On Teaching Loving Mathematics

I love math—not because I think I’m good at it, but because it’s powerful, it’s supremely beautiful and it’s everywhere. Mathematicians and many others agree! However, it happens all too often that people claim not to agree. Teachers can change this, but how? How does one teach loving mathematics? In this post, I mention just a few techniques to consider, based on very positive experiences.

Last semester I ran a mathematical problem solving course. I did a few specific things that are not usually done in a mathematics class. Several small assignments consisted of answering a single question, which the student chose from a list of five. Students therefore would read more than one question before choosing a question to answer. This was my first victory—thinking about several mathematical questions without necessarily writing about them or handing them in is already part of the math-loving process!

This brings us to the next trick—participation grade. When I was a student, any such notion was offensive. It usually meant the extroverts would get more points, or even worse, that teacher preference would play a role in the final grade. I corrected all of this by giving a mathematically precise definition of participation, with several options for obtaining the points. One option was to do five extra questions beyond the minimum at a convenient time during the course. So if students read questions and liked them, they could get a little credit. Another option for participation points came from short presentations of problems to the class. Since these points were for participation only, students lacking in confidence, who were normally too afraid to present, would still do so. Some of these presentations were admittedly not very good—but here’s the key—they got much better. The motivation for doing a good job changed from getting a good grade, to wanting to do a better job, and ultimately to sharing the enjoyment of having done the work. Classmates were quick to point out ways to improve these participation activities, since they knew that it was all about the process-the participation-and not about the presentation’s grade. I certainly don’t claim that all courses should be like this; but I am claiming that not enough courses are like this. Try it!

Extra Remarks: Congratulations to my Ph.D. supervisor, Dr. Jan Minac:
Fortunately there are some classes where love of mathematics can’t help but be taught, just because of the instructor. As a student, the only time I ever remember experiencing extensive choices for homework questions was at Western University, with Dr. Jan Minac as the instructor. So I was in no way surprised to learn that he just won a prestigious national teaching award! From the CMS media release: “Jan Minac shares personal stories of great mathematicians with his students, so that the students become so involved…” How involved? Click here for the full story. Congratulations Jan!

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