Case study: Mathematical Institute - Online maths club and Fridays@2
The case study below provides details of how the Mathematical Institute supports students’ transition to studying mathematics at Oxford.
Oxford Online Maths Club (OOMC)
The OOMC is run by Dr James Munro (Admissions Coordinator for Maths at Oxford) and began in HT21. The club is targeted primarily at two sets of students: incoming students and school/college students thinking of applying to Maths at Oxford. In targeting these two groups of students, OOMC is both an outreach and transition initiative. OOMC supports students’ interest in mathematics and helps to demystify the study of maths at university.
Sessions are run as regular livestreams, which can be accessed afterwards via YouTube, with accompanying quizzes and exercises; some episodes feature current students. Participants can use Slido to comment and ask questions, with the option to do so anonymously. In addition to the on-screen presenter(s), student ambassadors moderate and answer the Slido questions. Each episode incudes recommended further reading and the OOMC webpage also acts as a convenient hub for further resources, such as the STEP support programme, NRICH, and Univ’s Staircase 12. Students can also access the practice problems some Oxford colleges send to incoming students over the summer prior to admission.
The OOMC was developed following the success of the MAT Livestream in summer 2020. This livestream focused on problem-solving skills for the MAT and aimed to combat some of the learning loss due to school closures during the pandemic. OOMC is on hiatus while the MAT Livestream runs again Aug–Nov 2021.
Menu-Style Problem Sheets
Menu-style problem sheets were piloted by Dr Vicky Neale in MT19 for the Prelims module Linear Algebra I. One rationale for the design was to encourage a growth, rather than fixed, mindset in students’ attitudes to their learning. The menu-style problem sheets effectively allow student to choose their own level of challenge, thus encouraging them to develop as autonomous learners. The problem sheets are divided into three sections: ‘starter’, ‘main course’ and ‘pudding’ and further details are outlined below:
The problems in the Starter section of the menu are designed for students to warm up or get additional practice if they are less confident in a particular mathematics topic. They are also useful for students’ later consolidation. Students are encouraged to discuss and collaborate with other students on these problems, which are not marked by the tutor and are completely optional. Solutions to the problems are provided online.
- Main course
This section is designed as a standard problem sheet in which students should think hard about the problems, collaborate with other students if desired, hand in their work, and discuss their work in a tutorial.
If, after the main course, students still have an appetite for further developing their mathematical skills, then the pudding section provides them with extension problems. These questions are not necessarily more challenging than those in the main course, but they might have a different style, require students to consider the material in a different way, or invite thinking ahead to future directions and applications for the material. Where appropriate, notes and hints are provided, but some questions do not lend themselves to having fully worked solutions.
Evaluation of the menu-style problem sheets
Student feedback on the problem sheets has been positive; of 108 students who responded to an evaluation questionnaire (just under half of the cohort), 50% stated they had tried at least some of the starter questions, and 60% said they had tried at least some of the pudding questions. Some students who had not tried the starter/pudding questions said that they intended to use them for revision purposes.
Given the positive student feedback, the problem sheet design was extended to Prelims Groups and Group Actions in HT20 and Prelims Analysis 1 in MT20. A similar structure is also being extended to Part C (fourth-year) modules in MT21 (with the sections renamed to A, B and C). As Part C students are a mixture of Oxford fourth-year undergraduates and master's students coming from other institutions, the section A questions are expected to be useful for revising and consolidating prerequisite knowledge. The section C questions will give opportunities for students to stretch their thinking and may be helpful for those considering research in the area.
Launched in MT18, these regular seminars are aimed at undergraduate and master’s students. The sessions are designed to help students to develop useful skills, to explore career possibilities, and to put their mathematics courses into a broader context. Topics range from studying independently to mathematical storytelling. Some seminars are applicable to particular year groups; some target first-years whereas others are aimed at master’s students. There is thus an expectation that students will not attend the entire series, but will select the sessions most relevant to them. The in-person seminars were run weekly during term-time at the Mathematical Institute, and refreshments were provided afterwards to promote informal discussion and a sense of academic community. During the pandemic, these sessions moved to an online format and the intensity was reduced to minimise digital fatigue for students and staff. Four fortnightly sessions ran in MT20 and one seminar was provided in HT21. Dr Vicky Neale has provided a case study on a virtual Fridays@2 session for the CTL, which can be accessed here.
A related seminar series, Fridays@4, is aimed at DPhil students and early career researchers and has been running since MT15.
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