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JFTF Spotlight on Alice Mark

Posted by on Thursday, February 16, 2023 in News.

Each year, the CFT highlights the work of our Junior Faculty Teaching Fellows. This month, Alice Mark shares about her goals and experiences as a Fellow.

I am a  Senior Lecturer in the department of mathematics, where I teach a variety of (mostly first and second year) courses. Calculus and Linear Algebra are foundational courses for major curricula in both the college of Arts and Science and the School of Engineering, so students have a lot riding on how they do in them. Because they are often taken in the first year or first semester of college, these courses can set a student up for future success, or be a destabilizing-ly difficult surprise. I am part of a major effort within the math department to reduce instances of the latter by building more student supports into our calculus program. My specific focus is on improving student sense of belonging within mathematics.

My current project is a course assistant (CA) program (affiliated with the larger learning assistant program) where more advanced students are assigned to groups of 5-8 calculus students. The CAs act as mentors and facilitators of group work. Because of the technicality and abstraction involved in math, it can be easy to lose track of the person-ness of the people who do it. Often students feel like they have to leave themselves behind when they enter a math classroom, and because of this they are less able to grow in the ways they need to and less able to develop new ways of thinking. The CA program aims to create a place where it is safe for students to experience the discomfort that comes from encountering a question and not having an answer immediately present itself. Ideally, that safety would come from the group being a small community, where students feel more at ease and able to be their full selves. Through consistent collaboration with their group mates, the students experience how the discomfort of struggling through difficult questions can be productive. By encountering different perspectives and ways of thinking, they will learn that there are often several ways to approach a problem or explain an idea, and be empowered to do math themselves rather than just receive it.

In the JFTF program, I am developing a pedagogy training course for the CAs. In its current form, this future course is an informal seminar where the CAs learn about and adapt various teaching frameworks, and reflect on their own experiences through those frameworks. The seminar supports them as the curtain gets pulled back a little bit on what teachers are thinking when we assign certain tasks or make choices about course structure. For me, the JFTF had been a meta-excercise in both learning and formalizing classroom practices to use in my own classes, while at the same time thinking about how to adapt and teach about them in a pedagogy course.

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