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Honored for Integrating Writing and Math

By Josh Halpren

Professors Lyn Stallings, Frances Van Dyke, and Elizabeth Malloy (from left to right) after accepting the award.

“We strongly believe that all students can succeed in any course with the appropriate motivation and dedication,” say professors Frances Van Dyke, Lyn Stallings, and Elizabeth Malloy of AU’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics who were this year’s recipients of the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning’s (CTRL) Milton and Sonia Greenberg Scholarship of Teaching and Learning award. 

The professors were recognized by CTRL this past semester for their research on the use of writing in the mathematics classroom. “We believe that integrating writing can really help students who struggle mathematically,” says Stallings. “If you can’t understand the logic behind what you’re doing, then you can’t apply it to anything else.”

Stallings says that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has been promoting the use of writing in math classrooms for years, but that it hasn’t been widely adopted. The professors’ research goal is ultimately to determine if “students in a course that requires writing do better than students in the same course that requires no writing.” Stallings, Van Dyke, and Malloy have all experimented with using writing in the classroom through their Finite Mathematics, Applied Calculus, Elementary Math Models and Basic Statistics classes. 

“We have been looking at attitudes towards math as well,” says Stallings. “Students saw longer writing assignments as cumbersome and didn’t think they helped learning. But when asked to write shorter conceptual pieces, students had better attitudes towards writing in mathematics.

The Milton and Sonia Greenberg Scholarship of Teaching and Learning award was established this year to recognize individuals and teams of AU’s faculty who have made contributions to teaching and learning. According to CTRL, the award was designed to promote “the systematic analysis of the practice of teaching and the application of research-based approaches to instruction and curricular design.” Milton Greenberg is a former provost and a former interim president of the university. 

John Doolittle, associate director of CTRL says that many faculty members think of their teaching and research duties as very separate things, but that professors like those recognized by the award have bridged this gap. “These professors are taking something that has worked in the K-12 world and are applying it to university-level classes,” says Doolittle. “These faculty members stood out because they are doing something that can change the attitudes that students have towards mathematics.”

The Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning was established by the university in order to empower faculty to become better educators in addition to becoming better scholars. “Student evaluations shouldn’t be the only way that faculty members assess their teaching skills,” says Doolittle. “We thought the [math] professors’ research would help these faculty members to assess student attitudes towards their own learning in a unique way.” 

“We all saw a lack of full understanding in the classroom,” says Stallings. “Students would get the right answers, but wouldn’t know why the answer was correct or the significance of the answer.” One of the goals of the professors’ research is to help students to understand why certain mathematical equations exist. Stallings pointed to student writing samples as evidence that the program works. At the beginning of the course, students were “parroting” answers back in their writing to the professor. At the end of the course, students were giving longer, more analytical answers. “They are learning how to write mathematically,” says Stallings.

“Students don’t just learn formulas anymore,” says Stallings. “They learn why those formulas exist and how they came to be.”