There is something beautiful about the structure of mathematics that we can all appreciate, but it’s equally beautiful because it can be creative and messy. So is the teaching of mathematics. As mathematicians, we know and understand the complexities involved in our discipline, but sometimes overlook the underlying complexities of our classroom environment when preparing to teach.
You’ve likely heard about the leaky pipeline – the phenomenon that describes the loss of women from STEM fields at various points in the academic pipeline. Because many undergraduate women leave the STEM pipeline after taking a mathematics course, our discipline can especially benefit from classroom practices known to help retain and support these students.
You might wonder whether the gender breakdown in our classes or variation in our students’ cultural and social backgrounds matter. We posit that these do matter, and that they can impact whether students are comfortable contributing to discussions, volunteering to present work on the board, or seeking help during office hours. We have some control, though, over how social interactions affect learning in our classrooms. Below are several ways you can support gender equity in your classroom. These techniques are meant to be inclusive and support all students, but are particularly important and empowering for undergraduate women in our classrooms. Links are included for suggestions that have appeared in previous Teaching Tidbits posts.
- Don’t be the Authority in the Classroom. Help your students find ways to stop relying on you as the expert, and use the authority inherent in mathematics to become the experts. Through collaborative activities, students can express themselves and their mathematical ideas to their peers, developing self-reliance and focusing on the mathematics, not what the instructor says.
- Language Matters. Research has shown that even in elementary school, acknowledging the gender of our students reinforces stereotypes. While we might not be saying ‘boys and girls’ in our Calculus classes, we are certainly using language that affects our students. This recent Teaching Tidbits post provides several ways for us to use language inclusively to support our students’ identities as mathematicians including statements like “When a mathematician approaches this problem, she…” or “When you explain it like that, you are really thinking like a mathematician.”
- Don’t Lecture. If you’re reading Teaching Tidbits, chances are you are interested in doing more than lecturing to your students. However, lecturing is still the preferred teaching method of many mathematics instructors. Research has shown us over and over that interactive teaching is one of the best ways to reduce the gender gap in achievement, and a 2014 report told us just how much we were neglecting all students when using only lecture in our classrooms. Moving from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side’ is a powerful way to give all students, especially women, the opportunity to engage in classroom activities and discussions. One technique for providing this type of classroom experience is through Inquiry Based Learning, described in a recent post with some resources here.
- Know Your Own Biases. One of the most important social interaction factors that can play out in our classroom is implicit bias. Before we can address any bias we see in our students, we need to understand our own biases. These freely accessible Implicit Association Tests allow us to face biases we might not know we’re carrying with us and help us to become more equitable instructors.
Additional related resources:
Deshler, J. & Burroughs, E., (2013). Teaching Mathematics with Women in Mind, Notices of the American Mathematical Society, http://www.ams.org/notices/201309/rnoti-p1156.pdf.