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Does the math teacher make the difference?

  1. Feb 26, 2012 #1
    I was at my school's tutoring center and heard these two guys agreeing on how math teachers make a huge difference on how well you're going to do in whatever math class you're taking. Do you agree or disagree?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 26, 2012 #2
    People who only study from their classes will certainly be affected by the teacher. If the teacher just presents formulas and tells you what to do with them then you won't understand anything and you'll do poorly, if they derive formulas, explain their motivation and explain why they're useful then the you will understand and you'll do well, assuming you put in some effort on your side.

    If you're using a textbook then, again, it's based on how well the author presents the material.

    No one is born with some supernatural ability to do maths, maths is a man made construct, just like guitar, that you need to practice and learn about - good teachers and good textbooks just makes that job easier.
  4. Feb 26, 2012 #3
    If you have a bad teacher, who is not teaching from a set textbook, then that can make a huge difference! It's even worse if the teacher seems like a good teacher, but they are teaching from the wrong textbook... (my only explanation for one Math exam I didn't do well in... always check the syllabus and past exam papers...)
  5. Feb 26, 2012 #4


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    Actual studies have shown that the quality of the teacher, while is certainly has an effect, is not as important as we might think. If a teacher is not very good, the good students will spend more time reading and working on their own which is always a valuable skill. Poor students will do slightly worse under a poor teacher than a good but not a great deal.
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 27, 2012
  6. Feb 26, 2012 #5
    For the majority of my instructors, no, not a huge difference. However, I have had a few exceptions where the teachings are just phenomenal and make me 1) understand the material on a deeper level and 2) inspire me to study more! That makes a very big difference.
  7. Feb 26, 2012 #6
    personally I will take any teacher no matter what their ratemyprofessor.com ratings say UNLESS they are just grouchy or rude or whatever, as long as I can talk to the professor and they are nice people, I usually ignore their teaching ability
  8. Feb 26, 2012 #7


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    Hey MathHeroine and welcome to the forums.

    My opinion is that everyone you're involved with makes a difference.

    Also it doesn't have to strictly a 'physical involvement': if you read textbooks, blogs, forums etc then that will be part of your influence.

    Everything you come in contact with, your past experiences, your upbringing in addition to your teachers will help.

    For example you might have a great teacher but if you have a bad attitude and throw away all the advice and assistance, then yeah you won't necessarily make use of having a good teacher.

    But then again you could be very persistant, have a great attitude, a lot of initiative and still go very very well without having a decent teacher.

    One has to consider the whole spectrum and not just an isolated facet of it.
  9. Feb 27, 2012 #8


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    Style is very important to me for mathematics professors. As a physicist approaching mathematics, I like to reason intuitively and try to feel a problem out before jumping into abstract proofs. Consequently, I do well in classes with professors who act similarly, and rather struggle otherwise. This is just one example, but I like it because it concretely shows the difference in teaching styles.
  10. Feb 27, 2012 #9


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    It depends on how you define a good teacher and what measure of performance is used. I read a great study from a military academy, where they could eliminate things like selection biases by randomizing students to instructors, and eliminated variation in course sequencing because all of the students had to take the same courses in the same order. They followed them longitudinally. The instructors perceived (by student evaluations) as better were the ones that prepared them better for the common exam all sections took for a course. The ones who were perceived as worse or harder teachers generally had students who didn't perform as well on the common exam. However, when the students were followed to the next year's courses, those with the harder first year instructors performed better at recalling principles from the first course needed to succeed in the second course. They had worked harder to learn in first year rather than being taught to the test or just memorizing enough to pass the test, so retained what they learned. So, the difference in teaching and student performance depended on whether it was short-term test scores or long-term retention of the material that was measured.

    The study was actually intended to measure the validity of student evaluations of instruction. I can't remember where I saw it published to cite it though.
  11. Feb 27, 2012 #10
    As a student, I would have to say that the math teacher does make a difference, but that's not an excuse to make an excuse. I have had a couple of good teachers, and a couple of bad ones. The worst experience was with a teacher that was "faking it."

    I realized that he was faking it when I went online to watch the MIT lectures, and recognized my teacher's lecture as having been lifted from it almost verbatim. I recognize that this happens, as subjects such as physics and math tend to recycle a lot of problems over the years...but this was uncanny: my teacher's English wasn't all that good, and when asked for clarification he didn't seem to understand the meaning of some of his own words.

    This is how I know I have a bad teacher: if I read ahead and understand, then go to class and become confused, the teacher sucks.
  12. Feb 27, 2012 #11
    not that this has to due with the quality of teaching ability, but this story is more about the general quality of the professor and how little he cared about the students he was teaching:

    I have always been a self motivating learner. when I took ODEs freshman year of college, the prof said we didn't have to come to class, so I didn't. I came for the review sessions before the exams, then got As on the exams and went on with my life, no worries, got an A in the course.

    sophomore year came and I enrolled in (sophomore level) classical mechanics. the prof started the lecture right away after handing out the syllabus (and not talking about it at all). The syllabus stated that attendance was optional and grades will be determined: 30% exam 1, 30% exam 2, 40% final. I did the same thing I did for my ODE class, went to review sessions, got an A, B+, and A- on the three exams ... so I should have been looking at probably an A- for the course right?

    I ended up getting an F on my transcript and thought it was some mistake, when I got back to school in January, I talked to him, and the chair of the physics department. Evidently the first day of class, the prof mistakenly distributed the syllabus from when he taught it two fall semesters before. I had noticed the date on the top of the paper (because I frequently referenced it throughout the semester as I read the proper sections in the book) but i thought the prof was just too lazy or didn't notice he forgot to change the date when he reused the syllabus.

