Sunday, August 3, 2014

Math Mama's Gazette - Issue Number One

I am creating a two-page newsletter, aimed at community college math students, which I'll be handing out to students, both at our Math Jam program these two weeks before the fall semester, and at the math lab during the semester.

I'm happy to share it with others. I hope to have one issue for each week of the fall semester, 15 to 17 issues. If you use  it, you'll have to change the bits that refer to my college. And please include this line: "Math Mama is Sue VanHattum, who blogs at" My copy is two-column. You can see it here. (Let me know if that link isn't enough to get you an editable copy.)

Like it? Please let me know.

Math Mama’s Gazette
Issue Number 1, August 4, 2014

Math isn’t news, why a newspaper?
Well, there’s lots about math that’s news to most folks, and a gazette sounded fun. I’m all about fun, so I decided to go for it.
This first issue and the next few will have lots of ideas (some surprising) about how people learn math. If you’ve never enjoyed math, or never done very well with it, try changing your perspective with some of these tips. You might like the results.
Every issue will include a not-so-traditional advice column, a puzzle, and a comic, newspa­per favorites. There will also be links to cool math stuff online.

A Few Math Myths
Myth #1: Learning math is learning how to follow procedures - there's a lot to memorize.
Myth #2: Some people have a 'math mind' and some don't. (A more unfortunate variant of this is: Men are better at math than women.)
Myth #3: Math requires simple logic; intuition and creativity have no place.
Myth #4: There is one right way to do math problems.
Myth #5: I don’t need to know math - I’ve got my calculator and the Internet.
Myth #6: Mathematicians do problems quickly, in their heads, by working alone until the problem is solved.

In this issue, we’ll address myth number one. (Keep coming back for more myth-busting.)

What is math? Is it procedures?
Most people think it’s adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing; knowing your times tables; knowing how to divide fractions; knowing how to follow the rules to find the an­swer.  These bits are one tiny corner of the world of math.
Math is seeing patterns, solving puzzles, using logic, finding ways to connect disparate ideas, and so much more. People who do math play with infinity, shapes, map coloring, tiling, and probability; they analyze how things change over time, or how one particular change will affect a whole system.
Math is about concepts, connections, patterns. It can be a game, a language, an art form. Everything is connected, often in surprising and beautiful ways.

What do you memorize?
I went into math because I have a bad memory. If I had trusted my memory to be up to it, I think I would have gone into science.
[continued on back]

Puzzle: Math Without Words
by James Tanton (

Math Mama’s Advice
Dear Math Mama, I am a math tutor at a small Los Angeles community college. The students I have who need the most help are older women who are back in college, or here for the first time, who have had unpleasant math experiences in their youth. Do you have any ideas for us?
- Paula

Dear Paula, I had quite a few older women in one class last fall, and I had them in mind as I thought about your question.
First, I think it's important to address their fears directly. I recommend Managing the Mean Math Blues, by Cheryl Ooten, or Overcoming Math Anxiety, by Sheila Tobias. You can get used copies online for $3 or $4. My favorite site for that is
I also recommend an audio track I created, called Math Relax. It's a guided meditation to help people overcome math anxiety. It works best if the student listens to it every night for a few weeks. (Go to mathmamawrites.blogspot. com, and look on the right-hand side for the Math Relax audio track. It’s free.)
I think helping them lead from their strengths might be even more important, though. I try to help each class become a community. Some groups take off with it, and others don't. The older students know what they want, and are ready to go with it.
This particular class became an amazing community. Most days they came in over an hour early (we were so lucky the classroom was empty before their class!) and studied together. One of the students led the group, and even though I like getting questions in class, they felt freer to ask questions in their group. They were each determined to ‘get it’, and kept at it until they did.
I asked my students what advice I might offer you, and they said that working together was key. They said keeping each other going when it got tough was the most important thing they did for each other.

If you tutor one-on-one, you could still help this dynamic along by introducing the students to each other. Have you heard that “the one do­ing the most work is the one doing the most learning”? That would mean that you learn more from tutoring than they do - unless you can get them helping each other.
Perhaps if you recommend some of your favor­ite online resources for them to check out, they'll discover things that excite them. Many of my students really like watching math vid­eos. Check out,,, or (my favorite)
Good luck, and thanks for writing.
- Math Mama

Have a question for Math Mama? Deliver it to Sue VanHattum, in AA-210, and Math Mama will answer it in the next issue!

What do you memorize?    [continued from front]
But I figured there was no way I could memorize all those bones and muscles, chemical reactions, and so on.  So I stuck with math.
You need to know your multiplication facts to be able to factor numbers and polynomials smoothly. (If you don’t know them, there are easy ways to commit them to memory now. Professor VanHattum has a handout on this.) You’ll want to know that the x-axis is horizon­tal, and the y-axis is vertical, for algebra. And in trigonometry you’ll need to memorize a few definitions. Most everything else is more about understanding the connections than about memorizing.


Friday, August 1, 2014

A Sloppy Computerized Test

My college is running a program called Math Jam for two weeks before the semester begins, and it sounds fabulous. I'll be teaching it for the first time, starting on Monday. We use MyMathLab, and our director said students in prior years (who loved Math Jam) found the program helpful. So I will use it with my students next week, along with lots of other, more interesting mathematical explorations.

I checked out the first test just now, and got below 90% in a Beginning Algebra, or perhaps pre-algebra, topic. Let's look at why. I had 3 questions at least partly wrong out of 22.

On an equilateral triangle, they asked for the height. I found it, rounded to tenths as requested, and got that right. Then they wanted me to find the area using the rounded answer. I did not do that. I did what I teach my students to do: Use the exact answer in your calculations, and only round at the end. My answer did not match theirs.

I can't get back to their problem now, so I will make one that's similar. Suppose the sides are length 6in. Then the height is 6*√3, or 10.3923.... If they are asking us to round to hundredths, we'd report 10.39in for the height. Now they want area, and they ask me to use my 10.39 as the height. But the proper area (in is 62.3538... and by their method we'd get 62.34 I put the proper answer of 10.35 and got it wrong.

I got 0.55 as an answer, which they asked me to round to tenths. Both 0.5 and 0.6 should be right, as 0.55 is exactly in the middle of these. But only 0.6 counts as right on this test, and I had (randomly) chosen 0.5.

This one is the most interesting. They gave the diagram below, which looks a bit badly done to me. The right angle mark toward the left does not seem to coincide with the line below it, making it seem like the angle isn't really a right angle. Not a big problem, I can still assume a right angle there. But they have only marked two right angles. I do not believe I have enough information to determine the area of this figure unless I know more about the angles. I believe the one unmarked line segment has an unknown length. I think they meant to show two attached parallelograms (or a parallelogram attached to a rectangle), but that's not a given from this diagram.

What do you think?

I think they need to learn more about rounding, and more about what one can read from a figure. Hmm... I wonder if all their tests will be this sloppy.

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