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(March 8, 2001, Gazette)

Bridging the gap

Dr. Sherry May with Spark correspondent Alex Dalziel at the MLC.Photo by Chris Hammond

Dr. Sherry May with Spark correspondent Alex Dalziel at the MLC.

By Alexander Dalziel
SPARK Correspondent

Adjusting to university math is one of the main anxieties of first-year students. Fortunately, MUN’s 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 Labrador.

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 hasn’t 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 O’Donel 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 don’t 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 province’s 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 century.

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