Context fatigue is a particular kind of mental exhaustion that happens after having to make sense of multiple different contexts that maths/statistics is embedded in. I feel it regularly, but I feel it most strongly when I have spent a day helping medical students critically analyse the statistics presented in published journal articles.

The problem with maths in context is that the contexts themselves require understanding of their own in order for the maths to make sense. This is nowhere more true than in statistics, where you have to use your understanding of whether you expect the relationship to exist, what direction you expect it to be, and whether you think this is a good or bad thing. The classic one in my head is an old first year statistics assignment where they used linear regression to investigate the relationship between manatee deaths and powerboat registrations in each month in some southern coastal American city. You have to know what a manatee is, what it means to register a powerboat, and why those things might possibly be connected in order for the statistical analysis you’re asked to do to make sense, not least because at least one part of the question will ask you to interpret what it means. When helping students read published articles recently, I’ve had to find out what’s been done to the participants in the study, how things have been measures, what kind of measurements those are, why they’ve been measured that way, and all sorts of little details to decide how to interpret the numbers and graphs that are presented.

Even ordinary everyday word problems are a minefield. Across two recent assignments, some financial maths students had to cope with album sales for AC/DC, flooding of the land a factory is built on including insurance, bull and bear markets, machines in a mining operation, committees with various named positions, road testing electric cars, contraband being smuggled in shipping containers. This is a lot of context that has to be made sense of before you can get a handle on the maths, and there is nothing in the question itself to tell you what any of this context means if you don’t already know. Even if you are already familiar with the context, you actually have to suspend some of your understanding in order to do the maths problem, because it’s much simpler than the actual situation any of the questions are talking about.

All of this interpreting is exhausting stuff! It just tires you out if you have to even a moderate amount all at once. You just feel like you don’t have any more energy to deal with any more today. That feeling there is context fatigue. Yesterday the first year maths students were doing related rates and every question was a new context with little nuances created by the context that had to be dealt with. Those poor students were exhausted after just one problem, letalone three or four.

As teachers, we need to realise that as the people writing the assignment questions, or at least people who have dealt with them before, we are much more aware of the details and nuances of the context than the students are, so we don’t have to work so hard to make sense of them. Not only that but we’re usually simply more experienced in both life and language than most of our students so it’s easier for us. Imagine the context fatigue you would get reading ten research papers in an unfamiliar area in one day (I feel this in real life regularly). That’s the sort of context fatigue your students have just from your assignment questions. Cut them a little slack, and make sure there is adequate time to process the context with appropriate rest time between context-interpretation. Also it wouldn’t be the worst thing to explicitly teach them strategies for making sense of context, such as ignoring the goal, and finding out about what some of the words mean. Strategies can make the work less intimidating, especially in the face of knowing how tiring it is already!

PS: If you’re in charge of tutors in a drop-in support centre, especially one that deals with statistics, please be kind. Context fatigue is real and tends to wear us down some days!

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I am often saying how important it is to listen to students, and that I am fascinated by student thoughts and feelings. When students say I am a good teacher my usual response is to say it’s because I have spent the last eleven years in a situation where I get to listen to lots of students.

But there is an important thing I almost never talk about, which is that sometimes listening is actually awful. I can think of not many more debilitating curses to lay upon people than to wish them the ability to listen.

Because listening is exhausting.

Because I am listening to students, I know an explanation doesn’t work, so I have to come up with new ones, usually on the fly. Because I am listening to student thinking, I come across new ways to think about all sorts of things that I had never considered before, which I then have to process. Because I am listening, I am faced with people’s feelings and stories, which I have to process emotionally. Because I am listening, I can easily become fascinated with new ideas and problems which take up my mind. Because I am listening, I hear things that need changing in teaching methods or university systems, and either try to work to change them or worry that I can’t. In short, because I am listening I am constantly processing information and emotions both in the moment and later on. It’s exhausting.

I don’t always cope well with it. In person with students I can just deal with who is in front of me and it’s ok, though there are times I need a break and just walk away for a few minutes. Unfortunately when I’m apart from the students, I can’t leave my brain behind and I carry with me the swirling thoughts in my head all day long caused by the listening to students. One way I have to cope with this is to talk with people about those thoughts, in person or on Twitter. But I actually can’t talk about all of them, so I have to choose one thing to think about and ignore everything else. There are times I have to say to students or my tutoring staff that actually no I can’t think about that right now, which is really really hard. And there are times I can manage to do an activity like origami or folding or watching tv to turn off my brain for a while to give it some rest. Still the call to listen is back again soon enough.

This isn’t a whinge session to get sympathy, it’s a warning. Be warned that if you choose to listen, you too will have to find ways to ignore some things, to find moments of brain-calm, and to find ways to process the thoughts you do choose to entertain.

Was my aim to scare you off? Certainly not! I wouldn’t ever give up listening and sacrifice the pleasure and learning I get from it, or the benefit it has for students. The blessing far outweighs the curse.

Just be prepared, ok?

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Three years ago, my university’s Student Engagement Community of Practice collectively wrote a series of blog posts about various aspects of student engagement. I thought I would reproduce my blog post here, since it is still as relevant today as then.

