Tips for Effective Engineering Mathematics Support

Background:

The idea of mathematics support for undergraduate students took off in the UK in the early 1990’s, and today it is now firmly established in most universities (Lawson, 2012). The main reason leading to the provision of mathematical support was the perception that students entering university from the school system lacked the necessary depth of mathematics necessary for them to undertake numerate programmes like mathematics, engineering and the physical sciences.

Today, mathematical support has progressed from being just a remedial tool. Instead, the main objective of mathematical support is now being seen as assisting students to achieve their full potential. This means that in addition to supporting students who would otherwise fail to gain sufficient mathematics skills to pass and progress in their degree programmes, mathematical support programmes also seek to enable students with adequate mathematical skills to excel in their studies.  Whilst the exact form of support offered varies from student to student, the main objective is the same, namely building students’ confidence in mathematics so as to enable them to be more successful in the study of their primary discipline (Lawson, 2012).

Mode of Operation, Location and Branding

The main form of support is typically in the form of a drop-in service, usually located in an easily accessible student study space. This may be typically in a library, or campus-based cafeterias where students are likely to meet informally in between formal lectures to study, eat and drink, or to chill out. Wherever a drop-in service is provided, it is necessary to ensure that it is located in a physically attractive, welcoming environment. It should also be clearly sign-posted, possibly with a large clear banner, so that it clearly stands out. It is also essential that any signage or advertising associated with the service should be about improvement for all, as opposed to being a remedial service for failing students (Lawson, 2012). This is to prevent the potential to embarrass and turn off potential attendees.

Tutor Preparations for a Drop-in Session

Like everything else, the key to a successful drop-in session is adequate preparation. This includes gaining familiarity with the nature of potential queries that students are likely to bring, as well as gaining an understanding of the nature and background of potential attendees.

Know the Material

Within engineering, the main source of queries may stem from their engineering mathematics studies. It is therefore necessary to have some grasp of the material they are covering. Engineering departments often give their mathematics support tutors access to the student course materials. In forward-looking departments, mathematics support tutors are an integral part of the department’s mathematics provision and they routinely collaborate with lecturers in reviewing the course material, discussing potential problem areas for students, and redrafting course notes and coursework in the light of student feedback. In fact, drop-in sessions can serve as an important just-in-time feedback channel for an engineering mathematics programme.

Know the Range of Tutor Expertise Available

It is not possible to be familiar with all the aspects of mathematics that students may seek help on. This is because you may have done a similar mathematics course several years before, and your research may be in an area quite distant from undergraduate mathematics topics. Hence, you should have some familiarity with the individual expertise of the other tutors working with you in the drop-in sessions. For instance, someone doing a PhD in an area of fluid dynamics may have expertise in partial differential equations, whilst someone from electrical engineering may have day-to-day familiarity with vector calculus. Others may have expertise in mathematical modelling software such as Matlab or Excel. Awareness of who has what sort of skills may be important when you get stuck on some problem and need to refer the student.

Forewarned is forearmed

It will be helpful if you come to the drop-in session with some idea of the likely queries students will bring. Someone who has spent some time as a mathematics support tutors will have a clear idea of the types of questions students bring on each topic. If you have recently taken up the role, it is important that you speak with more experienced colleagues to find out the main issues students typically bring to the drop-in sessions. As the saying goes – forewarned is forearmed.

Conducting Yourself during the Drop-in Session

Be welcoming

Most students find it quite challenging to gather the courage to come to the drop-in session for help. Your demeanour is therefore important in encouraging students to come.  Welcome students when they come up to you, and make them feel valued. Small things like introducing yourself, and offering the student a seat go a long way towards building rapport between yourself and the student, which is a key ingredient for the success of a drop-in session.

Listen to the student first before proposing an appropriate solution

In most respects, a drop-in session is similar to a visit to the doctor. Patients come in to the doctor’s surgery exhibiting various symptoms. The doctor then performs a diagnostic procedure, which generally includes obtaining further information about the patient’s symptoms, previous state of health, living conditions, and so forth.  Similarly, when a student brings a problem, it may be pointing to a particular area that the student is struggling with. For instance a student may say to you, “I can’t solve this ordinary differential problem, can you help me.”  In this case it is quite tempting to rush in and provide a solution for the problem in question. But this doesn’t help the student much. Rather, you need to establish why the student is having that problem.  Is it because there is some underlying background material that the student needs to master first, is it because the student has failed to understand the theory surrounding the problem, or is it simply that the student is finding only this particular problem problematic.

