I have one of my emotional moments yearly around this time, when the first year mathematics course that I teach starts. It’s an applied course, for students that would often prefer to avoid it, or at least would not volunteer for a math class… but there it is. For years, I am torn between accepting that at least some will suffer through the course, and an ambition to try to make it a fit for all students in the class, again. My Sisophos task: let me push the stone up the hill once more.
I mentioned emotions, right? So first, there is hope. Shiny and non-defeated hope that “we will make mathematics great again”, as a colleague half-jokingly half-seriously suggested over a coffee. And fear, of course, because after all the years, why should we succeed to reach students this time? Fortunately, the Comenius project we have just finished has helped a lot. Students have a personalized online support for their learning, and it works well. We see it, students feel it. Proud of achieving this milestone. Thus maybe, there is a reason to keep the hope on board.
And fear, because why should we succeed to reach students this time?
But then, the other emotions creep in. Frustration. The lecture rooms, full at the start of the course, emptying steadily as we progress. Where did I go wrong? All the material is relevant, and up to the speed. I do speak slower (I hope) this year, and we solve exam questions in the lectures, the relevance is there. Interspaced with practical applications, addressing explicitly “why are we here”. Still, it remains a struggle to reach 100+ students with difficult material, all at once.
And these are only my emotions! Imagine what happens on the students’ side … Fear, anger, sadness, joy, disgust, surprise, trust, anticipation. Anxiety, boredom, confusion, excitement, triumph. Which of these do you expect to find in a classroom on mathematics for non-mathematicians? Would you bet some money on your guess?
Gambling aside, we know that all those emotions feed into the process of learning in the end. They may be useful. As an example: they keep me going. Stagnation is not an option. They also feed into motivation of students. It’s only a question whether we keep enough space for the positive emotions in the institutional context we face: the pressure to make the right study choice, to satisfy the grading criteria, be successful in the choice that has been made…. When study success is reduced to a grade, and quality of a course to a number on the teacher evaluation form, we might forget that everything does not squeeze in. We stare blindly on those numbers and feel only anxiety. Is this number good enough?
Negative emotions also feed into more careful search for solutions to complex problems
Joy, surprise, trust, anticipation, excitement, triumph - enter and join! Research shows that emotions affect how we approach cognitive tasks. Simple tasks are better performed under positive feedback, but negative emotions also feed into more careful search for solutions to complex problems. However, unbridled anxiety and fear can prevent students from investing time into a difficult subject at all…. It’s all about getting the emotions in balance, let them play a constructive role. I am all invested into this puzzle of bringing positivity into a class, suggestions welcome!
So, you understand my task: make mathematics fun again. As of now, I am at a point that is like square of minus 100: perfect 10, but imaginary. Tough had to google that joke, hopefully it makes you smile anyway!