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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 is lovely, but one problem is those students who on the face of it don’t want to play. The majority of students I work with in the MLC are not studying maths not for maths’s sake, but because it is a required part of their wider degree. That is, I am helping students who are studying maths for engineering, or calculations for nursing or statistics for psychology. A lot of these students just want to be told what to do and get the maths over and done and don’t like “wasting” time playing with the ideas.

Or so I thought. I have realised recently that actually they do like playing with the ideas. I just couldn’t see that this was what they were asking for.

One of the questions I like to use to play with maths is “what if?” To ask it requires the asker to notice a feature they think might be different, and wonder what would happen if it was, and so investigate how this feature interacts with the other features of the situation. This investigation of how ideas interact is exactly what mathematics is, to me. I am very very used to doing it at extracurricular activities like One Hundred Factorial, and it’s easy to do with students who are doing very well with their maths and have the breathing space to wonder about this stuff because they’ve finished their work. For students working on an assignment they are really struggling with that they wonder about the usefulness of for their degree and which is due in the next 24 hours, it’s not so easy.

Only maybe it’s a little easier than I thought, because I started to notice that the students were already asking questions about the connections between things.

A very common question students ask around exam time is “What would you do if the question was like this …?” as they suggest a change in a small detail that makes it more similar to the past exam question they have at hand. I used to get really annoyed at this sort of question, but then I realised that in order to ask this question they had already noticed that the two problems were similar in most respects and different in this one. Sure, they may be motivated by a belief that success in maths is about a big list of slightly different problems and remembering ways to deal with each, but on the other hand they have noticed a relationship and are trying to exploit it, This is a mathematical kind of thought, to look for similarities and differences and relationships, and we can hang on tight to it and actually learn something!

Another kind of question students ask is “Why is this here in this course?”. I used to get annoyed at the whinging tone of voice here, but then I realised that a student is begging for a connection between this and the rest of what they are studying, and connections is precisely what understanding maths is all about. I can respond to it by saying that yes I am also confused about the curriculum writer’s logic for including it, but then we can search out connections together to see if we can find them.

A third kind of question is the one where the student looks at the lecture notes or solutions and asks “How did they know to do this?”. Sure, it’s usually motivated by wanting to be able to successfully do it in their own exam in restricted time, but on the other hand it does recognise that there ought to be reasoning involved in that decision, as opposed to just guessing. This expectation of reasoning is the beginning of believing that they themselves could reason it out too.

My second-last kind of question is “Why is this wrong?” as the student points to the big red cross on their MapleTA problem on the screen. Sure they just want to make it all better so they can submit the damn thing. But they are also recognising that there must be a reason why it’s wrong, and so are looking for meaning. These students are often ripe for the experience of looking at the information and how it’s related to what they’ve entered, thus doing exploration. They are also usually ready to try various different ways of entering the result, or different strategies of getting a right answer to see where the edges of the idea are.

The final kind of question I want to mention isn’t even a question, it’s an exclamation of “It doesn’t make sense!” Even this is telling me that the student thinks it ought to make sense. They are crying out to do something to make sense of it. Often they describe being almost there and needing something to push them over into understanding. This student is ready to explore the edges of the understanding they do have to see where the nonsensical stuff can fit, or where their ideas need some tweaking to fit together better.

It is very helpful to me as a one-on-one or small group teacher, or even a lecturer with a big room of students in question time, to be able to see the questions struggling students are asking as cries for sense-making exploration. It doesn’t matter that they are struggling or don’t understand things. Indeed, being in a situation of not knowing is exactly what we are doing for the fast students when we give them extension activities, so why is the everyday maths the slower students are not understanding any different? In my experience students like being treated as if they are behaving like mathematicians when they have these struggling sorts of questions. And it was so much easier to treat them that way after I realised they are behaving like mathematicians when they have these kinds of questions, even in some small way.

 

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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 there were mistakes I would leave them there and respond with how I resolved them, rather than deleting them and removing the evidence that I had made a mistake. I wanted the whole process of solving problems to be out there in plain sight for everyone to see.

One reason I wanted to do this was because too often we give the impression that maths is all so slick and easy, when really it is actually messy and hard. This issue is exacerbated by the nature of puzzles, which often have clever simple solutions, and when people share only that, we give this impression that maths is done by some sort of divine inspiration of the clever trick. I wanted my responses to problems to show the honest process of muddling through things, and getting them wrong, and only seeing the clever idea after I’ve done it the unclever way, and even if a clever way did occur to me, what it was that made me think of it.

Over time, this has grown into me doing epically long tweet threads where I live-tweet my whole solution process, including all the extra bits I ask myself that are sideways from or beyond the original goal of the problem. I have to say I really really love doing this. I love puzzles and learning new things, and it’s nice to do it and count it as part of my job. I also get to have a record of the whole process for posterity to look back on. Even in the moment, it’s very interesting to have to force myself to really slow down and be aware of my own thought processes enough to tweet them as I go. In my daily work I have to help other people to think, so the sort of self-awareness that this livetweeting of my thought process brings is very useful to me, not to mention fascinating.

In the beginning, I had some trouble with people seeing my rhetorical questions as cries for help and jumping in to try to tell me what to do. I also had people tell me off for not presenting the most elegant solution, saying “Wouldn’t this be easier?” Every so often I still get that happening, but it’s rarer now that I have started to become known for this sort of thing. I am extremely grateful that a few people seem to really love it when I do this, especially John Rowe, who by rights could be really annoyed at me filling up his notifications with hundreds of tweets with a high frequency of “hmm”.

I plan to continue to do this, and so if you want to keep an eye out for it, then I’ll happily let you come watch. From this point forward I will use the hashtag #trymathslive when I first begin one of these live problem-solving sessions, so I can find them later and you can see when I’m about to do it. (I had a lot of trouble looking for these tweet threads, until I remembered that a word I use often when I am doing this is “try” and I searched for my own handle and “try”. In fact, that’s the inspiration for the hashtag I plan to use.)

Note that I am actually happy for people to join in with me — it doesn’t have to be a solitary activity. I would prefer it if you also didn’t know the solution to the problem at the point when you joined in, but were also being authentic in your sharing of your actual half-formed thoughts. I definitely don’t want people telling me their pre-existing answers or trying to push me in certain directions. If you feel like you must “help” then, asking me why I did something, or what things I am noticing about some aspect of the problem or my own solution are useful ways to help me push my own thinking along whatever path it is going rather than making my thinking conform to someone else’s. I will attempt to do the same for you.

To finish off, here are a LOT of these live trying maths sessions. (If you click on the tweet, you’ll go to the thread without having to log into twitter. You’ll have to scroll up a tweet or two to get to the original problem and scroll down, often a long long way, to find what happened.) I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed doing them.

4th July 2019

28th June 2019

23rd June 2019

12th June 2019

May 28 2019

May 17 2019

17th April 2019

20th March 2019

24th February 2019

21st February 2019

28th November 2018

5th November 2018

14th October 2018

4th October 2018

11th March 2018

21st Janurary 2018

5th December 2017

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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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This week I provided games and puzzles at a welcome lunch for new students in the Mathematical Sciences degree programs. I had big logic puzzles and maths toys and also a list of some of my eight most favourite puzzles on tables with paper tablecloths to write on.
One of the puzzles is the Seven Sticks […]

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A lot of people introduce the derivative at a point as the slope of the tangent at that point, which to me is quite confusing. It seems to me that the reason we want the derivative is that it is a measure of the slope of our actual function at that point, not the slope […]

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