Every Tuesday and Thursday, two separate classes file in to the same room on Michigan State University’s campus. Both sets of students eye the clock’s path toward the same opening hour, springing to action in unison when it finally arrives.
Far from the chaos that simultaneous class sessions would suggest, however, the two courses form a mutually beneficial relationship. This symbiosis is the pride of the Teacher Education and Mathematics (TEAM) project at MSU, which aims to both equip students of intermediate algebra with the skills they’ll need to succeed in higher-level math and give pre-service student teachers occupational experience before they go out looking for their first jobs.
A Tale of Two Courses
The two partnered courses are MTH 100E (Intermediate Algebra Workshop for the Mathematics Enrichment Program) and TE 407 (Teaching Subject Matter to Diverse Learners). The former is an optional enrichment seminar for students taking MTH 1825 (Intermediate Algebra). For the students in the latter course, TE 407, MTH 100E acts as a sort of lab. Beginning the third week of the semester, a pair of undergraduate math education majors in TE 407 co-teach each MTH 100E class.
For the pre-service teachers, this may be the first time they’ve ever taught in front of a classroom. Graduate teaching assistants, most of them in either the Teacher Education or Program in Mathematics Education (PRIME) doctoral programs, provide on-the-spot coaching when necessary. “It’s about practicing teaching in an authentic but supported way,” says Dr. Kristen Bieda of the arrangement. Bieda is an Associate Professor of Teacher Education at MSU and the Associate Director of Mathematics for the CREATE for STEM Institute.
As the Principal Investigator of the now three-year-old TEAM project, Bieda can say with confidence that MTH 100E makes a difference, both for its students and its student teachers. Students who enroll in the class generally start out behind the MTH 1825 students who do not take 100E, but the 100E students catch up to or surpass the 1825-only students by the end of the semester. Research from the TEAM project has shown that this extra preparation serves them well when they continue to the next class, MTH 103 (College Algebra).
The student teachers, at the same time, are provided with the opportunity to discuss their teaching sessions with their fellow education majors. After each 100E class on Tuesday and Thursday, there is a one hour debriefing that everyone in 407 attends, regardless of which day they’ve been assigned to teach. This is how the student teachers know what happened on their day off, enabling them to prepare accordingly.
It’s during these meetings that the graduate TAs can offer feedback to the new teachers and where everyone can discuss the direction of the 100E curriculum. Because the students in 100E enter the class with widely varying backgrounds in math, the 407 leaders pay special attention to the emphasis given to each subject in the 100E curriculum. Last fall, for example, more time than usual was spent on quadratic functions and factoring instead of linear functions, something students turned out to be mostly proficient in already.
Not Just Solving Problems
“[This class is] more for math majors who want to deeply understand math,” wrote one student in a reflection on the class, somewhat miffed. “Not people who just want to know how to solve the problem.” The TEAM researchers see this response as a success; deep understanding is exactly what they are going for. Cementing students’ math fundamentals while they are still early in their college careers is essential to reducing the notorious nationwide attrition rate in STEM majors. (According to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics, about one-half of STEM majors end up leaving their fields, whether that means switching majors or dropping out of school.)
Beyond raw math content, the 100E teachers aspire to impart a positive, can-do growth mindset on their students. This is especially important given the tendency for students in remedial math classes (especially those who have to retake them) to become discouraged about their capacity to handle more difficult math. Bieda hopes to smash the attitude she sees in many college freshman that coming to class is simply a matter of filling a seat. “You really have to be willing to engage and ask questions,” she says. “This is really the antithesis of hoop-jumping.” The TEAM project is disrupting the dull, abstruse style of instruction that students dread from their math classes. One pair of student teachers, upon finding out that a 100E student of theirs enjoyed poetry, let him begin class by reading aloud an original poem. That wasn’t in the lesson plan - but it did offer the student a chance to do more than just fill a seat.
Building the Future
A sizable amount of video has been taken of the student teachers in 100E, which the TEAM researchers plan to “dig in” to this year. Among other things, the analyses will give teacher educators at MSU a better idea of the kind of techniques their prospective teachers have in their arsenals. In the coming years, the TEAM group hopes to further support the occupational development of their graduate TAs and TE 407 student instructors, as well as expand the number of Learning Assistants who can implement the curriculum. The main focus, though, is on the students in the remedial math courses. For nearly three years the TEAM group has carefully scrutinized and refined MTH 100E, but their ultimate, paradoxical goal, Bieda says, is to find out what can be done so students “don’t even need it.”
Josh Anderson is pursuing a degree in Professional Writing at Michigan State University. You can view more of his work at joshanderson.me.