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Learning by the Numbers

Math Learning Centre applies new techniques to help students learn math

The Muse Article
(January 8, 2004, The Muse)

By Michael Collins and Lindsay Harding

Sherry Mantyka, director of MUN’s Math Learning Centre, are investigating the science behind a problem a lot of people are aware of, but not one that many understand: Why are some people naturally inclined to mathematics, while others have trouble passing no matter how hard they try?

Some who find math challenging give up, believing there is no way to improve their skills. However, the staff at the Math Learning Centre – not to be confused with the Math Help Centre – use learning techniques that can unlock mathematic potential.

The centre’s staff work with students who fail Memorial’s Math Placement Test, which new students are required to take before entering first-year math courses. After 15 years of operation, the centre’s staff has become well acquainted with the problems that prevent students from succeeding with math, and how to overcome these problems.

Though many students with math difficulties may be labeled as below-average learners, Mantyka explains there is often little truth to this assumption, and that most students who have trouble with math may excel in other areas. “They’re very capable,” said Mantyka. “Almost everyone here has learned something well. They may have underachieved in mathematics but . . . they’re okay in other subjects, or they’re good athletes.”

Mantyka and her staff assume students coming to them can learn, but understand that they haven’t responded to traditional math learning styles. “They just, for some reason, haven’t learned mathematics to the level that they need, and so we try to understand that from the perspective of cognitive psychology.”

Cognitive psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with the functioning of the brain, especially in regards to mental processes operating in response to stimuli, such as how well a student learns in response to different teaching methods.

Researchers with the centre identify two distinct learning styles: implicit and explicit. “Explicit learning is rules-oriented: it’s the way most people learn math, and it’s the way most people teach it,” explained Mantyka. “Implicit learning is based more on imitation. So, for instance, the way children learn their first language is implicit. They don’t know the rules of grammar; they just speak based on patterns they’ve heard.”

Each student at the centre takes a test to diagnose their specific math problems. Once a student’s difficulty is pinpointed, an individual program is designed to meet his or her particular needs. Classes do not involve lectures. Instead, students are required to pursue their curriculum independently, with the tutoring help of the centre’s instructors.

According to Mantyka, cognitive psychologists working for the Math Learning Centre find that most of its students are implicit learners. The individual programs are also designed to take this into account, using methods more in tune with how each student learns.

“Some students just are really, really reluctant to learn explicitly, and then it’s always hard from them to learn math. Others are more flexible, and so simply having them understand the difference between the different ways of learning helps them get over that initial . . . distaste for the learning of mathematics,” Mantyka said.

According to Mantyka, the success of the Math Learning Centre’s applied cognitive psychology is proven in the students’ test results. The centre found that those who stick with the program end up performing as well as students who passed the math placement test.

© 1993-2003 Muse Publications Inc.