Monday, July 14, 2008

"New" Calculus Teaching Method Appears To Flop

I'm not a Luddite, nor do I think that old ways are always best. However, I do believe that we can learn from the past; that change isn't always progress, especially if it's change for its own sake; and that if something works, don't fix it.

Sometimes, though, people want to try something new, to see if they can improve upon what already exists--in the case of this story, professors at BYU tried a "progressive" approach to teaching calculus.

Last year, Brigham Young University professors taught experimental calculus courses with honors students to test an emerging and controversial way of teaching math. Instead of lecturing, Janet Walter and Hope Gerson, assistant professors in BYU's department of math education, had the students hash out math problems cooperatively.

They explored scenarios from the real world, such as calculating the volume of a region formed around an axis, with the hope of arriving at key math theorems on their own. The professors wanted to study how people learn math - that most abstract, yet essential of academic pursuits.

But some BYU faculty are questioning whether Gerson and Walter's students learned much calculus after they bombed on departmental exams. Even though they were teaching high-achievers in smaller classes, test scores were lower than BYU's overall averages and sunk as the experiment proceeded over the course of three semesters.

"At the end of the day, no matter how much they talk about it, they have to be able to solve the problems. That's where these programs break down," said Lynn Garner, who recently retired after nearly 40 years with BYU's math department...

Gerson and Walter contend there are multiple paths to solving a mathematical problem and students should be encouraged to chart their own way by exploring problems drawn from the real world.

"It sounds great, but it doesn't work," quipped David Wright, a veteran BYU math professor.

"When [Gerson and Walter] proposed those sections, we said it was fine with us as long as they take the uniform final and use the same textbook," Garner said. "Their object was to study how students' attitudes changed during the course. They didn't drill the skills like they do in the other sections."

When the facts contradict your expectations, believe the facts. Scores were tragically lower than traditionally-taught calculus, which is especially bad when you consider that these were honors students.

You gave it the ol' college try, now get back to what you know works.

1 comment:

Ellen K said...

This plays into the cooperative learning strategies for teaching female students. I mean it's almost verbatim. Sometimes to learn, you just have to do the grunt work.