Teaching and Learning Symposium

Author: 
Kelly Rankin

On Nov. 5, the University of Toronto will host its annual Teaching and Learning Symposium where faculty and staff exchange ideas and novel approaches to teaching. Among the sessions offered this year is Integrating transferable skills: introducing quantitative reasoning in humanities courses.

One of the speakers in that session is Professor Jeffrey Rosenthal who teaches Why Numbers Matter, a new statistics course on quantitative reasoning designed for students lacking confidence in math skills. He spoke with U of T News recently about his unique style of teaching and some of his favourite memories both as a teacher and a student. 

The title of your session evokes an image of parents sneaking healthy ingredients like vegetables into snack recipes. Is quantitative reasoning broccoli for humanities students?

Well, it's certainly true that some students have a strong aversion to mathematical thinking and sometimes even a fear of it, even though it is so important. When I wrote my book for the general public, Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities, I had to constantly remind myself to present ideas in ways that were interesting and entertaining without being intimidating or overly difficult. And now that I'm teaching quantitative reasoning to humanities students, I have to remind myself of that same thing, again and again.

So what does Drake have to do with math? Or poetry?

Well, I'm using ownership of Drake’s music as an example of something we might wish to take a survey about. That way, the students can be subjects of the experiment and hopefully find it more engaging than, say, a medical study that they might not be interested in. 

And, I'm using the syllable breakdown of poems as a way to understand certain counting principles and even the famous Fibonacci sequence, thus giving the students a more concrete way to think about such things.

In all of these cases, I'm trying to come up with examples to motivate the subject in ways that I hope the students can relate to.

What is the best question a student has asked you in a lecture?

My favourite questions are ones which show that the student has thought about the material in a different way, or noticed something that I didn't. Just last week, a student asked me why one calculation led to a larger answer than another one, although he thought it should be smaller. It turned out that I had written down the wrong figure and the student was correct. In class I hadn't emphasised the comparison of the two figures, so I was impressed that the student thought of comparing them himself.

What is the most useful thing a student has ever said to you?

I can be strongly affected by students' emotional reactions and feelings and opinions, though I don't think the students realise this.

I remember once teaching a large introductory statistics course, and I explained some concept and one student exclaimed "Ohhhhhhhhhhh!" She was pleased to have learned something interesting and I was delighted that she cared so much about the material.

Do you think these ohhhh moments are particular to math?

No, I think excitement about learning comes in many forms and can relate to many different subjects and topics.

Who was your favourite teacher?

I have been fortunate enough to have many great teachers, at several schools, who have shaped my thinking in so many ways. So it's hard to choose. 

But if I have to pick just one, then I think I will go with Nathan Isgur, who taught me first and second year physics here at U of T. He had a kind and gentle manner and his love of both the subject and his students always shone through.  Everything I know about quantum mechanics, I learned from him. Very sadly, he died of cancer in 2001 at the age of 54, but I will never forget him.

For more information about the seventh annual Teaching and Learning Symposium: Higher Goals for Higher Learning, see the Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation’s website.

You can also read more about Rosenthal’s teaching.