Mathematics: The Universal Language of Science

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Antar Bandyopadhyay, Statistics

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2002

In the fall of 2001, when I was assigned as GSI for the course Statistics 205A for the second time, I was determined to make a difference in the teaching style. Statistics 205A is designed as introductory graduate level course on classical Probability Theory at a Measure Theoretic level. But, in recent years, it has been observed that students with very applied backgrounds and interests have taken this course. Apart from students of Statistics and Probability, there were enrollments from Economics, Electrical, Mechanical and Civil Engineering, Operational Research, Computer Science and Sociology. It was simply a challenge to make this diverse group realize that the study of Probability Theory from an abstract point of view, is useful for them. Further, it was more difficult because the course did not have any discussion hours.

In order to handle this problem, I realized that I needed to have some discussion hours when I can meet the students regularly. Professor David J. Aldous was very supportive of the idea of having unofficial discussion hours. The students also responded positively and so after sorting out the administrative issues, we started having three hours of discussions every week. My job was then to motivate and help the students understand the difficult and involved concepts of classical Probability. My approach to solve this problem, was to treat the discussion hours as though they were a new language study sessions. The most important part was to make the students realize that what they were learning was not just some abstract nonsense but, some part of an universal language, which would give them necessary skills to “communicate” among themselves irrespective of their backgrounds and interests. In every session I used to lead the discussion by pointing out various important interpretations and applications of some purely Mathematical concepts or problems. This automatically used to bring some spontaneous responses from the students, which almost always ended in a debate among them in the language of Mathematics. This way not only did they started “talking” in Mathematics but, while doing so, they also started appreciating the need of this rather precise language. Moreover, in order to give them confidence in the skills they were developing through this exercise, I used to give them some language drills. Many time I asked sudden questions or gave them quizzes, which they had to discuss among them and then give an answer. This also helped them to commit the fundamental ideas to their long-term memory.

It was quite transparent from the great enthusiasm with which all the students participated in the discussions, that this new teaching style was quite effective and helpful. Also, I found by meeting students individually in my office hours that they were pretty happy with this new learning experience. I believe, the final assessment of the success of my teaching came through the end semester course evaluations. I was very pleased to see lots of great comments from the students, and there were not a single complain. I offer this last anecdote : Couple of months back I met one of the students and she told me that she will definitely take another course on Probability Theory if I am teaching one. Certainly, that is one of the best rewards I received by teaching Statistics 205A last semester.