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Mathematician Makes Pitch for Scholarship in the Teaching and Learning of Undergraduate Mathematics

Should students be using graphing calculators in the classroom? on final exams? What about the classroom use of computer algebra systems? When such issues are debated, said mathematics educator James T. Fey, of the University of Maryland, College Park, there's far too much reliance on anecdotal "evidence" and a serious dearth of scholarship that sheds light on the issues.

Speaking on April 5 at the MAA's Carriage House Conference Center, Fey made a plea to the mathematics community to lend its support for greater research on the teaching and learning of undergraduate mathematics. Such backing could go a long way, he said, in helping to improve the way teachers teach mathematics and students learn mathematics.

"There is an extensive body of published and ongoing research aimed at understanding and improving mathematics teaching and learning at the elementary and secondary levels," Fey contended. "But comparable work at the undergraduate level has only begun recently."

Fey's talk was a "pitch," as he described it—a call for mathematicians to back the need for ongoing research and scholarship aimed at understanding how undergraduates comprehend and do mathematics in today's technological world. Such an understanding would benefit both those who teach and those who learn the subject. But such research is only at an embryonic stage, Fey claimed, because of a major barrier. At present, the mathematics community does not, in general, consider it appropriate mathematical scholarship.

There's more to being an effective teacher than proving theorems and providing clear and compelling exposition, Fey remarked. Studies on how students learn and which teaching methods and styles are effective can also contribute to learning.

Fey provided examples of the sorts of the investigations into aspects of mathematical education that could prove useful, from carefully observing how students actually use new technology to measuring what they have learned. We need to be evaluating benefits and risks, he said. We need to document what works.

"What evidence is there that this or that makes a difference?" he asked. Specialists in mathematics education in partnership with mathematicians could help elucidate such differences.

Fey is widely known in the United States and abroad as a leader in curriculum development, mathematics education reform, and teacher preparation. During his career, Fey has provided leadership to several NSF-funded programs, including the Connected Mathematics Project, a middle school curriculum; the Core-Plus Mathematics Project, an integrated problem-based high school curriculum; and the Mid-Atlantic Center for Mathematics Teaching and Learning, a collaboration of three universities to create new approaches to doctoral studies in mathematics education.—H. Waldman.

News Date: 
Friday, April 6, 2007