Andrew Potter's design narrative: Out of the Comfort Zone: Teaching "soft skills" in maths
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7 April 2015
Title Out of the Comfort Zone: Teaching “Soft Skills” in Maths
I was the Associate Lecturer (tutor) for the Open University module MST125. It was my job to provide an online tutorial for the students I support.
This was an online tutorial, which was to take place via the OU’s “OU Live” online conferencing system. The system allows for the pre-loading of a Powerpoint file, so my preparatory work was based almost entirely on creating a suitable Powerpoint.
The tutorial was on Unit 2, so fairly early into the start of the module. For many students this could be their first experience of an online tutorial. The session was to last for 1 hour.
The key actors were myself, as the leader of the session, and the students. As many as 28 students could have turned up, but I had no way of knowing how many would. As distance learning students, many of them have a belief of learning as an individual pursuit, done in isolation. Students would probably have no history of interaction with one another, and only a small amount of communication with myself.
I was hoping to lead an informative and helpful session to help students get used to the material of Unit 2, namely mathematical typesetting. My measure of success was whether they would be able to feel more confident in being able to typeset mathematics.
Because the content of Unit 2 is not the traditional “hard maths” content that I am used to delivering, it was difficult for me to know where to begin. The tried-and-tested worked example followed by questions to gauge understanding didn’t seem to fit here.
In addition, this unit was not linear: students could choose any one of three different pathways to completing the unit, depending on which typesetting software they chose to use. This was also difficult for me, as I am so used to the linear way in which mathematics is traditionally taught, building hierarchically on prior concepts.
I decided that I would first have to find out what the students who turned up were going to be using, so that I could have an idea of how popular each choice was, and tailor my answers along those lines.
Because of the three different ways in which students could approach typesetting, I decided that it was no use trying to go through the features of each individually. That would be a waste of two-thirds of the time for each student!
Instead I decided to use the OU Live whiteboard tools to my advantage. I would provide students with badly typeset examples, which they could “mark” by choosing a colour of pen and highlighting or underlining instances where they thought something was badly typeset. This then gave me discussion points, where students could tell me why they had highlighted certain sections and what they thought could be improved. I pre-prepared a summary of what I thought were the key issues on subsequent slides, so students would have a record of the issues.
I prepared my slides on this basis, and held the tutorial.
I was pleased and surprised that my slides (consisting of only 3 examples) were sufficient material for a one-hour tutorial, and stimulated good discussion. I say “discussion”, but actually none of the students chose to speak (perhaps due to shyness, perhaps due to lack of the correct audio equipment). I had expected this to be the case, as I have found students reluctant to use the audio function in the past.
I felt that I met my objectives well, because students were exposed to issues of typesetting they had not been aware of beforehand.
Additionally, students were able to revise material from Unit 1, because of the content of the examples I provided. Students even found unintentional mathematical mistakes I had left in the examples!
On reflection, I would have liked to have stepped back more, and allowed the students to lead the discussions. There were some really useful insights, which I think would have been encouraged more if there wasn’t the fear of getting my approval for having the “right” answer.
Having said that, the success of the session made me realise that it is quite often useful to embed the teaching of “soft skills” alongside the “hard” mathematical content that forms the majority of the module. Communication of mathematical ideas is a valuable skill, and so should be taught in the same way as any other skill would be. Given that students are learning mainly in a distance-learning context, the brief moments where they are part of a social grouping of learners would be an ideal opportunity to engender communicative skills.