UI math department isn't living up to expectations

Coming to the fifth-ranked engineering school in the nation, I expected an equally strong math department to complement it. What I experienced was quite the contrary.

While I can’t speak for the graduate school or the upper level courses taken by math majors, I did endure the sequence of math courses that is all too familiar to most science and engineering students — namely calculus III, intro to differential equations and applied linear algebra. What I observed was a series of teaching methods that were outdated, dispassionate, disengaging and ultimately ineffective.

Just for starters, I had professors who refused to respond to emails, professors who reprimanded students for asking questions in class and one who stopped giving homework assignments because apparently the $130 textbook we were required to buy “didn’t have any good problems in it.”

While these are just some particular quirks, the general trend I noticed was the archaic style of teaching where the professor spends the entire class period deriving theorems on the chalkboard in full formality, instead of showing worked examples or helping students understand the motivation for the derivations.

As a student who has sat through seemingly endless hours of such lectures, I can say that all of the chalk that has been wasted in showing undergraduates proofs might as well have been used to draw sidewalk murals in a rainstorm.

Even if the proofs did carry some significance, the delivery of them was often extremely poor. In more than one instance I witnessed a professor waste 20 minutes or more struggling to get midway through an advanced derivation, only to admit to the class that he had forgotten how to finish it. In one such case my professor followed his failure by stating (quite seriously): “I leave the rest of this proof as an exercise for the student.” What a joke.

It certainly wasn’t just me who found these lectures futile. There were some days when out of 100 enrolled students, fewer than 20 were attending class.

The average Rate My Professor rating of my last two math professors was an unfathomably low 1.3 out of 5, based on nearly 50 ratings. The average comment was to the effect of, “I read the reviews on here before taking the class and just shrugged them off thinking, ‘Can’t be that bad.’ Let me just say I was very, very wrong.” 

While I’m sure there are some great math instructors at this university who are loved by their students, the fact that any student has the possibility of going through an experience as bad as mine suggests that there is something wrong with the system.

While all professors are given feedback from their students via the ICES surveys each semester, there are still prominent examples of professors who continue their poor teaching methods year after year in clear disregard of their students’ responses (as evidenced by the Rate My Professor reviews). This exposes the deeper problem that many professors simply do not care about teaching and consequently have diverted all of their attention to their research.

Fixing this disconnect demands getting instructors who are passionate about teaching. As a student, I would much rather have an enthusiastic TA teach a class than have some accomplished research professor who is just phoning it in to pad their retirement fund. Experience is only meaningful if there is a genuine desire to pass on that level of expertise to students.

The solution also involves implementing class structures that are more conducive to learning. Frankly, I would find it much more helpful to just eliminate formal lectures all together. I’d rather only have interactive classroom sessions where students are first presented with problems and then work toward solutions under the guidance of a mentor.

The notion that such quality cannot be provided in large, introductory classes is a myth that the physics department has busted. With hundreds of students enrolling in PHYS 211 and 212 each semester, the department has still managed to provide each student with individual instruction through small discussion and lab sections every week.

If the math department were to adapt a similar model, the quality of student learning would certainly increase. It would also foster excitement for the course material and would encourage students to explore how the mathematical fundamentals are relevant in their particular field of interest.

Don’t get me wrong, my overall experience at this university has been overwhelmingly positive, and I have had some truly inspirational professors (particularly in the mechanical engineering department). However, ignoring this issue will continue to belie the efforts of those great professors who are truly passionate about teaching.

Andrew is a sophomore in Engineering. He can be reached at ajhorto2@dailyillini.com.

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