Mathematicians’ chalk talk teaching methods foreign to many students

Many university math professors around the globe teach the same way.

The problem is, their methods aren’t being understood by many North American students who end up dropping out or struggle to simply pass.

And the big question Carleton’s Natasha Artemeva, an associate professor in the School of Linguistics and Language Studies, wants answered is — why?

Atemeva, who has been educated in metallurgical engineering, applied language studies and education, has discovered that there practically no research into teaching undergraduate mathematics from the genre perspective. So, as part of her research, she is observing university mathematics professors around the globe to determine why students have difficulty learning math.

“To all our great surprise,” says Artemeva, who is delving into the case of teaching mathematics with Carleton colleague Janna Fox and Anthony Paré of McGill University, “we noticed that all professors, regardless of their background, regardless of where they got their degree from, regardless of the language they were teaching in, were all doing similar things when they were teaching.”

Artemeva and her colleagues dubbed the genre of mathematics instruction they observed “chalk talk.”

Math professors, she explains, walk into a classroom, address the students and then write mathematical symbols, graphs, diagrams, for example, on a blackboard.

“As they write on the board, they articulate what they write, and often turn to students and ask questions, sometimes rhetorical and sometimes expecting a response.”

This way of teaching at a university level, where many courses are taught with the aid of computers, may be unusual for students today, says Artemeva.

With more than $100,000 in SSHRC funding over the next three years, Artemeva is heading a project that is observing math teachers at about a dozen universities in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Spain, Israel, Russia and Mexico.

“We have found there is a lot in common. The main question we are asking with our study is, ‘Why is there so much in common?’ The other big question is, ‘What is it about the way undergraduate math is taught that seems to be difficult for many North American students?’”

The students who have the most trouble, according to Artemeva, are those who are not majoring in the subject, but who are required to study it as part of another program.

“Our very preliminary conclusion is that non-major math students find the genre of teaching mathematics foreign. The approach to teaching engineering and economics, for example, is very different. You ‘show’ a lot.”

But math professors have told Artemeva they believe computers are damaging to the teaching of their complex and dense subject. “When we interview them, they all say it is important for students to follow how it is done, step by step, in real time.”

Ultimately, Artemeva believes her research could lead to recommendations for new faculty and graduate students who are gearing up to be mathematics professors, as well as school teachers.

“There is definitely a genre that is common to teaching undergraduate math. We need to study it closely in order to understand and articulate it. If this genre is recognized, math could be taught differently at the secondary level or students could be warned what to expect from the ‘language of math’ at university.

“Our research promises very important results that could be disseminated to the community of mathematicians who teach undergraduate courses.”

This entry was written by Susan Hickman and posted in the issue. Tags applied to this article are: , . Leave a comment, bookmark the permalink or share the following short URL for this article via social media:

Susan Hickman

By Susan Hickman

For nearly four decades, journalist Susan Hickman has written about every imaginable subject for sundry newspapers and magazines in Canada and abroad, as well as for CBC TV and CBC Radio. She has also managed various publications, including academic newspapers and technology magazines, and was recently commissioned to write a guide for foreign missions serving in Canada. Currently, she is working on a couple of personal memoirs.

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