By Margie Dunn, senior faculty program director, Excelsior College
Many students, first generation or not, come to college with a fear of mathematics. The typical College Algebra course doesn’t change that perception, because it’s “more of the same”-type mathematics that students experienced in high school.
Excelsior College’s MAT*101 Mathematics for Everyday Life, takes a different approach. The focus in is on critical thinking, cooperative problem solving, and communication, but through the lens of mathematical problems that students can relate to from their everyday life. These include dealing with personal finance (savings, investments, loans, credit cards, mortgages) issues, becoming a critical consumer of statistical information, and understanding uncertainty in diagnostic testing. Problems sets also ask students to consider the connections between mathematics and the arts and nature (e.g. within architecture, music, population biology, etc.).
By de-emphasizing formal calculation, many students are able to overcome their past fears. Once the fears are resolved, many students find they can handle the critical thinking, and thus they gain confidence.
In traditional mathematics learning, students typically turn to the instructor or an answer key to determine if their logic and calculations are correct. But everyday life does not supply us with these all-knowing sources. In real life, often the best we can do is ask a spouse or colleague to re-work the problem, then work together until we agree on the solution.
The teamwork of MAT*101 mimics this reality. Discussion board assignments entail solving a challenging problem collaboratively, in teams of three to five students. These teams provide a sense of community and a forum to explain and discuss mathematical ideas. Instructors do not tell a team if their answer is correct or not, it is up to the team to decide. This encourages clear communication among the team members, good writing skills, and confidence as these skills emerge and grow.
Not all work is team-based. Students do a great deal of work independently, again fostering mathematical, critical thinking and communication skills, as well as self-confidence. Thus, MAT*101 helps students succeed not only in this course, but in their future courses and careers.
Want to learn more about Math for Everyday Life? Check out the Spring 2014 issue of Excelsior College Magazine.