FIU Study: Encouragement key for math students

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At some point, many bright students seem to drift from math. A new study by Florida International University Professor Zahra Hazari suggests there are ways to keep them on track.

What they need are confidence, clear explanations of concepts and — just as important — encouragement or interest.

“We see a lot of kids who do well in math, but they don’t end up picking math-related careers,” said Hazari, who specializes in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Education at FIU’s College of Education and STEM Transformation Institute. If parents, friends or peers “see you as a math person, then you’re much more likely to see yourself as a math person and take that on as your identity.”

For the study, Hazari and three colleagues interviewed 9,000 college calculus students who believed they were competent enough to perform well in their course. As for their main reason for studying the subject, more than 60 percent of the students admitted they either were acknowledged for their math skills or they found it fascinating.

Third-year FIU student Aaron Zuniga, for example, always loved math — its rules, objectivity and logic. As a kid, he thought it was fun, like learning another language. But when he got to college, he opted to study engineering — a degree he felt combined his passion with practicality.

Two years into school, one of his professors suggested he apply for a job at FIU’s Mastery Math Lab, a center where college algebra and intermediate college algebra students worked on their course assignments. The job working one-on-one with math students eventually changed his mind about engineering.

“I was in an environment that I loved,” said Zuniga, 21. “My whole life I thought math was a stepping-stone for other careers. I never thought it was a career itself.”

Zuniga transferred out of engineering last semester to become a math student. Now his goal is to become an actuary and analyze the financial consequences of risk. “I feel more secure about my future as a math major,” Zuniga said, adding that the shift in coursework has also gotten him “excited about college again.”

As far as either being a math or word person, researchers don’t buy it.

“There are these stereotypes that if you’re this kind of person, you’re not the other kind of person,” Hazari said. “You can have a math identity as well as a language identity.”

The problem, she added, is that once people identify you as one stereotype, they don’t see you as the other.

At FIU’s math lab, coordinators like Ada Monserrat are focused on getting non-math students comfortable learning the subject, and maybe even turning a few students toward the career path. She often sneaks stories of her math- and science-related adventures into her classroom, like meeting Stephen Hawking last year.

In a coordinated effort between teachers and the lab’s learning assistants, like Zuniga, Monserrat has witnessed non-math students’ attitudes toward their classes change as they work through and actually learn the material.

“In the past, students would go home to work on homework assignments. This format totally eliminates that situation,” Monserrat said. Students are required to complete three hours a week in the lab as part of their coursework. “I have seen students progress and be motivated by these courses.”

She’s even seen non-math majors develop an interest in math once they understand the subject.

Hazari said support for math students also fades at the college level, when many professors don’t get to know students well. So high school and middle school are key.

“Certain teachers can recognize you and bring you out of your shell if you’re less confident,’’ she said. “But that doesn’t happen very much as you become more and more senior.”

Hazari nearly failed learning fractions in sixth grade. Her seventh-grade teacher, however, pulled her aside and explained them to her in a way she understood. She didn’t struggle again after that.

“Once it all made sense, it was easy,” Hazari said. “It doesn’t fit everyone’s experience, but it does show you the pattern. And I’m just like everyone else, I fit the pattern.”