Helping Students Use Their Strengths to Tackle a Weakness

Dr. Eugene Allevato, a faculty member in the College of Liberal Arts
Dr. Eugene Allevato is a faculty member in the College of Liberal Arts

As a math instructor, it is not easy to teach every student in a classroom setting because each student has a different learning style. As educators, we have a responsibility to recognize how we can best compensate for a variety of learning abilities. One key for accomplishing this is to focus on a student’s strengths rather than on his or her weakness.

Like many universities do, at Woodbury, we try not to take a “one-size-fits all” approach to how we educate our students. Instead, we have a growth mindset that facilitates a student’s ability to build self-confidence and become autodidactic.

While a student may have difficulty with a particular subject, our process is designed to accentuate their strengths and take advantage of their compensatory skills. For some students, this approached helps to make math more applicable and meaningful.

In their recent article, “Motivational Influences for Higher Education Students,” published in the International Journal of Online Pedagogy and Course Design, Robert Costello and Murray Lambert address the ‘gamification approach’ to learning. Their belief is that the intrinsic excitement of gaming can act as a vehicle that could help to engage and motivate students.

With this theory in mind, instructors try to decipher a student’s aspirations and thought processes — exploring ways in which they can communicate and perceive mathematical concepts and then develop a strategy that will work for that specific student.

I recently worked with Beka, an Animation student at Woodbury who was having trouble understanding how to apply properties of exponents. To overcome these challenges, I helped Beka see the problem in terms that she felt comfortable with: animation storytelling.

Together, we formulated an animation about the properties of exponents. We started with a discussion about the meaning of the base and the exponent. Usually, a power is an expression represented by a base number and an exponent. The base number tells what number is being multiplied. The exponent, a small number written above and to the right of the base number, tells how many times the base number is being multiplied. After our discussion, Beka formulated her strategy. She associated the base, the larger number, with a rhino and the small number with a bird companion.

“I chose to make an animation involving a bird and a rhino for my assignment because, in the wild, birds follow rhinos around everywhere,” Beka said. “It was a cute little visual that I could use to help me remember the rules of exponents.”

Once that visualization was created, we wrote a story to describe the properties of exponents.

Beka’s animation to help her understand the concept of the rules of exponents

It was clear to me that Beka’s passion for storytelling and animation work impacted her ability to assimilate knowledge of the mathematical concept of exponents. That is one strategy that educators need to continue to explore in service of their students.

Eugene Allevato, PhD, MPhil, MSc, MBA, teaches mathematics in the College of Liberal Arts


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