Teaching Finite Mathematics

Last night, I submitted the grades for the summer session of MATH 106, Finite Mathematics, at UMUC. Teaching Finite Mathematics is kind of a mixed bag and this term, was my first hybrid 106 session. So I began the first night with a warning to my students that this would be the worst class they would ever take. It is an eight-week class and we cover several broad topics pretty quickly:

  • Personal finance
  • Linear equations and inequalities
  • Linear programming
  • Sets, counting, and probability
  • Statistics focusing on the normal distribution

Each of these lines alone could merit a full semester-long course. To hit the highlights and move on requires a stamina a lot of students do not have.

Finite mathematics is one of two ways to meet the mathematics distribution requirement at UMUC. The other is to take a traditional college algebra course, MATH 107, that moves from functions to quadratics to polynomials to exponentials at the normal pace. This course is also equivalent to the first half of our MATH 115, Pre-Calculus, course. UMUC does not offer a mathematics major and only students majoring in computer science or environmental management require any other mathematics. Many majors have a statistics requirement, but that is for a different post.

I have begun introducing MATH 106 as the hardest course they will ever take. It is a great and fun course to teach because you can bounce from topic to topic almost weekly. But because the professor can bounce from topic to topic almost weekly, the class is very difficult for students. There’s no continuity. Even where there’s natural continuity in the material, from sets to probability, we don’t have the time to present it well. And student who get lost and frustrated early in the course never come back, despite the lack of continuous building so common in other math courses.

Generally, I have not met a lot of students who consider MATH 106 to be a good experience. I will keep teaching it and I will keep warning students about the pace and effort required to keep up. But I would rather see students who will not make it switch classes early in the semester, when there is no penalty, than to continue in a class where they cannot succeed. This provides students the best outcome when they can actively engage, learn, and master the material.

  • CyberHyper

    Which text book did you used to taught this class? I may take this fall. Thanks

  • JanVR

    Professor Howard, I read this blog at the beginning of this course, so I knew from the outset that it would be a lot of work. I came back to it now just to express that I have actually really enjoyed this class, largely because, as you discuss in your blog, I made time to do the work. My best advice to anyone taking the class is to do a LOT of homework – not just the problem of the week and the homework in My Math Lab. When you do the homework, make a note of the problems that gave you the most trouble and do more problems like it until you understand it. Everyone will have a different “weak” area; mine was probability (and I still don’t particularly like those problems :-)) but if you do enough problem-solving even beyond what is specifically required in the syllabus, it gives you a better chance of understanding how to solve the next one. In sum, you’re spot on with this description of the course and students do need to be committed to devoting the time or success will be hard for them.