Contributors: MAJ Josh Helms, former Assistant Professor of Mathematics, United States Military Academy at West Point and current analyst at the Center for Army Analysis; and Dr. Kimberly Turner Helms, US Army Comprehensive Soldier & Family Fitness, Directorate of Curriculum Lead for Educational Delivery & Learning Enhancement.

MAJ and Dr. Helms were recently named Cengage Learning Developmental Studies “Innovative Educators of the Year.” Dr. Helms will be attending the 2013 Cengage Learning’s TeamUP  2013 Developmental Education Conference: The Challenge of Change


When MAJ Josh Helms started teaching an introductory mathematics course at West Point, he was surprised how many of his first-year students did not complete their reading assignments. When he would ask questions or prompt student interaction in class, it was evident from the silence and shaky responses that many students were simply avoiding reading altogether. At that point, he took a step back and put himself in their shoes: what was causing their avoidance? When he himself was a student, what had helped him when academic material was difficult?

As he reflected, he was taking a teaching seminar through the Academy’s Center for Teaching Excellence, for which he was preparing a classroom research project. He also consulted with his wife, Dr. Kimberly Helms, who had been working with first-year postsecondary students for over a decade. They discussed the idea of creating a system of instructor-developed graduated advance organizers based upon the textbook. So named “Note Launchers” to appeal to military academy students’ penchant for artillery, at the beginning of the course, the organizers provided students more “clues” as to significant information from the textbook reading. As the term progressed, he reduced the amount of given material as students became more familiar with technical reading. Suspecting that providing the organizer alone would not suffice to engage in the reading, MAJ Helms also provided instruction in how to read technical material. Says MAJ Helms, “I believe you really need to read technical material about three times to fully understand it. The first read should be a quick skim to identify the topics that the author is going to cover in that section, paying little attention to the equations at this time. Next, during the second read, the student should focus on understanding definitions and theorems. Finally, in the third pass, the student should become highly active, attempting to redo examples worked in the text as a ‘crawl’ before trying to ‘walk’ with the homework problems.”

MAJ and Dr. Helms learned that students initially saw Note Launchers—which contributed only a small amount to their class participation grades—as additional work, and voiced resistance. Yet as students started seeing results from their efforts in better quiz grades, they began to realize how textbook note-taking could aid test preparation and success. In fact, other students in other sections of the course began asking for copies of Note Launchers. Most importantly, the research found that more than 70% of the students reported that Note Launchers encouraged them to take notes in other courses.

MAJ Helms, an active-duty Army officer, has moved on from teaching, as assignments in the Army are short-lived. His former supervisor reports that Note Launchers are still heavily used as a teaching tool in the West Point Department of Mathematics. Dr. Helms now directs the Learning Enhancement Program (LEP), a recent U.S. Army-sponsored pilot within its Comprehensive Soldier Fitness–Performance and Resilience Enhancement Program (CSF-PREP). The LEP blends performance enhancement skills, such as building confidence, setting goals, and integrating imagery performance, with evidence-based study skills to mobilize self-regulation so as to increase academic success and student retention in military education and training environments. The accelerated demands in many of these settings present a unique challenge for Soldiers, many of whom would be considered developmental or underprepared in a typical postsecondary setting. As many Soldiers must master technical subject matter akin to mathematics, advance organizers in the style of Note Launchers are a significant component of in the LEP curriculum.

Read more about the success of Note Launchers in the following journal article:
Helms, J. W., and Helms, K. T. (2010). Note launchers: Promoting active reading of mathematics textbooks. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 41, 109-119.

MAJ Josh Helms is former Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the United States Military Academy at West Point and is currently an analyst with the Center for Army Analysis at Fort Belvoir, VA. In his position as Assistant Professor, he taught principles of mathematical modeling to first-year cadets and probability and statistics, for which he was also course director, to second-year cadets. His research interests include the interdisciplinary application of mathematics and optimizing military operational processes.

Dr. Kimberly Turner Helms is currently Master Trainer for Education for the US Army CSF Performance and Resilience Enhancement Program, founded at the United States Military Academy, where she has created and leads the Learning Enhancement Program, which focuses on teaching self-regulated learning strategies to soldiers in academically rigorous Army schoolhouses. Her research interests include student transitions and success, student self-reflection, and best practices in study strategies.

Interested in learning how to better reach and engage your students? Discover Cengage Learning’s Peer-to-Peer Faculty Development & Consulting and their upcoming live events and webinarsHow do you promote active reading of textbooks? Have you tried any of MAJ and Dr. Helms’ strategies? Share your feedback in the comments below.