Dr. Paul Nolting's Academic Success Press Blog: A Publication Dedicated to Math Success
Dr. Paul Nolting's Academic Success Press Blog: A Publication Dedicated to Math Success
Dr. Paul Nolting Speaks with Dr. Julie Phelps about Stoking Student Curiosity and Helping Students Succeed in Modern Math Courses
Hello readers! Today, we are proud to present Dr. Nolting's interview with Dr. Julie Phelps. Phelps is an award-winning math professor at Valencia College. At different points in her career, she has worked with or assisted several national math organizations, including: AMATYC, the Dana Center, Achieving the Dream, and the Carnegie Foundation.
Dr. Nolting and Dr. Phelps discuss numerous topics, including math redesign, the role national math organizations play in student success, and the creation of the first National Math Summit. Most prominently, Phelps discusses her belief that motivation is central to student success and that modern math instructors must make students understand the real-world value of the math they learn in class. Enjoy!
Dr. Paul Nolting: First of all, I’d like to thank you for doing this. I know that you have a long history of helping students, colleges, and organizations improve math success. Why don’t you start by telling me a little bit about your background.
Dr. Julie Phelps: Sure! After high school, I received an athletic scholarship and a music scholarship to attend Indian River Community College (now Indian River State College). I still remember my shock at how much I received for my tennis scholarship compared to the music one, because the athletic one paid so much more. They paid for my room and my books, whereas the music scholarship would have just covered my classes—so I saw certain inequities there.
When at community college, I tutored people from both of my networks: from the orchestra and from the tennis team. My college algebra teacher asked me, “Have you ever thought about teaching or tutoring at college?” I said, “You can get a job doing that?” And he told me, “Yes, a really good job.” I have to say, tutoring in college was a great growing experience. I realized that I loved teaching, and I loved “turning the light on.” There was something about those “Aha!” moments that had me hooked.
I grew so much more during community college than I had when I was younger; I started realizing the direction I wanted to go and that my ability to explain math to others was the best way for me to get there. I then went off to Florida Southern College where I was a math major. I taught for a few years after I graduated, and that was a really good experience. I did an internship at two different high schools, and anytime I was with a class full of students, I was always impressed by the diversity. I kept thinking about how the stories of these students had yet to be written—every student was an individual, and I remember thinking about where they were going to end up was really cool. I couldn’t wait to find out more.
I then taught high school for three years, and in my first year I was asked to present high school projects for high school students at the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) Conference in Atlanta, Georgia in 1994. This was a unique experience because I was in my early-twenties and people were coming up to me after my presentation asking about where I had found the activities I had talked about. This was funny, because I had really just looked around to figure out what students were actually interested in—where they saw algebra and geometry in real life.
Then I decided to go back to graduate school. I got my master’s in math, and I won a couple of teaching awards. I won an Athlete Selected Choice Teacher award as a teaching assistant after athletes at the University of Central Florida said that I had been one of the motivating factors for helping them earn good grades. I also won a graduate assistant teaching award at UCF, then an adjunct teaching award that next year at Valencia College.
In 2005, I got my doctoral degree in education and curriculum instruction, with a specialty in community college education and leadership.
Nolting: What are some of the organizations you are currently working with? I have always seen you as the glue between a lot of these organizations, because your expertise has allowed you a lot of input nationally.
Phelps: The biggest one right now is AMATYC. I have been working on their new standards document. They had two previously—ten years apart. The first one was Crossroads, and the second was Beyond Crossroads. This one will be called IMPACT, which stands for Improving Mathematical Prowess and College Teaching. Prowess itself stands for, proficiency, ownership, engagement, and student success. To improve college teaching, these are the pillars that need to be followed.
I’m also working with the Math Association of America on a document they are writing. It’s their instructional practice guide and it’s to help new teachers figure out teaching practices. The document focuses on classroom practices, curriculum design and assessment.
I’ve also worked with Achieving the Dream for many years. I was the director at Valencia College between 2005 and 2009. We are still known as a leader college. Our practices involved learning communities, where we decided to put developmental math within a student success course, and we used supplemental instruction, which we called “supplemental learning.” In order to have true ownership at an institution, faculty need to be really involved in conversations about changing initiatives. The faculty didn’t like the title, “supplemental instruction,” because they wanted it to directly address learning as opposed to instruction. We did this because of faculty input, and I believe that is why our program is just as successful now as it was when we started it in 2000-2001.
