Make It Relevant: Moving Math from Y to Why

Do you know what the influential instructors in your life did before they became instructors or what their career path was like? As an instructor, do you share your career path with your students? Following her recent retirement, I had the opportunity to hear Professor Rhonda Amsel’s tale of her path from one side of the podium to the other.

Rhonda: Teaching stats isn’t most people’s idea of a dream job. In fact, many people react to my revelation with a story of how hateful their own stats course was or how failing stats kept them from pursuing their chosen career path.

Carolyn: What motivated you to focus your studies in a STEM field?

R: My path had an unconventional beginning. Starting in high school, I felt frustrated with my understanding in math courses. I’d skipped grade 7, so I lacked some foundation I needed in math and I’d been placed in AP (advanced placement) courses where the other students seemed so competent. They seemed to know intuitively how to use the maths that we were learning or perhaps they were just satisfied to learn how to do math, but I felt there was a missing piece to the puzzle, something deeper that I was not getting and could not learn on my own. My determination to understand math resulted in it becoming my focus during and after high school.

After graduating high school, I applied to two universities where I could continue in math. I wasn’t thinking about a career in math at that point. I just wanted to learn.

I ended up at McGill because I wanted a well-rounded education. At McGill, I had the flexibility to major in math and do some electives in arts. I mostly took courses in math and sciences, like chemistry, but I also took linguistics, and psychology and I continued in French because I’d always enjoyed languages. The fact that I liked Montreal and McGill’s affordability weighed in also.

But still the math classes were frustrating for me. The problem was the same as in high school; I still didn’t feel like I was getting it. At one point, I even questioned having an “A” on my transcript because to me it said that I understood the material, yet that wasn’t how I felt. In retrospect, I understand that most profs are so comfortable with their subjects that they don’t stop to think that students need to be shown the relevance of the material and how it links to other areas. I must have been every prof’s nightmare; I was always asking how the math could be used.

But then, a breakthrough: I took a calculus course given by an engineer. Unlike my previous math professors, this professor showed practical applications with the math. Here was the why alongside the how. It was an “aha!” moment for me and a start to really appreciating math—and the power of good teaching!

In the last year of my bachelor’s degree, I took a computer science course. It was challenging and not something I felt I could learn on my own. So, again with no thoughts of where this was heading, my curiosity led me to pursue computer science in graduate school, a program McGill was offering for the first time. (I should explain perhaps that I was “first gen” at university in my family, so there was no instruction manual and I’d always been encouraged to explore.)

C: How did you come to be a stats professor?

R: Around this point, I did start to ponder where this path was taking me. While writing my thesis (pattern recognition – machine learning), I had a part-time position at the Neuro (The Montreal Neurological Institute). It was fascinating work and I could happily imagine continuing to work in a health setting. But I also got another part-time job at McGill in the Department of Psychology. This work was to take care of the computer equipment in the lab and to help grad students with the statistical part of their thesis research. Doing this work required me to understand the goals of their research. There were no package programs like SPSS at the time. Of course, part of what we were doing in computer science was writing software, but programming (coding) was a necessary tool, not an end in itself. In Psychology, researchers needed to have programs written to do their statistical analyses. And that’s what I was doing—two or three days a week. I was working on a mainframe computer that looked like one of those you’d see on Star Trek, with punch cards, and the turnaround on programs was unbelievably slow compared to today. Because I was interested in how the stats would be used, I spent time consulting with the students about how best to test their hypotheses and what their results meant, and I think they were surprised to find I didn’t meet their idea of the typical mathematician/programmer. For me, it was like being in school, constantly learning about new fields of research.

I also started co-teaching a small graduate course in stats with a prof in the department who taught some of the stats courses. I still thought of Psychology as a temporary job, just until I finished my thesis. Meanwhile, I was learning about teaching and was working with students on their research—all sufficiently stimulating to keep me in Psychology a while longer.

A short time later I was offered the opportunity to teach a summer session of Introduction to Psychological Statistics (PSYC 204). I was in a unique position because I’d been working so closely with the grad students and I was convinced that the approach that could be most useful to students was the same one that most appealed to me—to connect the math to its application. In Psychology, most of the students had no trouble understanding the research, but they were uncomfortable with the math. So, I knew where I wanted to go with the course but was unsure exactly how to accomplish it. And yet another challenge—I hated public speaking!

C: And how did it go?

R: The students and I had fun with the material. I was excited because they were learning and enjoying it, and I quickly became so absorbed in trying to help the students to learn that I could forget about my discomfort with being in front of a large class. There were always things I could dream up to improve the course, so I thought, “I’ll try this again.” You can guess what happened. It became a forever job. I taught Intro to Psych Stats and then Statistics for Experimental Design (PSYC 305) for forty years without ever losing the feeling of challenge and excitement, and I don’t think I went a year without making changes. I enjoyed interacting with the students a lot, in class and one-on-one, both with the strong students and those who were struggling, because they guided my teaching.

When I started teaching, the class size was about 100 students. Now, classes have 300 or 400 or even 600 students. But in the early days, I was able to do all of my own grading, which again informed my teaching. I could see what students weren’t understanding and what I could explain better. I was very focused on improving my teaching. I was also doing consulting and research, administration, and committee work, but it was the teaching that I found most exciting. Students who came into class saying that they just didn’t have a “math brain” were succeeding at doing and understanding stats. I remember getting an evaluation that said, “I succeeded at stats. Now I can do anything.” I should have had it framed! It was so empowering. I thought, “If I have even one or two students like that each year, that’s a reason for me to keep teaching.”

Teaching stats isn’t most people’s idea of a dream job. In fact, many people react to my revelation with a story of how hateful their own stats course was, or how failing stats kept them from pursuing their chosen career path. But, for that very reason, it was enormously rewarding for me to see my students succeed well at something they imagined was going to be difficult. I’m always happy to hear from former students that they’ve found stats useful in their everyday lives or their work. And I hope they all read stats differently and maybe a bit more critically than they would have without a course like Intro to Psych Stats.

Image credit: Main image by Vectors Market from Flaticon 

Senior Academic Associate at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services.; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning; will work for chocolate (Photo credit: Owen Egan)

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