The Struggle is Real: Strategies for Back-to-School Success

Math formulas

I have been working on my course for fall. I copied over assignments, updated my syllabus, made sure links are all active, posted new ideas on the discussion board… Maybe some people think we’re done when we’ve checked off those things on our back-to-school list. But I find myself thinking, what else can I do or provide to enable my students to be successful? Like so many I encounter in the “real world,” my students’ comments about math resonate with anxiety and stress.  This is not just for developmental students, either. So what are some things I can do to at least partially alleviate that?

One thing that seems to help many students are my little “muddy spot” videos. If you haven’t explored adding your own media to your assignments, you might want to check out resources like Jing or Tiny Take–they make it super easy (and fast!) to add quick little videos to your course. Tools like Amara allow you to take a video and caption it too, so your materials can remain ADA compliant. Or, use your iPad and tools like Educreations or Show Me to create videos.

Do you use tools like discussion boards or chats? Post current topics or special interest stories. In my stats course, for example, I posted about Florence Nightingale and her use of graphs to convey information during the Crimean War. My nursing students were fascinated, and one said she shared it with one of her nursing professors and class. Share math examples (both good and bad) in the media to get some ideas flowing. The New York Times often has interactive graphs about a variety of topics to choose from. Here’s one from a year ago about immigration.

How about adding some study resources? More and more of  courses contain resources such as Learning Guides, Video note guides, or Explorations and Notes packets. Many students struggle with note-taking and organizational skills, so providing tools like these may be helpful to them. I also link to my resources, as it contains a wealth of information for students to review about test taking, studying, note-taking, time management, and more.

One of my favorites is the use of the Cornell Note-Taking method. I’ve used my own variation of it for years, writing notes down the margins of pages and putting asterisks and arrows on one side of the paper to direct myself to additional information. TOPS Focus Notes are now available, and I use my notebook every day. It allows you to take notes on materials, then jot additional information or follow up thoughts, questions, or feedback down the side or at the bottom of the page. You can also print pages with Cornell Note taking format using a Word template.

We’ve explored the concept of mathematical illiteracy before; it is not societally acceptable to be reading-illiterate, yet many are nonchalant about their lack of numeracy skills and comfort with math. When that is the message sent, it’s no wonder that when students struggle with a concept that they find it easier simply to give up. If it appears that math skills are not all that important, then why struggle?

I’m all for productive struggle. Faculty do not believe in frustrating our students beyond belief so they give up. But, there is merit to creating problem solving situations in which students do have to explore different methods, try, and try again. We can debate and point fingers all day at the causes of mathematically underprepared students (and in the bigger picture, underprepared students in general), but in the end, it is now our job to find ways to support those students and challenge them to strive. Many feel pressure to reduce requirements or water down courses when course completion rates drop or enrollments shift, but we need to keep in mind that the end result is that we need employees in the workforce who have strong “reading, writing, arithmetic, and reasoning skills.”


About the Author
Diane Hollister

Diane Hollister

Diane Hollister has been teaching college courses since 1992. In June 2015, she resigned from her full-time position at Reading Area Community College in Reading, Pennsylvania, where all the math courses have undergone some level of redesign. She still teaches online there and now is part of Pearson’s Efficacy team, helping instructors to implement programs and strategies that bolster student success.

She is intrigued by neurobiological research and learning theory, and she was quick to adopt adaptive learning as a new tool in her courses. Not only does she strive to help her students succeed, but Diane enjoys the collaboration with her peers. She has taught a variety of courses and loves learning how new technology and resources can help students be more successful.

Read more of her articles about math, ICTCM, and quantitative reasoning.