There is a lot that staff can do to engage students in the university community and in their learning, and a lot of these things have to do with the staff being engaged with the students. One way that any staff member can show their own level of engagement with the students is to learn the students’ names.

Names are important. Your name is a part of your identity, and not just because it is what you call yourself. Your name may tie you to the culture or the land of your ancestors, or it may speak of your special connection to those you love. You may prefer to be called by a different name than your official one because your chosen name is more meaningful to you. What all of these have in common is that your name is an important part of your identity.

For myself, my name is David, and I don’t like to be called Dave. I grew up in a community with several Davids and other people were called Dave, so being David kept my identity separate to theirs. Yet many people give me no choice and call me Dave without asking for my permission, despite me introducing myself as David. I find it intensely rude that someone would choose to call me by a different name than the one I introduce myself. On top of this, I am a twin, which means as a child I was forever being called by the wrong name entirely. We are not identical twins, and yet this still happened, because we were introduced as PaulandDavid, without an attempt to give us a separate identity. The fact that I was called Paul, or “one of the twins”, meant that I had no identity of my own separate to my brother. Being called David means that I have an identity of my own and this is important to me.

For many students, these and worse are their daily lives. Imagine a student who no-one at university knows their name. They have no identity at university, can feel very alone and can quickly disengage. Yet according to “The First Year Experience in Australian Universities” by Baik, Naylor and Arkoudis, only 60% of first year students are confident that a member of staff knows their name.

Not having your name known at all is one thing, but being called by the wrong name can be worse. An international student has to deal constantly with being different to other students, and in the community at large has to deal with a lot of everyday racism. To have your name declared “difficult to pronounce”, or to have it declared as not possible to remember, is just another one of these everyday racist events. The person doing so may not be meaning to be racist, but it adds up to the students’ feeling of not belonging, to their feeling that they themselves are not worth remembering. Similar to me and my twin brother (only worse), they may have the feeling that others believe all international students are the same, so why remember them separately. In “Teachers, please learn our names!: racial microagression and the K-12 classroom” by Rita Kholi and Daniel G Solórzano, there are many examples of the hurt that such treatment of student names can have.

So what can we do to learn our students’ names? Members of the Community of Practice suggested several strategies.

One idea is to spend time talking to them and ask them what they would like to be called. You can’t learn their names unless you find out what they are! Be visible in your effort to pronounce it correctly, be adamant that you want to call them by the name they ask to be called. If you get multiple chances to talk to them one-on-one, ask their name again if you can’t remember and try to use it as you talk to them.

Another idea is to print out photos of your students and to practice remembering their names. If you don’t have access to their photos, then it should not be hard to find someone nearby who can. (Though of course it would be excellent if there were a simple system whereby anyone teaching a class — including sessional staff — could get photos of their students!) Even if you can’t get their photos, simply working your way down the roll and remembering how to pronounce those names, or what the students’ actual preferred names are, is good exercise. The students are likely to appreciate the effort you put in here, even if they can’t know how much time you did put in!

You may have your own ideas on how we can make sure we know students’ names. I’d encourage you to share them in the comments, along with any stories of how it made a difference to student engagement.

I would like to work in a university where 100% of the students are confident that someone knows their name. We have hundreds (possibly thousands) of staff in contact with students on a regular basis. If each of us only learns a tutorial-worth of names, then we can surely meet that goal easily!

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I firmly believe that all students deserve to play with mathematical ideas, and that extension is not just for the fast or “gifted” students. I also believe that you don’t necessarily need specially designed extension activities to do exploration — a simple “what if” question can easily launch a standard textbook exercise into an exploration.
This […]

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Once upon a time, I decided I would be vulnerable on Twitter. As part of that, when someone posted a puzzle that I was interested in, I decided that I would not wait until I had a complete answer to a problem before I responded, but instead I would tweet out my partial thinking. If […]

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The Story
Sometime in the past, I was approached by academics in the Faculty of Arts to discuss the numeracy skills of the students in their faculty. They wanted to discuss how they might include numeracy skills in some of their courses across all the degrees they teach. It was a lot bigger than the MLC […]

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While I am thinking about SET, it is high time I wrote about a version of the game SET that was invented at One Hundred Factorial back in 2017, but has never been recorded anywhere for posterity. It is prosaically named Team SET.
In case you don’t yet know, the game SET is a game of visual […]

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Amie Albrecht recently posted a most wonderful blog post about SET, and it reminded me there were some SET-related things I should post too.
The first is this little reflection on how I go about teaching people to play SET. Amie talks here about a very excellent way to do this, which is to get people […]

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The Back Story
The four fours is a rather famous little puzzle which goes something like this:
Using exactly four of the number 4 each time, write calculations using +, -, *, / that produce each of the natural numbers from 0 to 20.
It’s a classic puzzle that requires some creativity and also gets people thinking about […]

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This week I’ve been running the tutorials for the core first year Health Sciences course. The tutorial is a very light intro into how data is part of communication of health science research, and one of the activities involves the students arranging a set of data cards to investigate relationships between variables. Something happened today […]

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