Ronnie Brown: Getting Students to Not Fear Confusion

Adapted from StackExchange,  Getting Students to Not Fear Confusion

QUESTION:  I’m a fifth year grad student, and I’ve taught several classes for freshmen and sophomores. This summer, as an “advanced” (whatever that means) grad student I got to teach an upper level class: Intro to Real Analysis.

Since this was essentially these student’s first “real” math class, they haven’t really learned how to study for or learn this type of thing. I’ve continually emphasized throughout the summer that they need to put in more work than just doing a few homework problems a week.

Getting a feel for the definitions and concepts involved takes time and effort of going through proofs of theorems and figuring out why things were needed. You need to build up an arsenal of examples so some general picture of the ideas are in your head.

Most importantly, in my opinion, is that you wallow in your confusion for a bit when struggling with problems. Spending time with your confusion and trying to pull yourself out of it (even if it doesn’t work!) is a huge part of the learning process. Of course asking for help after a point is important too.

Question: What is a good way to convince students that spending time lost and confused is a reasonable thing and how do you actually motivate them to do it?

Anecdote: Despite trying all quarter to explain this in various ways, I would consistently have people come in to office hours who had barely touched the homework because “they were confused”. But they hadn’t tried anything. Then when I talk around an answer to try to get them to do certain key parts on their own or get them to understand the concept involved, they would get frustrated and ask “so does it converge or not?!”

It is incredibly hard to shake their firm belief that the answer is the important thing. Those that do get out of this belief seem to get stuck at writing down a correct proof is the important thing. None seem to make it to wanting to understand it as the important thing. (Probably a good community wiki question? Also, real-analysis might be an inappropriate tag, do what you will)

ANSWER from Ronnie Brown: Has anyone tried as an additional technique the “fill-in” method?

This is based on the tried and tested method of teaching called “reverse chaining”. To illustrate it, if you are teaching a child to put on a vest, you do not throw it the vest and say put it on. Instead, you put it almost on, and ask the child to do the last bit, and so succeed. You gradually put the vest less and less on, the child always succeeds, and finally can put it on without help. This is called “error-less learning” and is a tried and tested method, particularly in animal training (almost the only method! ask any psychologist, as I learned it from one).

So we have tried writing out a proof that, say, the limit of the product is the product of the limits, (not possible for a student to do from scratch), then blanking out various bits, which the students have to fill in, using the clues from the other bits not blanked out. This is quite realistic, where a professional writes out a proof and then looks for the mistakes and gaps! The important point is that you are giving students the structure of the proof, so that is also teaching something.

This kind of exercise is also nice and easy to mark!

Finally re failure: the secret of success is the successful management of failure! That can be taught by moving slowly from small failures to extended ones. This is a standard teaching method.

Additional points: My psychologist friend and colleague assured me that the accepted principle is that people (and animals) learn from success. Another way of getting this success is to add so many props to a situation that success is assured, and then gradually to remove the props. There are of course severe problems in doing all this in large classes. This will require lots of ingenuity from all you talented young people! You can find some more discussion of issues in the article discussing the notion of context versus content.

My own bafflement in teenage education was not of course in mathematics, but was in art: I had no idea of the basics of drawing and sketching. What was I supposed to be doing? So I am a believer in the interest and importance of the notion of methodology in whatever one is doing, or trying to do, and here is link to a discussion of the methodology of mathematics.

Dec 10, 2014 I’d make another point, which is one needs observation, which should be compared to a piano tutor listening to the tutees performance. I have tried teaching groups of say 5 or 6, where I would write nothing on the board, but I would ask a student to go to the board, and do one of the set exercises. “I don’t know how to do it!” “Well, why not write the question on the board as a start.” Then we would proceed, giving hints as to strategy, which observation had just shown was not there, but with the student doing all the writing.

In an analysis course, when we have at one stage to prove AB, I would ask the class: “What is the first line of the proof?” Then: “What is the last line of the proof?” and after help and a few repetitions they would get the idea. I’m afraid grammar has gone out of the school syllabus, as “old fashioned”!

Seeing maths worked out in real time, with failures, and how a professional deals with failure, is essential for learning, and at the research level. I remember thinking after an all day session with Michael Barratt in 1959: “Well, if Michael Barratt can try one damn fool thing after another, then so can I!”, and I have followed this method ever since. (Mind you his tries were not all that “damn fool”, but I am sure you get the idea.) The secret of success is the successful management of failure, and this is perhaps best learned from observation of a professional.

Leave a Reply