• July 29, 2014

'Yay, Math!'

What is the connection between an instructor's enthusiasm for the subject and student learning?

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Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

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Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

If you watched the first game of this year's World Series, you joined millions of people around the world in observing a moment of silence for Colleen Ritzer, the high-school math teacher from Danvers, Mass., who was killed by a 14-year old student on the school grounds. You would have observed the same moment of silence at a variety of sporting events and ceremonies in Massachusetts in late October.

But Ritzer's story seemed to take on a life that reached far beyond the confines of her home state. Stories about her appeared in newspapers across the country and overseas. I suspect that at least part of the national and international appeal of the story stemmed from unseemly curiosity: Was a lurid affair lurking beneath the surface of the murder? Was this another one of those unholy pairings of a student and a high-school teacher, all the more shocking because the usual gender roles were reversed?

But the police reports and the indictment of her killer have made clear that we'll find no such drama here. As the details of the crime have been gradually revealed to the public, the authorities investigating the case have stated unequivocally that Ritzer did nothing to provoke her fate. And her killer, in custody almost from Day 1, has remained silent on his motive. I suspect we find that especially difficult to bear. We are hard pressed to find an explanation for a terrible act of evil, and even though we know whom to blame, we cannot understand why he did it.

Part of our job involves demonstrating to students the more important idea that intellectual pursuits are worth their passion.

This tragedy hit home harder than most others that splash across the web, because Colleen Ritzer graduated two years ago from Assumption College, where I have taught for the past 13 years. Our paths never crossed. She majored in math with a concentration in secondary education, and I teach in the English department. But her death was a personal loss to many of my colleagues and to current and former students.

After the initial shock wore off, and I had heard from many people on the campus about her time here and her first years of teaching, I followed the links that some news stories had embedded in Ritzer's Twitter account (https://twitter.com/msritzermath), which she had created for her math students at Danvers High.

It is a heartbreaking read.

One finds in it statements that resonate painfully in the wake of her death, like this one from August 11: "No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind."

But mostly what you find, beyond the personal chatter that litters the pages of Twitter accounts, is math. She continually drew her students toward math with assignments, trivia, images, and more. In her Twitter biography, she describes herself as someone who is "often too excited about the topics I'm teaching," and her Twitter feed provides ample proof of that.

Her very last tweet, posted two days before she was killed, was nothing extraordinary. She provided a link to an answer key for a review packet and some extra problems for interested students. But before that, she posted a link to a corny math joke and added her own caption: "Yay math!"

In early October, in the Halloween spirit, she posted an image of a pumpkin with the letter pi carved into it. On October 1, she announced proudly that her geometry students had completed their first proofs, and she joked about her strange enthusiasm for this mathematical activity: "Cue the 'yay proofs,'" she tweeted. A few days before that, when a former student tweeted about having a difficult junior year in college, Ritzer offered a few words of encouragement.

You don't have to page very long through her Twitter feed to find abundant proof of her passion for math, for teaching, and for her students. It appears in many dozens of her tweets, and sometimes shines through even her most mundane comments, in the form of exclamation marks and emoticons.

Students who were interviewed in the wake of her death all made similar remarks about that characteristic of Ritzer's personality and teaching. "I actually looked forward to class," one former student said. "She was just such a kind person. She never—you would never see her without a smile on her face. She was so excited."

I would love to be able to tell you that the research literature on teaching and learning in higher education—or at any educational level—provides a clear demonstration that teachers' enthusiasm and passion for their subject matter translate into greater student learning. It seems like such an intuitive conclusion: Our enthusiasm for the subject matter will motivate our students to work harder, which will then translate into deeper learning and longer retention of course material.

Unfortunately, as even the most superficial of searches in the literature will reveal to you, no real evidence exists for that connection.

The small number of studies that have been conducted on the subject, and which compare ratings of teacher enthusiasm with student performance on exams or assignments, show little or no impact of enthusiasm on learning. Ken Bain, in his study of outstanding college teachers, found that "despite some popular beliefs to the contrary," personality variables like enthusiasm "played little or no role in successful teaching." You certainly can teach effectively by demonstrating enthusiasm and excitement for your discipline, but it's not necessary to use the college equivalent of exclamation marks and emoticons to inspire deep student learning.

And yet, after seeing Ritzer's tweets, reading articles about her, and talking with people who knew her on my campus, I can still make a case for the role that enthusiasm can play in our classrooms—even if we can't point to measurable outcomes.

I am a word person. I respect and admire all things mathematical, but they don't come easily to me. As I read through Ritzer's Twitter feed, though, I couldn't help being infected by her passion and wondering whether I was missing something. I clicked through to a few of her online problems just to see whether I remembered anything from my distant formal mathematics education, and was surprised to find some satisfaction in solving a problem or two. I can't promise I'll spend the winter break writing proofs, but the next time one of my children asks my wife and me for help with math homework, I won't slink quietly out of the room.

We are naturally curious animals, and I'm sure we all know from experience that watching someone engage passionately with a task can help inflame our own curiosity. So maybe we can't point to the mathematical enthusiasm of Colleen Ritzer and find empirical evidence to suggest that her students would outperform the students of a less exciting teacher. But raising test scores is not the only reason we teach.

We want students to wonder about the disciplines to which we have dedicated our lives. We want them to be curious about the questions we pursue. We want them to hanker after the skills we have worked to develop ourselves. And one way to open the door to those pursuits—even if it won't increase their test scores—may be to demonstrate our own enthusiasm for our fields.

In other words, before students can start learning, they have to wander into the room and wonder what's going on. Enthusiasm for our subject matter, especially in the early weeks of the semester, may provide that initial spark that they need to embark willingly on a semester's (or lifelong) journey.

But I would argue as well that part of our job involves demonstrating to students the more important idea that intellectual pursuits are worth their passion—that one can be as enthusiastic about math or literature as about going to a concert or a party. We are living in a world in which the ways to spend time seem to be increasing exponentially. Our students need help from us in recognizing that some pursuits are more worthy than others. Letting them see our enthusiasm for our subjects, both in and out of the classroom, can help them make such distinctions.

If that's all enthusiasm does for us as faculty members, it's enough for me. As I wrap up this semester's grades, and prepare to begin again in January, I hope to take inspiration from the mathematical passion of Colleen Ritzer and to offer my next round of students the kind of enthusiasm for my subject that shone through her short life's work.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College. His new book, Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty, was published this year by Harvard University Press.

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