Teaching students to “cheat” using technology

Close up of a cell phone with a finger touching the screen

We’ve all been at the head of the class only to look out and see half the students trying to sneakily look at something on their smartphone, laptop, or tablet. Instead of stifling this “need” of theirs to be connected, let’s embrace it! Many of us have seen smartphones as an enemy for far too long, but if we can turn that technology into a tool, hopefully students will, too.

I’m not just talking about apps or websites to aid in learning, but moreover forcing students to use the internet. Just as most people do a few times a day to see who sings a particular song or find the color of George Washington’s white horse, we can prompt students to look up definitions and formulas on their own and still foster learning and further comprehension by forcing students to know the vocabulary of mathematics and how it needs to be applied to problem solving.

Searching to solve problems

During some of their first group assignments, I’m often asked by students if I can write, for example, the quadratic formula on the board. My response any more is, “Did you google it?” Students are accustomed to being given all the information needed to perform the requested mathematical steps, but forget how to find their own answers. After their university math class, they’ll usually have some type of assistance / reference in  problem solving, so why not learn to utilize these vast resources now? In order to look up the quadratic formula after all, you’ll usually need to remember the phrase “quadratic formula” or something pretty similar. By searching “the formula to solve equations involving exponents with a two in them”, you’d be lucky to come up with anything useful, let alone the quadratic formula. Many students have trouble verbalizing the mathematics in the first place and forcing them to find their own answers helps them understand the relationships and vocabulary us teachers take for granted. Even if the student asks a classmate for the answer, he/she is having to verbalize the mathematics to ask the question; only this time, another student must do so as well!

When in the workforce, regardless of the career, will one of our students be given all the necessary pieces to solve a problem? Usually, all the puzzle pieces to solve a problem aren’t even known at the onset of a problem! The need for finding solutions when you may only just have a clue about what you’ll need at the start is a skill that most students are only first asked to demonstrate after school!

Deciphering answers

With each assignment on which students have plenty of time (including many in class), I will try to have something in the problem which the students have to look-up. For example, when looking at Profit, Revenue, and Cost where each is a function of the number of units sold; it’s easy to write a problem containing the average profit per unit—P(x)/x instead of P(x). That’s something that the students first have to recognize is new and they haven’t learned, then look-up the answer, and finally decipher the answer to their query (which can be the toughest part). Of course this works best while the instructor is present to catch errors and make suggestions, but it doesn’t take too long for students to catch-on to the idea and begin problem solving in novel ways.

Math classes are often terminal courses in the discipline so why not teach our students how they will use mathematics in their future careers? Students will always play around instead of working, but to use their devices for more than Twitter or Snapchat and in a way that doesn’t involve a particular app or website is a very powerful lesson.

Sam was one of our featured speakers at ICTCM 2016. Access more than 30 dynamic sessions by registering through the virtual track. Or if you have an idea for next year, submit a proposal.


About the Author
Sam Butler-Hunziker

Sam Butler-Hunziker

Sam Butler-Hunziker is currently a faculty member in both the Mathematics Department and College of Business Administration at the University of Nebraska Omaha.  Tasked with creating a terminal math course specific to the CBA’s requirements, he has worked to integrate useful technology into the curriculum of Applied Algebra and Optimization with Data Analysis.  The course emphasizes programs such as MS Excel to analyze data in the context of College Algebra, Statistics, and Differential Optimization.  Sam has been at UNO since 2011 and his current dual position since 2014.  Before moving to Omaha for his wife’s military-service commitments, he was a faculty member of Avila University in Kansas City, MO from 2009-2011 and attended the University of Missouri – Kansas City where he taught courses as a graduate student.  Sam participates in his local church activities and coaches high school athletics in addition to his university responsibilities.