Mathematician Stephen Andrus, Jr., MS, shares his experience with adjusting instruction for different levels—and different schools.
“I’m a young black male who teaches mathematics, so I do feel like I am unusual,” says Stephen Andrus, Jr., MS, professor of mathematics at the University of New Orleans. “Early on, I recognized that there’s a need for an inspiring role model in our schools. I have heard from African-American students that seeing a teacher who looks like them has helped them grasp mathematics.”
That realization is one reason why Andrus has expanded his role as a math instructor to extend beyond the campus of UNO. In fact, he currently teaches at four additional locations: Grace King High School, Delgado Community College (both the City Park campus and the Sidney Collier campus), and a local Sylvan Learning Center.
Over the last few years, this prolific professor has developed a few best practices that apply to almost any situation that arises when instructors are teaching similar content at different educational institutions with different student demographics. Here, Andrus shares what he has learned as an educational chameleon.
“When working with different students, classes, topics, and universities, one has to essentially become a chameleon. It’s all about adaptation.”
-Stephen Andrus, Jr., MS
Course: MATH-1115 Applied Algebra
Course description: Real numbers and equations, functions, polynomial functions and graphs, exponential and logarithmic functions. A strong component of this course will be applications taken from different areas of concentration.
Andrus’s tips for teaching multiple levels at multiple schools
For years, Andrus has been teaching mathematics at multiple institutions. While there is no one trick for making this work, he has found that there are a few best practices for making it manageable for the instructor and effective for the students.
Before creating the curriculum, check the school’s requirements
Every school has its own policies and procedures, and it is up to the educator to know them, says Andrus, who shares this example: The University of New Orleans requires instructors to adhere to a strict curriculum of daily assignments for all lower- and mid-level classes. (This helps students know what they missed if they are absent.) On the other hand, Delgado Community College weighs in only on the textbook and broad topics to cover, not on any issues of timing. One way to save time prepping for these two courses would be to create the “strict” curriculum first, then pare it down (or use it as is) for the school that offers more leeway.
When creating course materials, do so with adaptability in mind
Whenever possible, Andrus uses the same materials or handouts in different classes, which can be a huge time-saver in terms of prep work and grading. Sometimes he will pare down complex materials for a lower-level course by rewording definitions and removing more complex sample problems or problem sets. Other times, he might change the format in which materials are presented. (For example, a professor could take a handout or slide show and turn it into a fill-in-the-blank packet for a lower-level or nonmajor class to complete during a lecture.)
“Always keep in mind where we are trying to lead the student,” Andrus says of these materials. “Build the notes, slides, and easier examples toward that goal.”
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Before teaching a new group, assess their unique needs
Andrus has developed a keen awareness of what students are like—and what they like—by observing classes at different levels and in different schools. Based on his experience, the key factors to assess for every student group before beginning instruction include students’ ages/maturity, choice of major, outside obligations, educational backgrounds, and reliance on school resources for completing homework and projects. Many times, adapting lessons based on these factors is a more nuanced approach, involving added consideration to the level of language, delivery of material, and assignment requirements. See “Andrus’s Questions to Consider” for how he adjusts accordingly.
Before starting on new material, review the prerequisites
Mathematics courses usually have a very specific sequence in which courses must be taken before students can proceed. Even so, Andrus says, that does not guarantee that a particular group of students is well versed in what they “should” already know. That is why he spends the first week of each semester reviewing pertinent information that he will build on during the remainder of the course. That way, he can assess how much remediation is needed before moving on.
When teaching new material, use tricks to make it memorable
Andrus suggests using unique phrases, repetition, and other mnemonics to help students lock in key information.
“When I teach basic factoring in lower-level college algebra, we set up a double set of parentheses and I call it ‘double bubble.’ Somehow, this helps them remember key aspects of factoring,” he says. When talking about triangles in mid-level trigonometry, he will repeat the phrase “draw your triangle” before each problem to remind students where to start.
The takeaway: Clever learning devices can help students at any level and any institution remember key topics and information.
Andrus says his techniques are effective—but that the real trick throughout is to focus on the students and their learning needs. “Mathematics is actually fun, believe it or not,” he notes. “But the material comes second. I focus on the people who are trying to learn said materials. This is how you get them to love mathematics.”