Guest Contributor: Daniel Roddin, Minnesota School of Business, Elk River Campus.
When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I am a teacher, which usually elicits a response of interest and admiration. Then comes the follow up question, “What do you teach?” to which I respond, “Math.” At this point any interest and admiration is usually quickly replaced with repugnance and repulsion which is quite evident by the contorted expression that is now present on their face. Sadly, this is a quite common reaction when it comes to people’s opinion of mathematics, however it is also the reason I have decided to become the mathematics instructor I am today.
My approach to teaching is that anyone, given the opportunity and the correct mode of instruction, can learn math. I try my best to offer multiple ways of approaching a problem and suggest real world application for how they might apply this mathematical tool in their future career. Unfortunately, this is often not enough for my students to learn the material that is presented in my courses. One course in particular, that has proven more challenging than others in the past, would be College Algebra.
Many of the students that come to our school are required to take College Algebra in order to gain a college math credit. This course gets a wide range of student ages, backgrounds, prospective careers, and most importantly prior mathematical content knowledge. I have some students who are right out of high school, and others that are coming back to school to further or start their profession. This prior knowledge (or lack thereof) causes a huge variance in my classroom.
When I first started teaching my College Algebra classes, I did what I was most comfortable with, and that was teaching to the middle of the class. Due to such a wide range of knowledge in the classroom this quickly proved to be futile, as the average when there is a very large variance present is not an effective measure of the whole population. Very quickly into the course, I would have maybe 10% of my students engaged and getting a lot out of the class, while the others would be split into those with their eyes glazed over as I bore them with information they had already seen in the past and the rest giving me blank stares as every word that comes out of my mouth goes over their head.
My predicament was apparent, and my goal was effortlessly recognized; engage more students and foster a more effective learning environment for my students. The goal, while simple was not so easily address. However, the more I thought about the situation it became evident that my students needed more time to work on the objectives presented to them. Thankfully, around the same time that I came to this realization, I had recently adopted a course management system through Cengage Learning called Enhanced WebAssign.
The key components of Enhanced WebAssign that helped me to achieve my ultimate goal was their Conditional Restrictions and Automatic Extensions. What these tools allowed me to do was permit my students who fully understood the material to gain access to the upcoming assignments, provided they scored high enough on the current one, and also offer the students who needed a little more time to complete the tasks an extension on the assignment. Having everything automated provided my students with a seamless continuation of their learning experience; no one had to stop learning and no one had to be left behind.
What I wound up seeing in the end was students who pushed themselves to their fullest potential, students who were able to spend more time on what they really were struggling with, and overall a more self-paced and individualized learning experience. How I was able to incorporate this method of presenting assignments to my students, was by spending a portion of the time introducing the material that was supposed to be covered that week (all examples were recorded for students to review if needed), then spending the rest of class as an open lab where I was able to help the students one on one. Seeing students, that at the start of the class felt they would never learn math, actually understand and feel confident about their mathematical abilities just confirmed my initial conviction, that anyone given the opportunity and the correct mode of instruction can learn math, with one added condition, if offered enough time.
In addition to offering my students more flexibility to learn the material at their own rate through differentiated instruction, I also incorporated a few other learning approaches, such as:

Flipped Classroom

This allowed me to step out of lecture mode by recording my own videos and creating lecture content for students to view prior to meeting in class, which enabled me to focus on giving the students more one on one instruction in an interactive lab based setting, where students were able to gain much needed practice in class prior to going home to complete their homework assignments.

Levels of Difficulty

Looking ahead at the objectives to be covered, I was able to create two levels of difficulty for my students to complete. Instead of having one very long assignment, I would have two separate ones, a longer assignment that covered the Core Skills that a student should achieve going through the current week’s objectives, and a shorter second assignment that would cover more Advanced Skills and. What worked well for me was to split the weekly assignment grade between the two so the Core Assignments were worth 70% of that week’s assignment grade, and the Advanced Assignments were worth 30%. This helped my students focus on one piece of the assignment at a time making it seem much less daunting, and offered the more skilled students a means to stretch their abilities.

Listening and Flexibility

In my opinion, the most important approach to teaching one can have is their willingness to stop speaking, start listening, and be flexible with how and when material is being covered. Look for cues while you are teaching that the students are either completely lost or bored with material, and be willing to step out of your planned lesson and spend more time on a topic than you intended, move more quickly toward the next topic, or use a different approach to present the material than you originally planned. The sooner you can notice these issues and the quicker you address them, the less time you will waste later on in the term, and most of all the more your students will learn and gain understanding.

Daniel Roddin is the sole Mathematics Instructor on the Minnesota School of Business Elk River Campus. He holds a B.S. in Applied Math and Statistics from Stony Brook University, and a M.S. in Mathematics Education from Western Governors University. Daniel has been a Mathematics Instructor for over three years and a mathematics tutor for over twelve years. Daniel is in charge of teaching classes ranging from developmental math, College Algebra, Statistics, Business Math, and other upper level college mathematics along with Microsoft Office Applications.

Have you tried differentiated instruction in your course? If so, how has it helped your students? Share your thoughts in the comments.