Taking the shock out of teaching maths

15 March 2017 | StoryYusuf Omar. Photo Robyn Walker.
​​​​​​​Dr Jonathan Shock aims to remove the notoriety from one of UCT's most feared courses: MAM1001W, the dreaded whole-year maths course for first-years students.
​​​​​​​Dr Jonathan Shock aims to remove the notoriety from one of UCT's most feared courses: MAM1001W, the dreaded whole-year maths course for first-years students.

2016 was a great year for teaching at UCT, at least if you go by the number of people that won a Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA).

Dr Jonathan Shock, who convenes a dreaded first-year mathematics course, was one of six awardees for 2016. This after 64 nominations were submitted for the coveted award. Yusuf Omar spoke to the senior lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics about what makes his teaching tick.

Why did you become a teacher?

I wanted to be a researcher, first and foremost, and teaching came with the job. While it had not been why I got into this career, it quickly became a hugely important and very enjoyable part of it. The idea of being able to open people's minds and expand their worldview, even via a subject as abstract as mathematics, was something which really appealed to me.

What do you enjoy about teaching?

The thing that I enjoy most is also often the thing which is most challenging. How do I get into the minds of students who come from such different educational, social and cultural backgrounds? How do I teach a class of 200 to 300 students who see this subject in such different ways? I enjoy taking a student who is very fearful of the topic and getting them to understand that they can succeed at it.

What do you believe makes a good teacher?

Empathy. I think that a good teacher must be able to see a subject from their students' points of view. I don't always succeed, but it is always my goal to have in mind what the student will and won't know during a lecture.

How would you describe your teaching style?

Chalk and talk. I like to use the blackboard as it keeps the pace more manageable. I like to talk a lot, and I don't expect students to get every detail during a class. I want them to come away at the end of a class with a general idea as to how a concept works. They should then be able to figure out the details by going through the notes that I produce for them after the class. Mathematics builds through practice and intuition, and the practice element of it has to be done outside of the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable moment in the classroom.

I remember talking about a particular topic called Taylor polynomials – a way by which we can write a potentially complex mathematical object into a sum of very simple pieces. I talked through the underlying ideas to a completely hushed class, everybody staring, straining their brains to follow. When I stopped, I heard a gasp from a woman at the front of the class. She turned to me, eyes open and said, “Wow, man ... that's deep!” It was a lovely reaction to get.

What is the importance of the recognition that comes with the DTA?

Teaching takes a great deal of effort, and for me, it is an experimental process. Some experiments work, and some experiments fail miserably. I have certainly tried many things in the classroom which didn't work at all, but some have been very positive. Receiving the DTA means that this experimentation is valued, and I think that to be an effective teacher, we need the freedom to find what fits for us, and our students.

How do you balance teaching and research?

To be honest, balance is one of the hardest parts of the job. The administration which comes with teaching and convening a large course is hugely time intensive, and so having focused time to research is not easy. I try and take extended chunks of time to do my research, outside of teaching time.

When he's not teaching, what does Jonathan Shock do?

Cooking and the gym are my two, complementary, ways to relax. I also try and get away for a weekend of reading in the countryside as often as possible.

Taking the shock out of teaching maths

One first-year maths course that you teach is notorious. How have you endeavoured to teach it differently?

I think that it's very important to let students know that they absolutely have what it takes to succeed. I think that a large problem with MAM1000W has simply been its notoriety. It is a fast-paced course and we pack in a lot, but I truly believe that just about every student who takes it not only has the ability to pass, but to pass well. Starting the year off in a good way is key, so I strive as a convenor to make people understand that they have a lot of support around them in terms of resources and that they can and should use these resources as much as possible.

Is there anything else you would like to add or mention?

Only that as a lecturer, I have received a lot of amazing support and feedback from many other lecturers as well as students. This is a strange profession, where we are expected to be experts in the field of teaching though we have never received any formal training. Without good communication channels between students and lecturers, this is a very difficult task. So I urge all students to be as open as possible to giving useful and constructive feedback to their lecturers whenever it is called for.

I, for one, am always happy to hear how I could be doing a better job. It's the only way I can improve.

 

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Distinguished Teacher Award

 

The Distinguished Teacher Award is the highest accolade awarded to teaching staff at all levels within the university. Through the award, the University of Cape Town acknowledges the primary place of teaching and learning in the university’s work.

Read more about the award.

 

2018


‘Teaching swept me off my feet’ Despite the challenges, Anneliese Schauerte – a recipient of UCT’s Distinguished Teacher Award for 2018 – says she’s right where she’s meant to be. 19 Jun 2019
‘No stupid questions’ in Distinguished Teacher’s classes Curiosity, responding to change, technology and empathy are what 2018 Distinguished Teacher Award recipient Jeff Murugan says make an excellent teacher. 19 Jun 2019
 

