Making Math Add Up

Leah Rineck working with her students in the classroom.

Leah Rineck loves mathematics and loves teaching mathematics.

Rineck, a doctoral student in the School of Education’s urban doctoral program, is also a senior lecturer in the mathematical sciences department. Last year, she was honored with the Academic Staff Outstanding Teaching Award, based on her work in improving the way developmental mathematics is taught at UWM.

“If you understand mathematics, you’re going to have better career choices. It’s going to open doors for you,” says Rineck. “If we tell students they need mathematics to get their degree, it’s our obligation to help students be prepared in mathematics.”

She is part of a mathematics team that introduced innovative techniques to help students who came to UWM not ready for college-level mathematics. That program has helped reduce the time these students spend in noncredit courses, and improved their mathematics abilities to the point where some are even pursuing additional, advanced courses.

“One of the best examples of her success is the large numbers of her students who complete not only her developmental mathematics course, but are so motivated to continue learning that they also complete the college-level math course,” wrote Professor Jonathan Kahl in nominating her for the outstanding academic staff teaching award.

Rineck is focusing her doctoral research in education on finding out which teaching approaches work best in classrooms for all learners. She has a strong base in mathematics education and practical teaching experience.

Her own interest in the subject started young, she says. She always enjoyed mathematics in elementary and high school, and even tutored other students.

In college, she started working toward a pre-med degree, but found herself floundering in biology. “I was taking math courses for fun,” she recalled, and so decided to earn her bachelor’s, then her master’s in mathematics. She began teaching in UWM’s mathematics department. “I enjoyed teaching so much that I stayed on as a lecturer.”

She also became involved in mathematics department projects to improve the way classes were taught, earning a number of teaching awards along the way. In addition, she presents at conferences, and brings back and shares what she has learned about teaching and learning with colleagues.. “She goes out of her way to make sure she knows how students learn best,” Kahl wrote in nominating her for the teaching award. For example, she has had a large number of returning veterans in her classes, and has researched – and shared – effective teaching for them. She received the ARC (Accessibility Resource Center) Excellence Award for her support of students with disabilities. Rineck has also started a department book club, focusing on books about improving teaching and learning. She was one of 63 faculty members invited to present at a UWM conference on teaching and learning in January of this year.

After 10 years of teaching, she returned to school for her doctorate in education to be better able to teach the subject, and do research on what works, balancing her teaching with doctoral studies and a family that includes her husband and two daughters.

One common problem that many struggling mathematics students face, she’s discovered is “math anxiety” because of previous bad experiences or even one “small hiccup” – a timed test that didn’t go well or a discouraging comment from a teacher. Those past concerns lead students to believe that they’re bad at math. “If someone thinks they’re not good at something, they’re not going to try as hard.”

Many of these students end up in the developmental mathematics classes at the university, needing several semesters of noncredit remedial work before starting to earn college credit.

Among the tools she and her colleagues use in the classroom are more interactive and hands-on activities and “flipped classrooms” – which have students watch a video on a lesson or work on it online before coming to class so they can discuss issues they’ve had together. “It helps them understand the concepts… It’s very student driven,” says Rineck.

Today’s students generally don’t learn as well with traditional lectures as they do by hands-on experiences, trying out different approaches. She tries to foster the attitude that there is nothing wrong with struggling. “People struggle with different subjects – I used to struggle with writing.” And, she also puts a strong emphasis on developing study skill early in her classes.

Her doctoral research is looking at practices in teaching mathematics to different age groups, and trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. For example, Tennessee has experimented with a model that involved having students take remedial and regular classes at the same time. Initial results showed improvements, but further analysis showed that the students who improved most were those who were fairly close to the cutoff for regular classes. Those who had bigger gaps didn’t improve as much.

In general, she said, she favors trying research-proven methods in classes, then layering in additional new techniques to keep improving. “I like to try a lot of things, taking the best practices from K-12 and adult learning.”

The results of the changes in UWM’s developmental mathematics program that she’s been part of have been positive. Approximately 70 percent of first year students complete developmental mathematics now, compared to a historic rate of 55 percent, according to Kahl. And, retention rates have also increased from the historic 75 percent to a persistence rate of just under 90 percent.

Rineck says her reason for continuing the work is simple – “I like the ‘light bulb’,” she says, the “aha” moment when a student grasps the concept they never thought they could master.

As Kahl puts it, “Students in her class finally find success in mathematics – something very few have experienced in the past.”

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