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Chapter 1

Introduction to Teaching Mathematics

in Higher Education
1.1 Introduction and Objectives of the Book
The purpose of this book is to provide you with an introduction to teaching mathematics that will meet
your immediate needs in your rst years of teaching and also lay the foundation for scholarly develop-
ment as a professional teacher. Of course, just reading about teaching wont prepare you for actually
doing it, so it is assumed that your training will also include contact with instructors, mentors, experi-
enced colleagues, as well as practical experience of teaching. This book will hopefully prepare you to ask
the right questions of those around you. Specically, our objectives are to:
help prepare you for your initial teaching duties
provide a foundation on which to build your professional development in teaching and learning as
you progress through your academic career
raise questions in your mind that will encourage you to think deeply about teaching and learning
alert you to the importance of teaching and the difculties involved in effective teaching.
In these materials we have in mind a particular audience. We are assuming our readers are essentially
new to teaching, but will probably go on to have a lifetime career involving teaching. We therefore
present the subject as merely a beginning or foundation, on which to build in your future development
as a teacher. In this respect, even though you might just be starting out, you will certainly be facing many
challenges and an environment that your more experienced colleagues may not have been used to. The
HE teaching profession is changing, and with advances in neuroscience, psychology and mathematical
education it is likely that teaching and learning will become a much more scientic subject - emerging
from the artisan/craftsman era that has largely characterized it up to now. Teaching will perhaps become
more of an applied theory of learning. While we cannot all become experts in pedagogic theory in order
to teach, we can be alert to its implications and sympathetic to its objectives and sufciently open minded
to adopt well founded principles of the theory. So, in this book we will summarise the current thinking
about how students learn mathematics, so that you can incorporate this in developing your teaching. We
will encapsulate the main ideas in a number of basic principles (See Section 1.6) with which few teachers
would disagree, and which are supported by evidence and experience. These principles will underpin
this book which is aimed primarily at practice at the chalk face.
1.2 The Importance of Teaching
You have probably already received more training in teaching than many of your experienced colleagues
in your department. Frankly, it is only in the last decade or so that any great attention has been paid to
the quality of teaching in higher education. The whole career and reward structure of academic life is
focused on performance in research. There is no space here to go into the reasons for this, but Klines
book [47] Why The Professor Cant Teach provides as insightful discussion of the situation as it was in the
US in 1977, and was remarkably prescient of the current situation in the UK. Teaching has always been
important, even if not realised as such, and the best academics have always appreciated this. Even when
HE taught only the top 5% of the youngsters leaving schools, and some might have argued that they
were so good that they could teach themselves and didnt need good teachers, this thesis was not really
tenable. Who would argue that the England football team could ourish with mediocre training? But
now we are in a different world, and gradually the importance of teaching is being recognised. Amongst
the reasons for this are:
even the best students require good teaching to fully achieve their potential, particularly on the
international scene
at every level, from Pass degree to First, the outcomes of HE feed into the economy and society
generally and have to compete on a worldwide scale - we want the best out of our middle range
students , as well as our best students
with widening participation we now teach a wider range of student background, which makes the
teaching more challenging
students and their parents are now paying large sums for teaching, and quite rightly will expect the
providers to be not only competent, but expert at their job of teaching.
1.3 The Difculty of Teaching
One of the reasons teaching in HE has had low priority in the past is that it has usually been seen as
the easy part of the job an academic has to do - research is believed to be far more difcult, and is what
HE should really be doing. Well, performing adequately in teaching has never been that difcult in
HE, that much is true, but doing a good job under difcult circumstances, with lots of other pressures
and constraints, with a wider range of students (which is what we have now) is extremely difcult. It is
a highly skilled and intellectually demanding task. School teachers can have up to three years training
and then a years probation, in a school, and then statutory continuing professional development (CPD)
requirements to full. It is of course unrealistic to expect this for HE lecturers (yet), but none the less
there is no evidence that excellent teaching in HE is any less difcult than teaching in schools.
The difculties of teaching in HE are now more clearly evident because of the greater accountability
we now have for our outputs and processes. We still have a lot of control over our own assessment of
students, so the performance indicators of our output are under less scrutiny than that of say A-level
teachers, but increasingly questions about attrition and standards are being asked. Academics (particu-
larly mathematicians) are sometimes fond of criticising the teaching of mathematics in schools, thereby
implicitly recognising that there is such a thing as quality of teaching, though perhaps not realising that
it can also apply to their teaching of the students they receive. The reasons that teaching in HE is difcult
classes are now less homogeneous
the need for sound theoretical underpinning of teaching practices obliges us to develop such a
foundation, i.e. to do research and development in teaching
time spent thinking about teaching is not always rewarded in the HE career structure
the pace of development in teaching is far faster in HE than it has been in the past (not just newtech-
nology, but widening participation, equal opportunities, structural changes such as modularisation,
the RAE has in some cases detracted from the importance of teaching, so there is less motivation to
invest much effort in it
students are far more questioning, and less biddable than they used to be they are now articulate
and intelligent paying clients.
