Large lecture

“Iʻm just not good at math.”

It’s a common lament for students in Math 100, but a new program at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa aims to transform a 100-level hurdle into a stepping stone for future mathematicians and math educators.

The Learning Assistants (LA) program in the math department at UH Mānoa puts undergraduate math majors back in Math 100 as mentors for struggling students. The assistants work in small groups to go over and expand on material covered in the professor’s lectures. The peer-to-peer interaction makes it easier for students to ask questions and dive deeper into real-world examples, bringing mathematical concepts to life.

Math 100 is a mandatory course, usually a large lecture class, for students not majoring or even interested in math, that has a high failure/repeat rate, which too often delayed graduation.

“Math 100 is kind of like that last thing that I just needed to get out of the way,” said Tyler Lum, a senior environmental studies major, “and it was really helpful to have these guys around walking around to help push me to get that answer that I’m a little shy of.”

The LA program, part of the mathematics department’s effort to revamp the course, is already seeing success in changing attitudes toward math and improve grades in the course. Students who dreaded taking math have gained the confidence to pursue their math education further and even consider majoring in the discipline.

“We see a lot more students passing and a lot more students getting As,” said Sarah Post, associate professor of mathematics and program advisor. “The students that before wouldnʻt pass, theyʻre now getting up to the C-level and the B-level, and the students that before would just get Bs and Cs are really excelling.”

“Most importantly, the students are engaged in their own education,” said Monique Chyba, associate chair of the mathematics department. “Attendance is much higher. They are doing mathematics, which are key to developing quantitative reasoning skills.”

Expanding beyond Math 100

With the success of the LA program in Math 100, UH is currently expanding the program to other math classes (including calculus), other disciplines (including physics, chemistry and computer science), and other campuses (UH Hilo).

“Weʻve been looking for the resources to give the faculty in the math department the resources they need to engage with their other colleagues beyond math and into other topics,” said Michael Bruno, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs and vice chancellor for research.

UH is asking the Hawaiʻi State Legislature for funding to expand the program in the 2019–2020 academic year and beyond. Currently there are 26 learning assistants in the math department and about 60 total in the College of Natural Sciences. The LA program serves roughly 2,500 students in more than 20 classes some of which have 10 or 11 sections.

“The LA program is literally transforming the lower level courses on our campus, and providing the students a completely different experience,” said Chyba.

Assisting the assistants

Learning Assistant helping students

By helping their fellow undergrads succeed, the LAs have the opportunity to review and refine their math and teaching skills. They attend a pedagogy class once a week to learn how to teach, and work closely with math faculty members and graduate teaching assistants.

“When Iʻm teaching someone I have to think about how they think about the problem [which makes] me to think about how I solve my problems,” said Jonas Balisacan, a senior math major and LA.

The program gives LAs an early, hands-on look at teaching as a possible career. It also gives faculty better insight into how their Math 100 students are progressing, helping them to adapt their lessons.

“The teaching ʻohana with the professors and the graduate teaching assistants and the undergraduate learning assistants all working together and sharing in the experience has been really fun,” said Post. “Math 100 is focused on giving students tools to understand and communicate in a world increasingly reliant on quantitative data.”

In just one semester, the LA program has been changing students’ attitudes not just about math, but about their own abilities and unexpected potential.

“I know a lot of students believe they are not good at math,” said Jacqueline Millard, a sophomore math major and LA. “But being able to encourage them and help challenge them to keep trying and just seeing the breakthroughs and seeing them like ‘I CAN do this’ is an amazing feeling.”

For more information on the Learning Assistants program, contact Monique Chyba at chyba@hawaii.edu.