    The man never informed me that he had changed the syllabus! ... now how bloody hard is it to send an email with the change? or when you administer the first exam to say, "hey, [bpatrick], i haven't seen you in class, don't you care about your participation grade? ... even with straight As on the exams you'll only get a D given the weight of attendance and homework!", but not a single word for the professor the entire semester, hell, I even went to his office hours once and asked for advice on solving a problem I was working on. All he said was, "we did something like this in class last Wednesday, why don't you come to class or get notes from another student."

    I never ended up getting the grade changed (the university gave an option to retake up to 2 courses that you received a C- or lower in), but by the next fall, I had already completed my minor in physics and the same prof was teaching the course again. I had no desire to be in the same room with that man for an entire semester wasting my time on stuff I already could do, and needed to be taking another course that fall in my major that was offered at the same time.

    overall, i say that's a pretty awful teacher and just an ahole in general. Until then, I was thinking about double majoring in physics and possibly going to grad school in physics, but when that happened, I ended up focusing on my music instead. It's amazing what a single teacher can do, haha.
  13. Feb 27, 2012 #12
    I find it really difficult to imagine they wouldn't consider a grade change, or an incomplete, or something given the syllabus didn't mention participation. That's garbagety =/
  14. Feb 27, 2012 #13
    the department chair did consider it, but it came down to a few main things:
    - the prof i had was the assistant chair (didn't mention that) so he had some clout
    - I didn't go to a single class, so the department chair didn't have much sympathy for me
    - I wasn't a physics major (pretty sure that would have made a difference although it shouldn't)
    - I had an opportunity (via university policy) to retake it and replace the grade if I chose to do that
  15. Feb 27, 2012 #14
    I've had the experience that some math teachers make things harder than it seems. My calc 1 and 2 professors were incredible teaching to my style which is visual and intuitive. I need a simple concept and picture then I can start getting more abstract. My diffy Q teacher didn't do this at all and it was a cannonball into the deep end with abstraction and I really struggled at first because I had to find other means of learning. I have a friend that's the complete of my style of learning. He always says a picture gives him nothing, he needs the logical abstract reasoning and then learns it incredibly fast. The teacher depends on what style of learning is best for which specific student.
  16. Feb 27, 2012 #15
    Hey Moonbear, if you do find that study can you post it? I would love to read it.
  17. Feb 27, 2012 #16
    This is a subtle point. Not everyone rates teachers on the same criteria.

    Yes, many students simply rate based on how hard they are forced to work. However, I suspect better students will rate a professor on how well they teach and how fairly they test (note that fair does not equal easy).

    I am sure your study is correct in that discomfort at working hard is not a good indicator of class quality. However, a professor who is poor at teaching, or who has unfair expectations, can genuinely ruin a good student's interest in a subject.
  18. Feb 27, 2012 #17
    A good teacher is one who can clear all your doubts and has the ability to convince you that what he is telling is right.If he does not know something he should clearly say that he does not ,suggest some book to refer or postpone it for later rather than misguiding the student.

    When it comes to ruining interest,that is what I suffered in chemistry in grade 9,10 at school.My teacher rather than explaining anything used to dictate notes and ask questions to humiliate students rather than test them.She did not even entertain a doubt ,just looked to complete the syllabus.Just opposite happened in physics in which I am deeply interested now.A teacher can definitely affect your interest in any subject.
  19. Mar 7, 2012 #18
    math teacher will change many things in ur life. I have ever met that kind of teacher.
  20. Mar 7, 2012 #19

    Yup. Giant ahole because YOU decided you were too good for lecture, and this professor didn't kiss your *** to get you to come to lecture. That's your responsibility brosef, not his.
  21. Mar 7, 2012 #20


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    I do believe the teacher can make a difference, but the same teacher will not make the same difference to every student. The thing to seek is the good relationship, or the good match between student and teacher, since not every student learns in the same way, nor seeks the same outcome.

    Thus I found the study mentioned by Moonbear completely in line with what I have observed over my career, When I read teacher evaluations of professors in order to give awards or promotions, I observed that overwhelmingly, the highest evaluations went to the professors who gave the highest grades. Those professors apparently had the happiest students. In some cases those professors were also excellent at explaining the material, but they tested that material in a far less challenging way than others did. In those cases their grades did not discriminate at all between merely average good students and really excellent ones as essentially everyone got an A.

    There were also exceptions however. There were some professors who were both challenging and excellent and this was noted by the students who said the professor's class was not easy but they felt the professor went out of her/his way to give the students every chance to learn as much as possible. When awarding prizes for teaching I looked for these latter instances, but they were only a small subset of the teachers.

    Indeed since promotions and raises and hiring depend in many cases at least partly on these evaluations, most teachers have apparently learned to placate the students with easier classes, and not to make the grade depend on really excellent performance.

    So as Moonbear made clear, the meaning of the term "good teacher" depends on what the evaluator is looking for: clear explanations, deep insight, more advanced versions of material than found in books, higher grades than average or than deserved, willingness to overlook lazy performance or absences, concern for the student's needs and feelings,....

    Years ago I wrote an essay "On teaching" that was published by request of one of my students then in the math ed department. It is #8 under class notes on this page:


    In it I refer to the passage in scripture where Jesus rebukes a follower for calling him "good teacher", responding none is actually good except God.
    Last edited: Mar 7, 2012
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