1.4 About the MSOR Network of the Higher Education Academy and
its Relation to Other CPD Provision
The Higher Education Academy (HEA) is a national organisation that promotes and supports institu-
tions, discipline groups and staff in providing the best possible learning experience for their students
( As well as providing generic support, independent of discipline, the HEA also
provides subject-specic support for enhancing the student experience. Until 2012 this will be provided
through a nation-wide network of 24 Subject Centres, including the MSOR (Maths Stats and OR) Network
based at the University of Birmingham ( The Network, through its full-time staff
and system of consultants, has produced a wide range of materials, funded small teaching and learning
projects, and has taken a leading and managerial role in many large scale projects such as the HEFCE
More Maths Grads Project. Through its networking activities it has an unrivalled nationwide access to
expertise and experience in HE mathematics teaching. It publishes a quarterly newsletter, MSOR Connec-
tions containing articles on a wide range of issues in HE mathematics teaching, as well as other materials.
One of the Networks major themes is initial and continuing development for HE teachers of mathemat-
ics, and this book is designed to support that, as well as providing a link into Mathematical Education, in
which the Network takes a great interest. From 2012 onwards it is expected that subject level work will
be led by Academic Heads supported by subject teams employed directly by or seconded to the HEA.
So, in providing training/education/instruction in the teaching of mathematics in HE the MSOR Net-
work can complement institutional generic provision with mathematics-based support that includes:
input from a wide range of experienced practitioners
a comprehensive range of resources accumulated over many years, web and paper-based
input from many research and development projects in the teaching and learning of mathematics
access to every UK mathematics provider for gathering data, evidence, good practice, etc
endorsement and support from the main professional bodies and learned societies in Mathematics
- LMS, IMA, etc
support and input from the vast generic resources of the HEA
opportunities for Network activities and events that may be credited by your institutional staff
development towards, say, your Postgraduate Teaching Certicate.
This book makes frequent use of and reference to MSOR Network materials, but the reader may access
these and more, directly for themselves from the website given above (please note that this website ad-
dress is correct at the time of writing. Also, many of the exercises given in this book could well lead to
results or articles that might interest the rest of the HE mathematics community and be published through
the Network or the HEA.
1.5 Generic and Discipline-based Teaching Practice
In teaching and learning there are aspects that are generic (i.e. apply to the teaching and learning of any
subject), and some that are discipline-based (i.e. depend on the subject to a large extent). Clearly there is
considerable overlap between the two, and over-emphasizing the generic aspects places the mathemati-
cian in a strait-jacket, while over-emphasis on the discipline-based aspects risks reinventing the wheel
and denying mathematicians the valuable contact with colleagues from other disciplines with different
viewpoints. In your parent institution you will no doubt be attending institutional teaching and learning
courses that will usually be generic. Although they might not appear to be related directly to your disci-
pline, they should contain much that is relevant to your teaching of mathematics, and the exposure to the
experience and problems in other subjects may be stimulating and informative. However, the purpose of
this book is to provide a mathematics input to complement and supplement this generic provision. It is
not easy to compartmentalise this mathematics-based provision, so we cover the full spectrum of teach-
ing activities, which may lead to some repetition, but that is no bad thing. For example, in assessment we
are going to tell you that prompt feedback on students work is good practice, and almost certainly any
generic course you do on assessment will tell you the same thing. But we may emphasize a mathematics
slant - for example feedback on a tough integration may best be done by going through a similar example
with the whole class on the board, in a tutorial, whereas in history the teacher might simply refer the
student to a passage in some textbook.
Perhaps the biggest danger is that you may not see the relevance of generic teaching and learning training,
and may therefore tend to undervalue it. In fact it is often realising the basic generic principles behind
some teaching activity that enables you to do a good job. For example, the actual task of explaining a
difcult integration to a student is little different to that of explaining the signicance of the papal edicts
on remarriage and divorce for the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. You rst need to nd
what the student already knows - to get onto their wavelength - then you need to judge the rate at which
they can assimilate new ideas, then you need to make them think, by posing searching questions, and
then lead them to evolving their own explanation. All of these activities are independent of the factual
content of the activity. But of course, there are some things that are distinctively mathematical. For
example, problem-based learning, the latest buzz-word in the teaching of law, has always been the main
tool in leaning and teaching mathematics. And in the sense that generic is simply a form of abstraction,
mathematicians of all people should have little trouble appreciating its value.
