Improving Math Skills in STEM Courses
“There’s an assumption in STEM classes that everybody is a math rock star,” says Dr. Nikitha Sambamurthy, Director of Editorial at zyBooks. “And if you don’t get the math concepts, then you’re just not as smart and maybe you shouldn’t even be in the class. That is one hundred percent not the case.”
A veteran instructor with a background in electrical engineering and a PhD in Engineering Education, we spoke with Dr. Sambamurthy about how to improve student math abilities in STEM courses.
What are the challenges to teaching math in STEM?
Dr. Nikitha Sambamurthy: When you teach a science or engineering course or other STEM discipline there is a level of math that’s often required. For example, if you take physics, you might need algebra to manipulate variables and also calculus, depending on the course level.
What I’ve found is that the math proficiency of my students varies significantly, from those who barely passed their prerequisites to those who really excelled in them.
My challenge as an instructor is that the course I’m teaching is not a math course. I only have a fixed number of weeks to teach all of my material, and if this material is dependent on math, I don’t have time to re-teach that math.
How to improve your students’ math abilities
- List the specific math concepts required for your course material
- Develop a quiz that evaluates these math skills (the quiz does not impact course grade)
- Prepare math resources for students who may need help
- Administer the quiz and score it
- Based on the score, establish baseline of math ability for the classroom, and for individual students
- Point students who need support to the relevant math resources
- Students review the resources and remediate themselves
- Prepare additional math problems to work together during office hours
How do you handle that?
Dr. Sambamurthy: I want every student to thrive in my classroom, and that means they have to successfully solve the math problems I need them to solve.
Step one is to gain a detailed understanding of the math your course requires. Students might need to know algebra, but what am I asking for specifically? Just basic variable solving? Or something more complicated? Do they need calculus? What level? Trigonometric functions? Other concepts?
It’s also important to know when that particular math comes into play in both class and assignments. For example, in Chapter 1, students might need mainly algebra solving for variables. In Chapter 2 they need calculus, and they need to learn to do integrals. And so forth. As I go through the material, I note what concepts are needed when. I do this evaluation before I even look at where my students are.
How do you measure your students’ math proficiency?
Dr. Sambamurthy: I want to know how many students are going to struggle with the math concepts I just identified and which aspects.
So based on the math requirements I gathered, I’ll develop a quiz that tests their knowledge, where I ask easy, medium, and hard questions for each of the concepts covered in my course. I also prepare solid math resources ahead of time – a math textbook or two – for my students who might need help. And I map the quiz questions to specific chapters in the resources.
Once that’s ready, I administer the quiz. It doesn’t have any bearing on grades; it just enables me to know where my students stand. Maybe the class as a whole is really bad at math? So I’m going to have to go slow and make sure to explain concepts carefully.
But, again, I’m not teaching a math class. So based on the quiz results, I’ll ask individual students to review specific parts of the resources that I’ve prepared. And this is important: It’s up to the students to work with the resources to remediate themselves.
How does improving math skills impact how you actually teach in the classroom?
Dr. Sambamurthy: Regardless if all my students are math geniuses or not, when I solve problems on the board during my lectures, I do not skip steps on the math. I don’t care if it’s the most basic, like taking a variable from left to right – I write everything out.
I used to be in the habit of just zipping through the math, like we want X, here’s the equation, and X is now this. But I realized that some students struggle with that. So you should just write it all out and not assume your students know how to do it. A little extra math doesn’t hurt.
How do you support your students’ math skills outside the classroom?
Dr. Sambamurthy: Office hours. If a student comes to see me, it’s typically about homework, and if they’re struggling with it, I’ve found it’s most likely about math.
I make sure to prepare a few additional problems similar to the homework that I don’t show my students unless they come to office hours. I help them with their homework and then ask them to walk me through the math again themselves, this time using the extra problems.
I realize this is very time intensive for instructors, having to prepare both homework and additional problems, and go through both in office hours. But I want to make sure that students can solve the math on their own. If I just explain stuff, they may nod along but really not understand the concepts. And sometimes students are too shy to ask the necessary questions. Doing the math steps together and then letting them take the lead I’ve found to be super helpful to students.
By the way, the additional problems can even be as simple as just changing the numbers or other elements of the homework ones. It just has to be different from what the student has already seen.
How can instructors support each other to improve their students’ math skills?
Dr. Sambamurthy: I encourage instructors to reach out to other instructors in the department, particularly those who are teaching the next course in the sequence. Find out what math will be taught, and what they’ve experienced students struggling with. Maybe you can highlight more of that math in your course to prepare them for the next one.
I also look to the math department. Instructors there can help me identify useful textbooks and other resources.
How have your efforts helped your students?
Dr. Sambamurthy: I really stress the importance of making sure they understand how to do the math because I want them to succeed. I also let them know that it’s okay to struggle; you’re not expected to know everything. I just try to encourage them and make it as easy as possible to give them help, from resources to office hours.
But the challenge is that I only have 16 weeks in a semester or 8 weeks in a quarter to teach them material that depends on, say, solving complex equations. So the onus is on the students.
You can’t help somebody who doesn’t want to help themselves. During the class period the student has to learn the course material. They have to improve their math with the resources I provide on their own.
“Myth of Math”
Dr. Sambamurthy discusses the “myth of math” and how underrepresented groups can overcome math challenges in STEM.