When instructors at Bronx-area community colleges applied for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study how students think about fundamental concepts of calculus, they hoped to gain a better understanding of how college students learn mathematics. During the 4-year project, the teacher-researchers integrated ongoing research theories with classroom teaching. As a result, their project has evolved into a tool for helping students reason their way through complex calculus.
The researchers found that when students are actively engaged in the learning process, they are more likely to sort out the logic behind mathematical problems. A give-and-take method allows the students to voice their fears about the subject, express misconceptions, and participate in open discussions to reach a solution. Using an online, peer-reviewed teaching-research journal, the teacher-researchers give updates on their progress and share best practices and procedures. They invite other mathematics teachers and instructors to document their experiences and successes.
"The journal project contributes to NSF's goal to create an online network of learning environments and resources for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education at all levels," said Lee L. Zia, program director for NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education. "Through a relatively easy mechanism to share best practices with the local community, the journal stimulates and supports research on learning, which is one of NSF's objectives."
"The biggest strength of our project is that it ensures that mathematics is accessible to all students," said Bronislaw Czarnocha, principal investigator at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York. "We focus on understanding how students think intuitively about calculus. We then design a method of instruction that develops their mathematical thinking to their maximum potential. This process offers our students, many of whom juggle families and jobs, the chance to establish fundamentals of mathematical thinking andto excel in a difficult mathematics course."
One example of an online journal entry from a teacher recommends adapting teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) strategies because both math and ESL teachers share the common challenge of teaching students to speak and write using an unfamiliar language. The journal contributor recommends this tactic when English is the math student's second language and suggests that math teachers introduce math vocabulary and definitions, then layer and repeat words and concepts until students grow familiar with them.
Another entry suggests activities to help translate research results into practice.For example, teachers might more effectively adapt their teaching style when trends show differences in how girls and boys learn.
"Our intent with the journal is to create a vibrant, supportive community," said Vrunda Prabhu, co-principal investigator, who teaches mathematics at the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York. "The journal offers teaching-research tools to deal with the complex problems of our multicultural, multilingual classrooms."
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