For each of the scenarios presented by the student you need to adopt an appropriate approach. This may be to refer the student to a particular section in previous lectures, or it may be asking the student to attempt a similar, but more approachable problem. In each case, focus on understanding the underlying reasons why the student is having the problems and helping the student to fix those areas. Hence, a single visit to the drop-in session may end up revealing to the student key areas of underlying mathematics that should be mastered first.

Be prepared to spend time with the student

According to Lawson (2012) students value the opportunity for one-to-one interaction with a tutor who is prepared to spend time with them. In a drop-in session always be prepared to go back as far as is necessary to enable students to build on from what they know already. This helps to connect the topic they are having difficulties with to previous work, which, in turn, helps to grow their confidence and understanding.

Be patient and considerate

According to findings from the UK Mathematics Learning Support Centre, most students who come for support in mathematics need basic tuition. You need to explain to them clearly and slowly, and to reassure them at all times that they are not dumb. Endeavour not to demean the students in any way. For instance, refrain from making statements like, “You should have covered this in school!” In addition refrain from humour as this may be taken badly and only end up demotivating the student (Croft et al, 2011).

Don’t just give answers: Engage in a dialogue with the student

Your role as a tutor is to guide the student to master the techniques to solve mathematics problems on their own. Hence, avoid giving the answer to the student as much as possible. Instead, through appropriate questions and hints, guide the students to solve the problems themselves.  This may even involve getting the student to refer to their lecture notes to find explanations about a particular method (Croft et al, 2011). This is a form of one-on-one tutoring, and it is instructive to adopt techniques that have been found to be effective in student tutoring. See, for example, my blog on organising effective tutorial workshops for Engineering Mathematics.

Help students to develop a long-term strategy

Some students may come with one-off problems and they go away satisfied. However, for most students you need to impress upon them the need to develop a long term strategy to overcome their problems (Croft et al, 2011). You can help them to identify areas that they need to work on, and to assist them in drawing up a schedule of work. Wherever possible, encourage them to start some work during the drop-in session, and invite them back after a few days to tell you how they are getting on.

When you get stuck on a problem

As I said before, it is impossible to know everything that the students may bring to the drop-in session. In these instances, be upfront with the students and let them know. If there are other colleagues around, refer them to the student. Where this is not possible, make a note of the problem and ask the student to come back some other day after you have found out.

Record keeping

The effectiveness of a drop-in session can be improved through record-keeping. For instance, keeping track of attendance will ensure appropriate allocation of tutors in subsequent years as attendance is not uniform throughout the year, but is dependent on the particular areas that the students are studying at any given point in time. In addition, a record of the queries brought by students will help to improve lectures and tutorial workshops so as to alleviate these problems.

Acknowledgement

This material is based on the work by the National HE STEM Programme sigma   that produced a series of practice guides providing information for staff involved in providing mathematics support.

References

Lawson, Duncan. (2012) Setting up a Math Support Centre. Published by The National HE STEM Programme, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham UK. Available:  http://www.sigma-network.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Setting-up-a-Maths-Support-Centre.pdf (Accessed 22 Oct 2015).

Croft, A. C., Gillard, J. W., Grove, M. J., Kyle, J., Owen, A., Samuels, P. C., & Wilson, R. H. (2011). Tutoring in a Mathematics Support Centre, a Guide for Postgraduate Students. Published by The National HE STEM Programme, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham UK. Available http://www.sigma-network.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/46836-Tutoring-in-MSC-Web.pdf. (Accessed 22 Oct 2015).

The LTSN Maths TEAM Project. (2003) Maths support for students. The UK Mathematics Learning Support Centre. Available: http://www.sigma-network.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/student_support.pdf (Accessed 22 Oct 2015).

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