Amit Savkar: Subtracting the angst from learning math
“I don’t believe there is a perfect way to teach anything,” said Amit Savkar, associate professor--in-residence in mathematics, who brings an engineer’s problem-solving perspective to teaching calculus, a course that has frustrated many students.
Savkar, who won a teaching innovation award from the American Association of University Professors, with a citation from the U.S. Congress, has helped change an alarming outcome in introductory calculus courses at UConn. The DFW rate, or percentage of students earning a D or F or withdrawing, was once 32 percent (2013-2014) but now has shrunk to 10-15 percent at the Storrs campus.
To help reverse the failing trend, he created interventions, such as videos that walk students through math concepts and computer graphics that show how changing an equation can alter outcomes. These go to the heart of what he believes hampers students in approaching calculus: They enter college without the basic algebra skills needed to understand more advanced math.
Identifying the problem
He first encountered that problem as a teaching assistant in mechanical engineering, where he earned his PhD at UConn in 2007. Undergraduates would come to him with a differential equation they had set up but couldn’t solve. With support from the School of Engineering, he reached out to the math department to find out why.
He ended up working as a TA in math, under (now retired) Prof. Charles Vinsonhaler and receiving guidance from Prof. Thomas DeFranco, former dean and now professor of mathematics education in the Neag School of Education. Learning how to teach math more effectively intrigued Savkar, who had a different math background from most American students.
“Growing up in India, math was not an issue you had,” he said. “I would not have passed the second grade if I hadn’t mastered my fractions.”
Cultural differences contribute to that, he said. In the U.S., skill in math has not been seen as a requirement for getting a good job. In India, math knowledge is recognized as the basis for becoming a doctor or engineer, jobs that are paths out of poverty.
But the world has changed, technology has advanced, and a growing number of STEM-focused jobs (science, technology, engineering and math) in the U.S. require better math skills. Helping students gain the skills they need has become something of a mission for Savkar, who turned down a high-paying job in industry to stay at UConn and teach math. He is nearly finished with his second Ph.D., this time from the Neag School of Education, as he studies educational assessment, pedagogy and how to apply technology to help students learn.
“Technology by itself does nothing,” he said. “You need to use it to help your pedagogy.”
Fine tuning the data
Working with a math teaching assistant, Jonathan Judge, he developed a database, the Data Integration Assessment System, or DIAS, that tracks student performance down to how they perform on every question in every exam in pre-calculus and calculus 1-3. That way, he can see where they are struggling. He merges the information with demographic data from every school district and school in Connecticut to see the strengths and weaknesses in what students have been taught and where they should be placed in math courses.
But diagnosing correct course placement for students is only part of the problem.
“I am using what I’m learning to create interventions,” Savkar said. These include tailored instruction sheets, videos, flash cards, and website tools. In some videos, students must pause and take a quiz that re-directs them to the section of the video dealing with the problems they miss on the quiz.
Context is also important and often missing in teaching math, he has found. He once asked a group of high school teachers to answer the question, can 1 + 3 = 40? Most said no. Three said, maybe. But the answer could be, yes – one quarter plus three nickels equals 40 cents, he noted.
So far, he and Andrew Jaramillo, assistant professor-in-residence of math at the Hartford campus, have created 114 foundational videos explaining what everyone should know about math. Savkar is looking at new ways to spread his approach to teaching math to other students around the state. The math department has been extremely supportive, he said, in helping him scale his techniques. He is also collaborating on a pre-calculus textbook.
Online learning is another area he has explored. He has created three online courses since 2012, including calculus and courses for business and economics majors.
“I love to teach in an in-person classroom, but I love the challenge of an online classroom from the perspective of making it as engaging,” he said. He uses discussion boards, interactive quizzes and worksheets, and holds Web office hours that allow students to ask questions in a live format.
The challenge is to foster interaction and keep the online content abreast of students’ needs, based on their feedback. That is also how he treats in-person classes. Every semester he changes his class notes to adapt to the current crop of students and their needs. His teaching philosophy is to evolve with the students. He calls teaching and learning “an extremely symbiotic process.”
“You have to relate to students,” he said. “There is so much we don’t know about how students learn.”
Learn more about Amit Savkar
Try some of his math tools
Visualizing a problem: http://www.math.uconn.edu/~dnichols/amit/quadricsurfaces.html