by Chris Hammond
Dr. Sherry May with Spark correspondent Alex Dalziel at the MLC.
Adjusting to university math is one of the main anxieties of
first-year students. Fortunately, MUNs Mathematics Learning
Centre (MLC) is working diligently to ease their transition.
Created 13 years ago to help students surmount this initial hump,
the MLC is an institution unique in Canada. The original goal
of the MLC was to help students encountering difficulties with
mathematics and to build their basic skills. The MLC continues
this mission, working with students who either did not achieve
a satisfactory mark on their Math Skills Inventory exam or who
have recognized weak areas in their mathematical competencies.
The centre offers individually tailored programs, based on the
results of a diagnostic test, to such students. With a strict
policy about the use of calculators and with instructors and
materials ready to assist them, students can start their ascent
up the learning curve.
This ability to work individually with students has made the
MLC much more than a simple help centre. The core element
which allows our students to move towards success is based on
our willingness to be relational, said Dr. Sherry May,
director of the MLC. The centre has been researching the fundamental
processes of math learning and has been striving to better understand
the state of contemporary math education in Newfoundland and
The MLC aims to create students who are able problem solvers,
equipped to learn independently. To achieve this end, Dr. May
and the MLC staff, along with a cognitive psychologist from MUN,
have developed new tools to inculcate a higher degree of automaticity
in the thinking of students.
The concept of automaticity is widely accepted as fundamental
in sports and performing arts education, but, according to
Dr. May, it hasnt been as solidly acknowledged in
the learning of mathematics.
As she explained; Anything that goes on consciously (in
the mind) is done in working memory and we have limitations on
the size of our working memory. If we try to do too much there,
things get compromised and we make mistakes. Many students
having trouble with math lack the automaticity necessary to solve
simple problems without conscious effort. To address this problem,
researchers at the MLC have developed software programs that
help re-enforce core algebra skills. This software is now used
regularly with students at the centre.
Yet the challenges facing students in mathematics go far beyond
the university level, and the MLC has explored ways to consolidate
mathematics teaching from kindergarten through university. We
are acknowledging that there are the same transitional issues
between other parts of the education stream (as between the senior
high and university levels), Dr. May said.
Behind this realization lies the efforts of the many teachers
from the K-12 public school system who work as part-time instructors
at the MLC. Their involvement has broadened both the ability
of the centre to deliver its services to university students
and has opened important windows on the nature of mathematics
education in Newfoundland and Labrador.
If you are a teacher in the K-12 system, working here will
give you insight into the actual reasons for (students)
mistakes, said Leo Etchegary, a part-time instructor at
the MLC and a teacher of mathematics at ODonel High School
in Mount Pearl. Working at the MLC is a way to develop teachers
pedagogies, allowing them to better prepare their students for
the challenges of mathematics at all levels of education.
You get to know where students are making mistakes and
you dont just let them slide by, said Renee Lynch,
a substitute in the K-6 system who also is a part-time instructor
at the centre.
Because of the presence of public school teachers, the MLC is
a respected source of advice on mathematics curricula for the
provinces decision makers. Interacting on a daily basis
with K-12 teachers in a friendly and personal environment has
allowed the MLC to gain a grassroots perspective unaccessible
through other mediums, thus making it a sought-after source for
advice on policy and learning strategies.
You need to know where students are coming from and you
need to know where they are going next, Dr. May informed
the Gazette. Thanks to the MLC, many students will be
heading for greater academic and personal success in the twenty-first