Staff Editorial: Math tutoring for all levels

As early as Freshman Studies, Lawrence strongly encourages all students to seek help through peer tutoring in all areas. At the Center for Academic Success (CAS), quantitative, content, writing, and lab tutoring are available. Currently, it seems that there are no tutors assigned for Math courses above the 100 level, essentially barring students from access to student tutors for anything beyond introductory statistics, applied calculus and the calculus sequence. Additionally, the Mathematics department has specifically instructed the CAS to direct all general quantitative tutoring requests for courses above the 100 level to professors in the Mathematics department themselves. This diverges from the campus-wide culture of peer tutoring and collaboration.

Talking to some Mathematics professors, we learned that the reason is pedagogical: students taking upper-level math classes are expected to work through the problems independently. Some Mathematics professors argued that some tutors might prematurely give away solutions to the questions that are originally meant to challenge and develop the students’ problem-solving capabilities. Given the absence of graduate students at Lawrence, very few students possess the kind of mathematical maturity required to correctly guide the students’ thought processes. As possible compensation for the lack of tutoring, professors in the Math department provide extended open-office hours to establish a culture of students personally coming in and asking them questions. While this may sound reasonable, this restriction on student tutoring potentially inhibits students’ overall learning and conflicts with the interdisciplinary nature of the liberal arts education that Lawrence offers.

Instead of encouraging peer support, this practice discourages collaborative and pay-it-forward behaviors. Some quantitative tutors mentioned how they have previously helped, or wanted to help, other students but could not log hours for tutoring as they could not provide help “officially”. In classes above the 100 level which allow students to consult their peers on problem sets, students with friends who have taken the class and are willing to help are at an advantage. Sophomore Mathematics and Economics major, Matt Daley, stated that students might feel uncomfortable asking not only their professors but also their fellow students for help in higher-level challenging courses.

The Mathematics Department created a “Math Lab” as a dedicated drop-in tutoring session for students enrolled in any 100-level math course. According to the CAS, one of the main reasons why the Math Lab was set up was to provide a platform for students — who feel uncomfortable or otherwise intimidated to go to their professors — to seek help from fellow students instead. We believe that feelings of intimidation while approaching a professor can extend well beyond 100 level courses, so setting up a dedicated Math Lab does not address the issue unless it is also available to students taking classes beyond the 100 level.

The restriction by the Math department cannot exist in isolation as Math courses above the 100 level are relevant to and often taken by other majors as well. For instance, Economics majors may be interested in taking Probability Theory, or students in the natural sciences may want to take Differential Equations. It seems that this situation conflicts with the liberal arts philosophy of emphasizing interdisciplinary learning between different majors, as non-math majors — whose learning goals might be different — would not be able to access tutoring. Non-majors are also less likely to have close relationships with Math professors to ask for help when needed.

Although appropriate mathematical pedagogy and independent learning are important, a complete ban on tutoring above a certain level might be too extreme. For example, even though Physics, a department somewhat similar in content to Math, does not have tutors assigned for most of its upper level classes, it does have student tutoring for a number of classes above the 100 level.

Not all classes in Mathematics above the 100 level include proof based learning, not all students want to pursue further studies in the discipline, and not all students feel comfortable asking professors for help. As one quantitative tutor explained, the role of tutoring is not restricted to helping students come up with solutions but also extends to helping students articulate and perfect them before submission. Even in classes where student tutors do not have sufficient mathematical maturity to help students achieve mastery of the content, they can nonetheless play an important role in the proper structuring of solutions. As such, we believe that a review of the status-quo is imperative.