While at AMATYC, I was also the liaison to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, as well as to the Charles A. Dana Center—so I was a technical assistant adviser to both organizations, working on math redesign. Several initiatives came out of these organizations—notably Statway and Quantway. The Dana Center, after further conversations at AMATYC panels, also [initiated] the new Mathways project.
Nolting: How has working with these groups been beneficial to you?
Phelps: At the University of Texas there is the Community College Center for Student Engagement—I am associate faculty for them. I have done state workshops with them talking about how to use and sense CCCSE data. I love this because it has allowed me to get familiar with other state-based organizations and their policies. Working with these, along with Achieving the Dream, AMATYC, and all the other organizations, has allowed me to look at states differently than an educator who is just in Florida or just in New York, which doesn’t give you the broad picture nationally of all the change initiatives that are taking place.
Nolting: What about the National Math Summits, how did you get involved in those?
Phelps: I know it is hard for you to take credit for this, Paul, but I remember you walked up to me at NADE in Orlando in 2012, and you said something like, “with all of the changes going on in the nation, it is time for us to move on this. It’s now or never. We have got to get all of the stakeholders involved in this conversation, and we have to see how quickly we can get together all these people and faculty who are capable of figuring out how to make a difference, and talk about all of these movements and help those who aren’t as familiar with education make appropriate decisions.”
You were really passionate about it.
Nolting: I appreciate that. A lot of us worked together, and you were one of the key team members who managed to pull it off, twice. What do you think the summits have achieved so far?
Phelps: So, I want to use a story about a teacher from Maryland who was a mentee of mine, and I believe yours, at one of the summits. She presented with us a year later, and she said, “I was one faculty member, and the summits gave me the courage to try something in my classroom, then take it to my administrators and make a large-scale change at my institution.” She went on to say that, “I would never have had the courage or the knowhow and wouldn’t have understood what my administrators were looking for, if the National Math Summit hadn’t taken place.”
Another person stated how much it had impacted her, and we asked her to be a mentor and a design tech. She is at a four-year college, and she researches developmental math, and she has been a part of AMATYC for as long as I can remember. Her research is on self-efficacy, and I recently wrote a paper with her. She talks about how she can influence future educators and help people make an administrative impact. She says that a lot of teachers don’t know the research behind learning. They are math majors and haven’t taken education courses. She believes [the summits] influence those at universities that focus on teaching to help people understand the large changes that are happening in the nation, and gives [people like her] a chance to influence future educators.
As for me, yes, I was a member of the group in this, but it really gave me a new network of connections. As you know, Paul, around the time of the first summit, our state was passing a law, Bill 1720. The law stated that any student who started and finished at a Florida high school no longer had to take a placement exam and could start in college-level courses. That network of people from the summit gave me an opportunity to reach out to other experts. It is hard to be a prophet in your own land; in Florida, I am just Julie from Valencia College. But I could reach out to you, to Uri Treisman (executive director of the Dana Center), to Rikki Blair (past-president of AMATYC), and grab research papers, and say, “Here is what people are saying nationally about creating appropriate pathways for students to get through college and earn a degree in a meaningful fashion.” Does this mean that every student must take intermediate algebra? I think not, but the summit allowed us to have rich conversation because of the connections we made.
Those are just three examples. I could keep going forever.
Nolting: Getting back to the redesign movement itself, what has it accomplished, and what do you think will come next?
Phelps: One, I think AMATYC’s statement about intermediate algebra not being a gatekeeper course and that students should choose pathways according to their major is a huge accomplishment in terms of policy. But policy hasn’t quiet made it as far as it needs to go yet. Community colleges can make so many changes, but we can’t do it without the four-year institutions and universities following suit in seeing that pathways are significant. I think we are starting to see major changes in this in California and Ohio. Florida has got some great things going on, also Utah and Texas. But there are still obstructionist states. The big picture is not completely there yet.
I think that with all the redesigns, the other thing that is really cool, is that we are finally getting research that deserves attention at the community college level. People are paying attention to it. I do also believe that community college faculty and people who love community colleges and the students who need us the most, they are getting involved now in the research. We have seen that at AMATYC, having a research committee that has grown significantly since the first math summit in 2013. Since then, I can say that that committee has quadrupled in membership. Research institutions are partnering with community colleges to get a better sense of learners at community colleges, particularly math learners and developmental learners.
I really do think we are finding some things that are working. Have we found a silver bullet? No. Is there a silver bullet? No.
