To help students overcome math anxiety, Edouard Tchertchian, MS, turned to tech they all know and love: their smartphones.
Math Department Chair and Student Advisor ,Los Angeles Pierce College
MS in Applied Mathematics, BS in Pure Mathematics, AS in Mathematics
“We talk a lot about education equity in terms of access,” says Edouard Tchertchian, MS, chair of the Math Department at Los Angeles Pierce College. “Access to books, technology, or high-quality instruction. But it’s so much broader than that, especially in mathematics.”
While Tchertchian is part of a team that has worked tirelessly to provide Pierce College students with resources including a robust library, technology centers, computers, and tutors, he is also working to address a different kind of equity gap.
“Math carries this weird social weight for some students,” Tchertchian explains. “It comes with social assumptions that lead to math anxiety. Many students will say, ‘I just don’t get math’ or ‘I’m an English person.’ They have a fixed mindset about whether or not they will be successful before the class even begins. It’s an equity issue because some students think that math is only for the elite.”
Tchertchian has found that this attitude also impacts classroom behavior in ways that only serve to widen the divide. For example, self-doubting students often choose seats in the back of the classroom and are more reluctant to contribute to discussions or ask questions. “It’s almost as if they don’t feel that they belong in the math space at all,” he says.
To make these students feel more comfortable, Tchertchian has turned to something that most students are comfortable with: their smartphones.
Read on to see how he uses these familiar devices and other tech tools to help all students see themselves as equals in his math classroom.
“Education is about engaging your students and getting them to engage with you. If you can achieve this with all students in your classroom—not just the ones who have confidence in the subject and their ability to do well in your class—that’s educational equity.”
-Edouard Tchertchian, MS
Course: MATH 134 Accelerated Elementary and Intermediate Algebra
Course description: This is an accelerated course covering topics from Elementary and Intermediate Algebra. Topics include linear equations and inequalities, exponents, factoring, radical expressions and equations, quadratics equations and inequalities, graphing linear and nonlinear equations and inequalities, system of linear and nonlinear equations and inequalities, functions and their compositions and inverses, exponential and logarithmic functions, and some conics. This course has a lab component and satisfies any Intermediate Algebra requisite.
Tchertchian’s advice for using tech to make math accessible
First things first: Tchertchian acknowledges that many professors may be loath to actually encourage the use of cell phones in the classroom. “It was a big mental shift for me,” he admits. “I feared that they might be too distracting.” After changing his mindset—to view these devices as potential tools for learning and classroom communication—he has seen that they can help students adopt a growth mindset, too. And it eliminates the inherent challenges of enforcing a cell phone ban.
“The truth is, students are going to be on their phones no matter what you do, so I harnessed that,” he says. “I realized I can use the technology to understand their level of knowledge and how they’re progressing during a lesson. And shy students can use their phones to ask questions if they don’t feel OK asking in front of the group.”
Here, he shares some details on how he uses tech in math class—and the benefits that have accrued.
Encourage buy-in with a norm-setting activity
Working with students to establish rules for tech usage can help ensure student adherence. “It’s all about how you sell it,” says Tchertchian. Before the first class, he sends out a welcome email that includes a video that gives students an idea of what to expect. Then, during the first meeting, Tchertchian asks the group a series of questions, including:
- How would you like to learn in this class?
- Would you like to use your phones as clickers?
- Would you like to be part of a classroom Facebook group where you can ask questions or collaborate with peers?
Tchertchian captures the norms that they set; he used to write them on a large sheet of sticky paper, which he would hang on the classroom wall at every meeting. Nowadays he regularly projects them, in a list on a OneNote document, onto a classroom screen. However it is done, he says, “it’s important to keep revisiting the norms beyond day one.”
Use Facebook as a learning management system
Tchertchian creates a Facebook group for each semester’s class. There he posts helpful videos from YouTube, applets for interactive math activities, and answers to students’ questions. “Facebook is free and most students have a Facebook account already, so getting started with it is pretty frictionless,” Tchertchian explains. “Plus, students typically don’t need a laptop or WiFi to connect and interact—they can just use their phones.” Also, while a college’s LMS can be unfamiliar territory, the familiarity of Facebook may make students more likely to check in—or to do so more frequently.
Encourage students to post homework online
Tchertchian makes it a point to “hang out” in the Facebook group to answer students’ questions, but he also encourages them to answer each other’s queries—and even share the answers they got on their homework assignments. “I urge them to share screen grabs of homework, post them on Facebook, and explain their reasoning,” he says. “Not only do students seem to feel more comfortable helping each other in the online group, but also the students who are timid in class appear to be more empowered online. No one has to feel singled out or judged for their math ability in the online space.”
Empower shy students to “speak up” with clickers
Tchertchian started with electronic clickers and the apps Socrative and Poll Everywhere. Now he often uses Plickers, a free app that any student, including those without a smartphone, can use: Students hold up a card with a barcode to share their answers to questions. “These interactive systems are great for warm-up questions, quizzes, group work, or in-class study sessions,” he says.
Tchertchian has seen a more equitable distribution of class participation since he began using these technologies. “These work because they create anonymity during class, ensuring students do not feel embarrassed to ask questions or assert an answer that might be incorrect,” says Tchertchian.
Tchertchian’s final thoughts on classroom tech
Tchertchian says that the competition that is so common in the classroom has seemed to melt away since he added more tech to his teaching. “My students have been more open-minded, more willing to participate. They are asking more questions, and it has set a new tone for the class. In fact, the students who are quietest in person are often the most vocal in the Facebook group,” he says. “The math anxiety—the social weight of math that showed up in classroom behaviors rooted in past experience—all that disappears in the online realm.”