#HEBlogSwap – The importance of showing your enthusiasm in large-group maths sessions – by Rebecca Jackson

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I’m going to say it: I hate maths. Well, not the sexy stuff that’s super interesting like zero, infinity, chaos, or probability but the easy stuff that ties your brain in knots when working in a shop – long division! (Still can’t do it…)

Why do I hate maths? Many fears and dislikes are rooted in bad childhood experiences. My fear of maths is down to Mrs Nameless, who physically dragged me out of class on more than one occasion, calling me out in front of all my classmates and using my full name to boot – the horror! How might my attitude to maths have been different if only I’d have had a kind and enthusiastic teacher who wanted me to see it was a fun game, which, I now understand is exactly what maths is!

Much of the time I don’t believe that there’s much difference in the needs and wants and hopes and fears of older and younger learners. Just as a primary school student needs a switched on and positive teacher, university students of maths might find their subject abstract and slippery, and would equally need someone enthusiastic and passionate about the mysteries of numbers to teach them.

How can you be enthusiastic as a university maths teacher? What if you genuinely love maths but wish you could connect more and show that enthusiasm? What if your classes are large and you feel you struggle to connect to your mega groups to help them see the gameplay and mystery of mathematics?

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Enthusiasm has huge power for creating emotional engagement in students. Feeling your enthusiasm is not enough. The biggest effects on positive learning outcomes for students are observed when cues of enthusiasm are clear and perceivable. This can then create an emotional contagion which helps your students to experience a similar emotional state to you about your object of enthusiasm – the maths, and the activities needed to explore it in all its beauty. Displaying behaviours of enthusiasm can help you to connect with a large room.

The literature is quite clear about what enthusiastic teaching ‘looks like’ – even if a lot of those observations come from non-HE research. (Most current research on enthusiasm in teaching is from primary and secondary education studies.) Enthusiastic teachers smile, use gestures, make use of space and body movements, make eye contact, draw on humour, and vary the tone of their voice, among other things.

There is absolutely no point putting on these behaviours. It’s emotional labour – faking it and causing pain to yourself – and students can sense it’s fake, which is worse than no enthusiasm! But, you could practice reflecting on what is enthusing you about your maths content/tasks, and ruminate on this to generate a state where you feel even more enthusiastic and buzzed, and you might then feel positive enough to work deeply and reflectively with trusted colleagues and/or students to ‘show’ more what you really are feeling. If you can work incrementally and in a safe space, you can build up your confidence and feel more comfortable about ‘showing’ your natural enthusiasm with regards to the behaviours just mentioned.

A step that we could take, especially in the times of lecture capture, is to watch back a session of a lecture. Essentially, you could do some microteaching. You could sit with a critical friend and examine where you are and are not exhibiting (genuine) enthusiasm behaviours. Be kind to yourself. Look at where those enthusiastic behaviours like smiling and varying tone occurred. Pat yourself on the back and really reflect on why you were able to show what you felt – what did you enjoy? What got you excited? Were there any puzzles or creative moments that you could draw on as a positive memory that you could use for inspiration on another occasion? Where you didn’t feel so enthusiastic, be curious as to why. Note down the task or the point that turned you off. Promise to ruminate on it and find three cool things or advantages about it that you can use to get excited next time. But, importantly, with the microteaching, you can bounce around ideas and get advice from a critical friend who can help you find opportunities to display your enthusiasm more ostensively, and you can watch where you are and are not growing over time – in a safe, scheduled, reflective way.

We don’t believe you should push too hard or go massively out of your comfort zone. Not at first. Work little and often, in increments, being reflective and being kind to yourself. In time, you’ll have a list of points and tasks that you love so much, and you will have practiced adding in more open demonstration of your genuinely felt passion at opportune moments.

The gains, we hope, will be large and rewarding. Asks your maths students whether and why they thought you were enthusiastic, and ask them to reflect on how it helped you. Simply add a question to your module feedback or create an informal survey at the end of the semester. When I have done this with linguistics students, they said it really made a difference, and that helped me to have some validation and further confidence in the approach. Please don’t be like Mrs Nameless – show as much enthusiasm as you are able so that as many of your maths students as possible experience positive affect, or emotional engagement, towards the wonderful world of maths. Please get in touch with Enthusiastic HE to discuss further – and to let us know how you got on!

Rebecca Jackson / @chasing_ling of @EnthusiasticHE wrote this blog post for Santanu Vasant’s 13/09 #HEblogswap initiative. Thanks Rebecca for your advice!