Nolting: Right. I’ve been looking for one for years. First, I thought study skills might be it, and it helped a lot of people. Then I had a lot of students with disabilities, and I researched that, which helped a lot of people. There are a bunch of what we call “bronze bullets,” which leads us to the next question. With everything changing—both in terms of the technology we use and the way in which we offer classes—what remains constantly important for student success?
Phelps: The inspiration and motivation of students. If a student is not ready or doesn’t really want to learn, it is near impossible to help them. I keep saying this because it’s a gut feeling I have about redesign. We always have to keep in mind that motivation is key. Any redesign we do, we need to help students recognize that they want to learn.
I was watching Talking with Chris Hardwick the other day, and Neil deGrasse Tyson was on. He talked about how his love of learning started as a child, and he said that what always makes him sad is that when students graduate from high school, their books pile up. Most of them think, “I never have to look at these again.” Don’t they understand that lifelong learning is part of their journey? Don’t they understand that curiosity shouldn’t be killed?
He said that curiosity needs to be stoked. I love that idea, because with math particularly, it is often all about step one, step two, step three—where is the curiosity in that? How do we motivate students to ask the right questions? Innovations only happen when people think outside the box and think bigger. That is really where my gut feeling is. To have a society of individuals, we need to figure out ways to get students to start asking questions again.
I always think about how when you are in first grade, you are like Macaulay Culkin in the movie Uncle Buck—you ask questions rapid fire. [In that movie] John Candy asks him, “What is your record for most questions asked in a minute,” and [Culkin] says something like 94. Candy says, “Well, I think you just beat it,” and [Culkin] answers, “I know.” Having taught different grades, having worked as a camp counselor and everything else, I have watch the hands go down as children get older. When you ask Kindergartners a question, they make guesses—they’re curious. By fifth grade, you see the hands go down a little bit more. By high school they don’t want to look like they don’t know the answers already, or they don’t want to be viewed as a nerd. Finally, by college, students believe they aren’t as smart as one of their classmates and that [this smart student] should ask all the questions. It’s just a bizarre way that we have trained our society on education, and I would really love it if we could come up with a design that promotes creativity and innovation and gets people outside of the box again.
Math is fun! Let’s figure out how to keep it fun. So that is the message I feel most strongly about. I don’t know that we talk about this enough from that perspective.
There is a message on this that I learned in the fifth grade, a poem, actually. I have students who walk in and literally say, “I can’t do this.” I think that mindset is a big piece of the puzzle, so I always go back to this poem. I know it as “The Winner,” but apparently it is known as many other things across the Internet. I’ll just do three verses of it:
If you think you’re beaten, you are.
If you think dare not, you don’t.
If you’d like to win but you think you can’t,
It is almost certain, you won’t.
If you think you’ll lose, you’ve lost.
For out of the world we find,
Success begins with a fellow’s will
It’s all in the state of mind.
Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But soon or late the man who wins
Is the fellow who thinks he can.
That to me is the message students need to hear. They need to be their own cheerleader, their own motivator. If they aren’t, we need to find a way to give them confidence, that ability, that structure, that belief.
Nolting: That leads right into the article you recently wrote with Linda Zintak on self-efficacy—that the new designs and new technology can only help so much. Until we work with students on self-efficacy, until we help them deal with anxiety, with learning strategies and techniques, we can’t give them everything they need. I personally see this as our main function now. In some cases, this plays a bigger role in success than does instruction itself—especially in modular and emporium models where instructors act more as supervisors. I’m glad this is entering the conversation, as people like you and I have been working on this stuff for nearly 20 years now. Modern students simply must become better independent learners.
Phelps: I’m working on a NSF grant, which involves “utility values”—the value of the math students [are being taught]. If they don’t see value in it, they don’t want to learn it. There are all sorts of conditions that can hinder that. We are also looking at Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset." It is interesting how many students have a fixed mindset. Many students simply don’t think they can do math.
I also just finished reading Jo Boaler’s fantastic Mathematical Mindsets book again. These things that we are talking about that seem intangible in some ways, people are starting to be able to put their finger on it, putting into words answers to questions like: what is the mathematical mindset, what does building self-efficacy look like, how do you make a student see the value of mathematics?
Some people call this the science of learning. Like you said, you’ve been doing this for years—but now there are more people paying attention to it and researching it. It is an exciting time to be a part of this.