As a major part of your training you will also undoubtedly receive a great deal of support and training
from colleagues in your own department. This will include both generic and discipline-based provision.
Again, we are not going to try to duplicate this, which might include particular departmental polices on
such things as marking, ofce hours, etc. But some of the issues we raise may, we hope, stimulate fruitful
discussion with your colleagues.
1.6 Some Basic Principles for the Teaching of Mathematics
As mathematicians we are well aware of the importance and utility of basing the study of any topic on a
small number of basic principles (E.g. Newtons laws of motion), or axioms (E.g. those for an algebraic
eld). No one pretends that such foundations represent all there is to say on the subject, or that we are
constantly referring back to them to make progress. Rather, they underpin the study and application
of the topic, we internalise and subconsciously embed them in what we do, and whenever we come up
against a particularly vexing issue in the topic we will probably return to them to anchor and guide our
thoughts and arguments.
With such a complex and involved enterprise as teaching and learning it would be presumptuous to think
that we can nd a similar set of basic principles to guide our teaching practice. But equally, it is futile to
believe that we can make sense, organise, assimilate and use the thousands of tips that some seem to
believe passes for teaching and learning practice. In fact, many authors on teaching do try to introduce
some order by proposing guiding principles [49] or Rules of Teaching [7]. So in this book we offer
a set of basic principles for the teaching of mathematics that you may nd useful in underpinning your
teaching practice [26]. There is the danger that such things seembland, anodyne, vacuous or prescriptive,
none of which is intended, and we hope that occasional subsequent references to them in the rest of the
book will help to allay such concerns. We believe the principles to be fairly comprehensive, evidence-
based, widely supported amongst the mathematics community, and of practical usefulness. But of course,
if you believe differently, invent your own, and let us know where we have gone wrong! We summarise
them here, and look at them in more depth in Section 2.4.
Practicalities of providing the learning environment
P1. All teaching and learning must take place within nite resources (the most important of which is
time) available to you and your students.
P2. Teaching is a human activity that requires a professional management of the curriculum, the group
and the interpersonal interactions that implies.
P3. There must be clarity and precision about what is expected of the students and how that will be
P4. The teaching, learning and assessment strategies must be aligned with what is expected of the stu-
How students learn
P5. The workload, in terms of intellectual progression, must be appropriate to the level and standards of
the course.
P6. Mathematics is best learnt in the away it is done, rather than in the way it is nally presented.
P7. Mathematics is most effectively learnt if the student reconstructs the ideas involved and ts them
into their current (corrected!) understanding.
P8. The meta-skills required for the previous learning points may need to be explicitly taught.
Teachers tasks
P9. Good skills in explanation are required to assist students in learning efciently and effectively.
P10. Students best learn mathematics if they are actively engaged in the process of doing mathematics.
P11. High levels of motivation are essential for effective learning.
These basic principles of learning (generally, not just mathematics) underpin all aspects of the job of
teaching, but do not provide a convenient structure for describing how the job is actually done. This
book gives a more sequential, practical, methodical presentation of how we actually do the job:
curriculum design and preparation in mathematics (Chapter 2)
the mathematics lecture (Chapter 3)
tutoring in mathematics (Chapter 4
student assessment in mathematics (Chapter 5).
This latter approach makes more sense in practice, but is always underpinned by the basic principles.
1.7 MATHEMATICS A Checklist for Organising your Teaching
While the principles of the previous section provide the underpinning rationale for our teaching, we of-
ten need guidance at a more practical level. It is well known that we learn things more effectively if we
can t them into some pattern or framework or context with which we are already familiar (Principle 7).
