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Ten years and eight days

On 31st January 2008, I gave my first lecture. I was passing my PhD supervisor in the corridor and he said “there might be some teaching going if you fancy it, go and talk to Mike”. And that, as innocuous as it sounds, was the spark that lit the flame. I strongly disliked public speaking, having hardly done it (not having had much chance to practice in my education to date – I may have only given one talk in front of people to that point, as part of the assessment of my MSc dissertation), but I recognised that this was something I needed to get over. I had just started working for the IMA, where my job was to travel the country giving talks to undergraduate audiences, and I realised that signing up to a regular lecture slot would get me some much-needed experience. I enjoyed teaching so much that I have pursued it since.

I just noticed that last Wednesday was ten years since that lecture. It was basic maths for forensic science students. I was given a booklet of notes and told to either use it or write my own (I used it), had a short chat about how the module might work with another lecturer, and there I was in front of the students. That was spring in the academic year 2007/8 and this is the 21st teaching semester since then. This one is the 15th semester during which I have taught — the last 12 in a row, during which I got a full-time contract and ended ten years of part-time working.

I have this awful feeling this might lead people to imagine I’m one of the people who knows what they are doing.

P.S. The other thing that I started when I started working for the IMA was blogging – yesterday marks ten years since my first post. So this post represents the start of my second ten years of blogging.

Mathematical genius: extrapolate from your own experience?

The BBC biography series Great Lives covered in its most recent episode Srinivasa Ramanujan. In the closing minutes of the programme, host Matthew Paris said this, which I found quite interesting (or at least, interestingly expressed):

I’m so far from understanding the mind of a mathematical genius that it’s simply inconceivable that you could tell a person an apparently random number and he could intuit or deduce the kind of fact that he deduced about that taxi license number. I mean, I can’t run a four-minute mile, but I once ran a five-minute mile, and I can extrapolate from my own experience, in a way understand how someone might just be a lot better than me at something that, in an inferior way, I can also do. But Ramanujan isn’t like that. It’s as though this man were a different species, not just a superior example of the same species. Can you learn to do this kind of thing? Could I, if I had applied myself? Or is it that goddess again, is it really just genius?

Answers on a postcard!

Paper about student use of a learning space in mathematics

Sheffield Hallam University Maths DepartmentOne of the nice things about working in mathematics at Sheffield Hallam University is the environment in which I work. The maths department is a big, open learning space for students surrounded by staff offices. It’s a busy place, full of activity and plenty of opportunities to interact with students and other staff.

This space was renovated for mathematics a little before I arrived. It was designed to enhance student engagement and to create this sense of community, to allow collaborative learning and encourage inter-year interactions.

Over the last year, we conducted a study of use of the space. This included observations of use of the space as well as questionnaires and interviews with students about their use of the space, including students who had studied in the department in the old and new locations.

The results have just been published as ‘The role of informal learning spaces in enhancing student engagement with mathematical sciences‘ by Jeff Waldock, Peter Rowlett, Claire Cornock, Mike Robinson & Hannah Bartholomew, which is online now and will appear in a future issue of International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology (doi:10.1080/0020739X.2016.1262470).

“How can you do coursework for maths?” What I marked this year

A while ago I was helping out at an open day. The material presented gave some information about the range of assessment types we use. A potential applicant asked me “how can you do coursework for maths?”. She felt that (what she understood as) maths could only be assessed by examination. (This is presumably because her experience of the English school system has not exposed her to anything but exams for maths.)

I thought it might be interesting (to me, at least) to list the types of assessment I’ve been involved in marking in the 2015/16 academic year.

Cockcroft on puzzles in maths teaching

I am interested in puzzles and games and how they relate to mathematical thinking, not least through my involvement with the Maths Arcade initiative. I was pleased to read what is said on this topic in the 1982 Cockcroft report. This is the report of an inquiry started in 1978 “to consider the teaching of mathematics in primary and secondary schools in England and Wales, with particular regard to its effectiveness and intelligibility and to the match between the mathematical curriculum and the skills required in further education, employment and adult life generally”.