I’d like to refer back to what you said about modular and emporium models. Many national organizations are openly saying that this is not the best way to teach students. So it is interesting to see that we are still mentioning them. I think it does still work for some classes that are extremely skills based, but if you are learning skills in the absence of where they are actually used, are you really learning? That is my main question. I don’t want to criticize any particular curriculum, but if students don’t attach value to where they are going to use math, then are they truly learning these skills? Or are they just memorizing them for a moment? There are a lot of discussions to be had, and I don’t think by any stretch of the imagination that we are done researching, here.
Nolting: Yes. The places I have really seen modular and emporium work is at schools where they have integrated study skills or successful math labs. They discuss the learning process, rather than just having students turn on a computer and maybe ask questions to one or two people who are walking around trying to help.
Moving on, I’m wondering how you envision the future of developmental education—especially now that first-credit math courses are now directly integrating developmental aspects. What do you think will happen in this regard, and what would you like to happen?
Phelps: I’ll approach this as an instructor. I am currently teaching a first-credit course, and I am teaching it as an intensive, so I’m combining intermediate and college algebra as one six hour course. With this senate bill, I have students that are at so many levels. This is the first time as a professional educator that I have such a big difference between students at the low end and students at the high end.
I have students that have taken and passed calculus, but because they didn’t have to take a placement test, they were placed into intermediate algebra (because they chose to do so). Then I have students who chose not to take a placement test, and they haven’t taken a math class in two years. Now they are taking a math class, and without a calculator, they can’t effectively add, subtract, multiply, or divide.
My job, and I think this is how I envision curriculum in general, is to get all these students to want to learn math, to want to use math to make a difference. I’m thinking of my current class in particular. We can do fun things that show how and where algebra is actually used. We can get them out of the fixed mindset that says, “curriculum math is curriculum math and real-world math is real-world math.” We can relate everything to quantitative literacy. That is my whole goal now. Because I am a math educator first, I believe that my main focus for redesign is to help students become quantitatively literate and to make informed decisions when they read the newspaper or watch the news. There are so many things that are false in the digital world. Students know how to play digitally; they don’t know how to learn digitally. So I think quantitative literacy is where we need to go. Therefore, math curriculum should be redesigned to create a quantitatively literate society.
Nolting: What is happening across the country, is that more and more students are taking classes above their ability level—either by choice or by design. What are some strategies, outside of the math department, to help these students, especially those that are placed into their first intermediate algebra course? SI? Tutoring? Study Skills? Co-requisite courses?
Phelps: I think that part of the job administrators and educators have to do at institutions is to remove the stigma that is attached to tutoring. There is less stigma attached to supplemental instruction because the wording involved usually implies, “this is a hard class, so we are giving you mentors in the class who have already been successful and are willing to show you the ropes.” This makes it more like an apprenticeship, and that removes the stigma.
Study skills are also important. Getting students to realize that studying math is different than studying poetry is critical. Math study skills and time management are incredibly important. I’ve really enjoyed studying the effects of mandatory supplemental instruction. This organically embeds math study skills.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to train tutors and supplemental instructors in motivational theory and study strategies in addition to content. Content is only one part of their job. They need to be able to motivate students, help them figure out how they learn, and assist them accordingly. Students need to feel connected to the content in order to figure out the direction in which it will be applied.
Nolting: Is there anything else you’d like to say to readers of the blog?
Phelps: Pay attention to students! Learn from them. If a student presents an answer, and you don’t know how they got there, ask them how. I once asked a man who came back to school in his thirties, how much would you tip on a fifty-dollar check? He counted on his fingers for a second, then he said, “10 bucks!” He explained, “If I count by fives to get to fifty, I know that generally works.” This started a whole new conversation about why that would always work. If you are tipping a dollar for every five, what percentage are you tipping every time? It was really cool. All of a sudden, I saw my class get hyper-excited about learning from this older gentleman (who, by the way, thought he was never going to succeed at math). He said, “I’ve always heard people talk about moving the decimal point, but I could never figure it out. But I learned if I count by fives until I reach the dollar amount, I’ll always leave the correct tip.” The students were excited about this. It blew the entire class’ mind.
So what I am saying is: always try to learn from your students!
Dr. Nolting is a national expert in assessing math learning problems, developing effective student learning strategies, assessing institutional variables that affect math success and math study skills. He is also an expert in helping students with disabilities and Wounded Warriors become successful in math. He now assists colleges and universities in redesigning their math courses to meet new curriculum requirements. He is the author of two math study skills texts: Winning at Math and My Math Success Plan.
American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges presenter, Senior Lecturer-Modular