The crudest example of this is the mnemonic - indispensable in medical education! As mathematicians
we are particularly lucky in this respect in that it itself provides a useful device for organising any teach-
ing activity [24]. When considering any mathematics teaching situation a rough and ready checklist (A
BODMAS!) for things to consider is provided by MATHEMATICS(See Section2.2):
Mathematical content
Aims and objectives of the curriculum
Teaching and learning activities to meet the aims and objectives
Help to be provided to the students - support and guidance
Evaluation, management and administration of the curriculum and its delivery
Materials to support the curriculum
Assessment of the students
Time considerations and scheduling
Initial position of the students - where we are starting from
Coherence of the curriculum - how the different topics t together
Notice only the rst of these is exclusively discipline-based. To illustrate the use of this mnemonic con-
sider a typical routine teaching activity you might be involved in - you are asked to give a hours tutorial
on elementary integration for rst year engineers. It is in fact not so simple as you might think, and
MATHEMATICS reminds us of that. As well as obviously needing to know the mathematical content
of the tutorial, you will also need to know what it is trying to achieve, its aims and objectives. And what
sort of teaching and learning activity will you be engaged in to support the teaching - demonstration on
the board, one to one discussion with students who ask questions, etc? Of course, you are actually there
to help the students, but how? Do you show them how to actually do a particular integral, or do you just
give themenough hints to move thema little further forward, do you go through a common problemwith
everyone, on the board, i.e. help them all at once? Are you sure that you are doing the best job you could
- can you improve your effectiveness in the tutorial? For this you need to evaluate how you have done
- you might issue a questionnaire at the end, or check how much the students have taken in, etc. What
materials do you need for the tutorial - the students may already have an exercise sheet, is that all you
need, what about the solutions, do you need those? Check there is chalk available! You are unlikely to
be assessing the students in the tutorials, but maybe they are going through assessed coursework - how
much do you help them with that? They may well ask you if what they are doing will be on the exam - do
you know? The time and duration of the class is not the only scheduling consideration you need to think
about. You need to encourage students to use the time effectively - not spend all of it grinding out the
rst question, or plodding through the routine questions. They only have an hour, so they should quickly
identify their key problems and get you to sort them out as quickly as possible. You must certainly have
a good idea of the initial position of the students - how much do they already know, have you lost them
the minute you start your explanation, are they familiar with all the terms and the language you use? A
tutorial does not always appear to be the most coherent of teaching activities - people are asking all sorts
of disjointed questions, jumping from one topic to another, one problem to another. But the underlying
subject matter will usually have some structure and coherence, and you need to bring this out if it will
help the students. For example, different students may raise a number of questions which, essentially,
are simply different examples of difculty with integration by parts. Then you can alert them to this and
pull it all together - this is an important function of the tutor which is not always transparent from the
separate exercises that the students have to do. Finally, of course, remember that the tutorial is for the
students, and must centre around what they want and need - it should be prime learning time and needs
to be designed for their benet.
In each chapter of the book, we will similarly use MATHEMATICS to remind us of the sorts of things
we need to think about, whether we are designing a course, giving a lecture or tutorial, or preparing an
exam. You might not cover all eventualities by using the mnemonic, but it should provide a good start.
1.8 The Structure of this Book
The main chapters of this book recognize the fact that the major part of the HE mathematics teachers
time is spent designing and preparing their teaching, giving lectures, conducting tutorials and assessing
students. So Chapters 2-5 are devoted to just these functions, and aim to be of practical use. However,
there is also a growing need to underpin our teaching with a sound pedagogical foundation. With many
other priorities to attend to this needs to be sensitively measured, accommodating the widely varying
needs of lecturers in this respect. The approach adopted here is therefore to provide a very brief and
inevitably crude overview of pedagogic ideas relevant to mathematics teaching, provide openings to the
literature, and distil the essential elements into the eleven principles of Section 1.6. This is done in Chapter
2 devoted to curriculum design, since it is usually at the design stage that one has to think most carefully
about ones view of how students learn. But the principles are intended to underpin every aspect of
teaching and so they are frequently referred back to in subsequent chapters. This is not an attempt to
push one particular view on underpinning theory, but simply to remind the reader that there needs to
be some rationale behind our practice. We have tried to provide a balance between practical advice and
theoretical mathematical education - and surely we will get it wrong!
As much as possible we have tried to include practical examples relevant to most topics - mathematicians
like examples! Also, again to make the mathematician feel at home we have included a large number of
exercises. These are of course entirely optional, but we would hope that some of them will help directly
with what you have to do anyway in your teaching. Some are a matter of a few minutes thought, others
are quite signicant projects.
In some parts of the book, such as in the marking sections in Chapter 5, we have gone into minute detail.
This is not in order to encourage you to do things in a particular way. Rather it is to hopefully convey
the realities of the day to day job of teaching, its pressures, its mass of fast imperfect decisions, and the
constant need for a common sense moderation of technical activity. You may have different views on
marking, but when the scripts are piled in front of you the tensions are similar. We hope also to dispel
any notion that teaching is the easy part of academic life - far from it!
To make dipping into this book easier there is some small repetition of material to make chapters rela-
tively self-contained. Also, the division into lectures and tutorials is a little articial in that the same skills
are often needed in both, and an active lecture, with lively student engagement can be indistinguishable
froma tutorial. But we think most lecturers will recognize the differences between a lecture and a tutorial.
The book makes only a limited attempt to be consistent in terminology. In such things as course or
module there is so much variation across the hundreds of HE mathematics providers that we simply
have to rely on the readers common sense to match to their own local usage. Similarly with such local
administrative and organizational issues such as examinations, timetabling we have to leave it to the
reader to adapt to their own circumstances.