2017


Discovering purpose and potential Trauma surgeon Professor Pradeep Navsaria, one of four 2017 Distinguished Teacher awardees, describes himself as ʻan accidental or incidental teacherʼ. 08 Jun 2018
Top teaching honour for celebrated surgeon Lead from the front, support from behind, says acclaimed teacher and spinal surgeon Professor Robert Dunn, who was recently honoured with a Distinguished Teacher Award. 08 Jun 2018
Distinguished physics teacher leaves his mark Relaxed, irreverent, interactive, engaging. That’s how physics lecturer Gregor Leigh describes his teaching style. Leigh is one of four new Distinguished Teacher awardees. 05 Jun 2018
Voting creativity and engagement into law Distinguished Teacher awardee Associate Professor Jacqueline Yeats didn’t plan to become a teacher, but almost 13 years later she wouldn’t have it any other way. 04 Jun 2018
 

2016


Put students at the heart of pedagogy Distinguished Teacher Awardee Dr Janice McMillan's work is not discipline-specific; rather it's about transformative teaching and how we engage the wider world beyond the university. This community-based learning encourages students to think about themselves simultaneously as students, emerging professionals and active citizens. 30 Mar 2017
Number's up for scary statistics Senior lecturer Dr Miguel Lacerda teaches statistics with an artful combination of precision and creativity. 27 Mar 2017
Tax time made easier Associate Professor Ryan Kruger has taught on every finance course offered at an undergraduate level, which he says has allowed him an understanding of the development that students undergo over the course of their academic careers. 24 Mar 2017
Winfield teaches ethical accounting Associate Professor Jimmy Winfield, an accounting scholar at UCT, runs a course called Business Ethics which aims to open his students’ minds a little 24 Mar 2017
The formula to make maths fun Dr David Erwin’s philosophy of creating a comfortable classroom, keeping students focused, and developing the structures they need to succeed is visible in his teaching. 22 Mar 2017
Taking the shock out of teaching maths Dr Jonathan Shock, who convenes a dreaded first-year mathematics course, was one of six DTA awardees for 2016. 15 Mar 2017
   

2015


'A good teacher? Someone who teaches to learn' Dr Joanne Hardman of the School of Education gives us a peek into her classroom and talks about her teaching style, what makes a good teacher and her five top tips for teachers 30 Nov 2015
'If learning is not engaging it is not happening' Associate Professor Jacqui Kew from the College of Accounting engages her students by asking questions in the classroom. 30 Nov 2015
Find the 'amazing' in all you study and teach Dr Azila (Tzili) Reisenberger, Head of Hebrew in the School of Languages and Literature, says that her classes are like communities and she's always on the lookout for that amazing bit of information to impart when she's teaching. 30 Nov 2015
Knowledge is not fixed in textbooks Dr Adam West of the Department of Biological Sciences says that a teacher’s job is to help students realise that the creation of scientific knowledge is on-going and dynamic, and that they have a role to play in that. 30 Nov 2015
 

2014


Dr Spencer Wheaton – Senior Lecturer, Department of Physics Dr Spencer Wheaton creates multi-dimensional, active experiences for students by making connections with the real world and linking physics to their major subjects. 01 Dec 2014
Assoc Prof James Gain – Deputy Head of the Department of Computer Science Assoc Prof James Gain believes that it is important to create the type of environment where students are not afraid to ask questions. 01 Dec 2014
Prof Delawir Kahn – Head of the Department of Surgery For Prof Delawir Kahn, being a surgeon and being a teacher are intricately intertwined. 01 Dec 2014
Dr Linda Ronnie – Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Business Dr Linda Ronnie believes that an eagerness to learn is vital to being a great teacher. 01 Dec 2014
 

2013


Dr Helen Macdonald – Anthropology Dr Helen Macdonald's teaching portfolio and her students' and colleagues' comments all indicate clearly that she is as passionate about her teaching as she is about her discipline, anthropology. 09 Dec 2013
Dr Hedley Twidle – English language & literature Dr Hedley Twidle believes that teaching literature in English should be a fluid and evolving thing. 09 Dec 2013
Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk – Film and Media Studies Dr Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk is described as an inspirational teacher of film studies, film production and screen-writing whose energy, enthusiasm, deep generosity and passion for cinema have captivated a generation of students. 09 Dec 2013
Paul Maughan – Accounting Paul Maughan’s teaching philosophy is underpinned by a fundamental insight: Ken Bain’s view that effective teaching results in deep learning that is best achieved through the disruption of existing mental models. 09 Dec 2013
 

2012


Professor John Higgins – English Literature Professor John Higgins believes that what counts is the question of identity, in a view of teaching as process and not transmission. 12 Dec 2012
Dr Jeremy Wanderer – Department of Philosophy Dr Jeremy Wanderer believes that it is possible for academic life to be set up in a way that does not lead academics to experience a tension between teaching and research. 12 Dec 2012
Dr Zenda Woodman – Department of Molecular and Cell Biology Students working under the tutelage of Dr Zenda Woodman have remarked on her use of humour to create a safe environment for learning. 12 Dec 2012
 

2011


Quartet of outstanding teachers féted On the 30th anniversary of UCT’s Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA), four recipients joined the ranks. 12 Dec 2011
 

2010


Medical teachers grab 2010 awards Professor Roland Eastman and Professor Zephne van der Spuy, both of the Faculty of Health Sciences, have been named the recipients of UCT’s 2010 Distinguished Teacher Awards. 15 Dec 2010
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