The Ring

New position dedicated to improving student achievement in math

Tue, 2011-03-22 10:01

Alfonso Gracia-Saz.
Alfonso Gracia-Saz. Photo: UVic Photo Services

Actions speak louder than words and the Department of Mathematic and Statistics has taken a leading step in demonstrating its commitment to excellence in teaching and student success. “Every research institution says in its mission statement that it values teaching. But the reality is that teaching is often sacrificed to research. I don’t feel that is the case at UVic,” says Alfonso Gracia-Saz, holder of a new senior instructor position created last July and dedicated to examining math pedagogy with the mandate of improving student success rates.

“Many Canadian universities have been experiencing downward pressure on pass rates for first-year math classes,” says department chair Chris Bose. “At UVic, we decided to try to do something about it.” In partnership with the Learning and Teaching Centre, and with solid backing from the Office of the Vice-President Academic and the Faculty of Science, the department developed an innovative plan, then went looking for someone who would excel in this challenging new position. “Luckily, we found Alfonso” remarks Bose. “He has a top-notch math background for this—he’s a really strong young researcher with an even stronger teaching record.”

“During my recruitment I was impressed with how much people clearly cared,” says Gracia-Saz. “One’s reaction could be, ‘Students will simply have to work harder.’ That’s not what I encountered here. The department was actively trying to improve the success rate—to do things differently, right from senior instructors to the chair.”

Individuals adjusted teaching styles, others modified the course format to improve things but with heavy teaching loads, current faculty were challenged as to how much they could devote to the issue. “My position is designed with a minimal teaching load so I can dedicate time to this,” explains Gracia-Saz. “It’s unique in Canada, I believe.” He’ll examine the overall program, determine the impediments to success and seek solutions.

“To get the pass rate up, we can’t simply lower expectations. Students need the core competencies,” says Gracia-Saz. Mathematics is fundamental to any science or engineering discipline, and the majority of students in first-year math classes are drawn from disciplines other than math.

Part of the problem seems to be a widening gap between student preparedness from their high school math training and what is expected of students in first-year math courses. “This gap presents a huge challenge for many of our students,’’ observes Gracia-Saz. “Our job is to help them meet this challenge and obtain success in their university math courses as quickly as possible.”

As a senior instructor cross-appointed with the Teaching and Learning Centre, Gracia-Saz manages the Math & Stats Assistance Centre. Formerly it was managed by term appointments, which meant high turnover and lack of a consistent pedagogical vision.

He has reconfigured it with an emphasis on guiding learning and discovery instead of simply answering questions. He’s accomplishing this through more rigour in the hiring of the centre’s math tutors and by securing improved physical space for the centre’s two on-campus sites. With two large rooms for study, students are encouraged to come and work for a couple of hours. When they get stuck, top-notch TAs are on hand to help. “Before, one of our locations was an office with just a few chairs outside—students would simply seek an answer and then leave.”

One of his next steps is to examine the calculus course sequence and to determine if it can be redesigned to make it more effective. Gracia-Saz says options may include rethinking when material is taught in the sequence to better lay a foundation of knowledge on which to build subsequent courses.

He will also consult with all the departments from which math students are drawn to better understand what math competencies those students need for their core program and determine how that correlates to the current teaching.