In the October 2019 issue of University Affairs, Jessica Riddell wrote: “by collaborating we can enhance the quality of undergraduate education in Canada.” Here is a story of one such ongoing cross-Canada collaboration within mathematics and statistics.
Regardless of their affiliation, rank and field of expertise, Canadian postsecondary instructors are committed to supporting their students in achieving academic and personal goals. Universities, for their part, make significant efforts through various forms of investments, monetary and otherwise, to improve teaching at the institutional level.
Still, in our experience, even at universities which offer various forms of support for educational development, there are challenges around faculty accessing such support, or making a choice to access it (or not). Course instructors might not know what kind of support is available, or might not value it as helpful, or are simply too busy to find time to experiment and enrich their instructional routines with possible new strategies or approaches.
These are reasons why teaching a university course often feels like, and is, a solitary activity.
Teaching first-year courses brings additional responsibilities. For a large number of incoming university students taking a fast-paced, topic-packed course presents a significant obstacle. Many students cannot successfully meet the demands that such courses and their instructors place on them.
Those of us who teach large first-year classes and genuinely care about the well-being of our students are adding another layer of complexity to our teaching: how do we establish, without stepping outside of a fair and professional student-teacher relationship, the much-needed mutual trust to keep channels of interaction open so that we can be guides, mentors and role models to every student who may need our academic or, quite often, non-academic help? Achieving this goal is not getting any easier. As a matter of fact, it is quite the opposite. In 2010, a psychologist and college instructor Linda Bips wrote in the New York Times: “Many of today’s students lack resilience and at the first sign of difficulty are unable to summon strategies to cope. The hardship can be a failing grade on a test, a cut from the team, or a romantic breakup. At the first sign of trouble many become unable to function and persevere. Often they even anticipate difficulties and their anxiety alone paralyzes them.”
The situation is not any different today in 2020. To the best of our knowledge, a large number of first-year university instructors are not trained to deal with the complexities of our students’ academic and personal lives; worse yet, many are lacking any (or adequate) teaching training prior to entering their very first in-class lecture.
All these conflicting realities, practices and challenges were among the reasons that two co-authors of this article published a call for a national dialogue named “The Present and Future of Teaching First Year Mathematics at Canadian Universities” (PDF). The article invited the community of instructors from across Canada to “communicate, share experiences, coordinate efforts and work together.”
Serving as both a gatekeeper and a requirement for programs ranging from economics to science to engineering, first-year mathematics and statistics courses come with numerous challenges for students and instructors. For an instructor that does not wish to be just a “talking head,” it is a big challenge to engage a large highly heterogeneous group of students in a meaningful class interaction. Well-wishing recommendations from our colleagues in other faculties often fall short of what we need. To face the challenge, math instructors across Canada are looking for new ways to present and communicate the course material, improve the course structure and organization, and apply innovative assessment strategies.
The response of the Canadian mathematics and statistics teaching community to the call for a national dialogue was overwhelming. Since 2017, several meetings on the topic of teaching the first-year mathematics and statistics courses have been organized at a national level. In addition, in 2017 we created The First Year Mathematics and Statistics Courses Repository, a resource supporting our ongoing national dialogue. This shareable dynamic online database contains extensive data about first-year mathematics and statistics courses collected from instructors across Canada.
We have promoted the national dialogue through several publications, both at the national and international levels.
One of the tangible outcomes of our dialogue so far has been the creation of the FYMSiC (First-year Math and Stats in Canada) Newsletter. This newsletter is envisioned as a platform to connect mathematics and statistics instructors, and facilitate sharing of teaching and learning experiences which will enrich and advance their teaching.
Still, what really warms our hearts is to see the members of FYMSiC collaborating on numerous new joint projects. This level of partnership, reaching far beyond the borders of a province, has not been witnessed before within our community.
The idea of building a national community of first-year mathematics and statistics instructors is not unique to Canada. However, unlike in the United States or Australia, the Canadian initiative has been completely grassroots. All activities so far, including meetings, the Repository and the newsletter, have been envisioned, developed and executed by the members of FYMSiC. The modest, still generous and very much appreciated, financial and in-kind support has come again from the wider Canadian mathematical community.
In our view, the real answer to “how?” lies in the fact that so many Canadian postsecondary mathematics and statistics instructors, at all rungs of the academic ladder, are genuinely interested in providing their students with the best learning experience possible. This, together with the incredible level of talent that we have witnessed, made it possible to start and carry on this cross-Canada faculty grassroots initiative.
At least in the near future, the Canadian dialogue will continue: several related events have been already scheduled in 2020, including a conference at the University of Toronto Mississauga, the preparation of a new issue of the newsletter by the editorial board, and the expansion of the Repository. FYMSiC members are also taking their own initiatives to further connect and collaborate.
We have no doubt that, through various forms, the national dialogue will continue to connect educators across Canada to a degree that has not been seen before. Early career colleagues will get an opportunity to become a part of a vibrant community that meets their needs; mid-career faculty will get re-energized by interacting with the peers across the country; and all of us who have spent decades teaching mathematics and statistics at the university level will be reassured that the future of teaching our beloved subject is in good hands.
Our hope is that this Canadian dialogue will reach far enough to encourage our university policymakers, administrators and professional societies to engage in a meaningful structural change to meet the demands of the modern world and provide the best learning experience possible for our students.