met students who can understand everything they need to know about percentages in one hour of instruction, and others where the same material might take them 5 hours. Now, I’m not a total idealist here, and it is probably important that we learn how to learn quickly. But do your best not to become discouraged. Know yourself. Know how much you can retain in one sitting. And find steady study habits that work to your strengths (but that’s a topic for another day).

This education is yours. Take it seriously. Take ownership.

Guest Post: Literacy in Mathematics

Our guest author today is Stacie Leavitt, an instructor at AcerPlacer who recently got a degree in math education from Weber State University. She will begin teaching for the Weber County School District this Fall.

A few years back there was a standard set in education that literacy should not be taught in our English classes alone, but that it should be taught in every single subject matter. Now for the History or Spanish teachers in a school, that may not feel like too high of a demand, but for math teachers it came as an abrupt surprise and a rather daunting task. “Now we’re not only teaching them math, but we have to teach them how to read too?! Those are almost entirely unrelated subjects!” As such, literacy is still highly overlooked when it comes to most math classrooms. However, if we take a deeper look at what literacy really is, maybe we can find more connection there than we thought.

Literacy in its most basic definition is the ability to read and write, but The National Literacy Trust includes [that], ‘A literate person is able to communicate effectively with others and to understand written information.’ So let’s dive a little bit deeper into these definitions. What exactly do we read and write? Our language is a mixture of symbols that when put in a certain order then mean a certain thing. We then need to be able to decode these symbols, use them to communicate, and be able to write about them. Similarly, much of math is being able to read the symbols to grasp their meaning, communicate about them, and then use those same symbols to write down your response. In fact the techniques used to decode and comprehend a paragraph are very similar to those used to decode and comprehend an equation. So how are literacy and math any different? They’re not really, it’s just teaching a new language within our own language. This is the idea that if we were to emphasize in our classrooms, we would not only be able to teach literacy but we would actually be able to teach math better and connect it more to skills that many of our students already have.

Now as a teacher myself, some of the main things that I have observed in different classrooms that separate literacy and mathematics are the absence of real world texts, few to no story problems, and the emphasis on the procedures instead of actual comprehension. In many of these classrooms, I can understand why a teacher would feel to build their curriculum this way due to the demographics of the school where maybe the majority don’t have high levels of literacy or math skills, are ESL learners, or their family situation can make it almost impossible to assign homework to take home. However this is exactly the classroom situation where there needs to be more focus on decoding and comprehension of text, especially the symbols and their meaning. Authentic math texts would be great for students to be exposed to in order to help them realize that math is more than just a process. It’s something people have wondered about, written about, built, discovered, and created. It’s both true and fallible and it’s ok to make mistakes in. Similarly real world story problems (not ones about buying 60 watermelons) can help them see how they can use these decoding and comprehension tools in a work or real world setting. But the biggest problem of them all is the the focus on the procedure. When this is overemphasized in a classroom it cuts off the need for students to become literate in math. There’s no need to decode the equations, comprehend what they’re meaning and what they do end up writing isn’t actually being understood. Their ability to tell you what they wrote and what it means is completely gone. Teachers wonder why, and honestly it’s because we don’t teach enough literacy in math.