23 January 2008

Enhancing interest in quantitative subjects

By Tan Vie Ming

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

Business students enrolled in Diploma or Degree programs are usually required to take certain quantitative subjects such as Business Mathematics and Business Statistics.

The primary objective of these quantitative subjects is to introduce students to mathematics techniques applied in the workplace and business situations.

They are also prerequisites to Accounting, Finance, Econometrics, Project Management and Strategic Planning.

However, a business student without a solid foundation in mathematics may find Statistics and Mathematics boring and difficult. Many prefer to study qualitative subjects such as Marketing and Management which they perceive as more lively and relevant in the real world.

Negative perceptions tend to create barriers in the process of studying quantitative subjects as well as other advanced business subjects that require mathematical skills.

There are several teaching methods that can stimulate students ’ interest and promote active learning in quantitative subjects, especially Business Mathematics, Business Statistics and Quantitative Analysis.

First, lecturers should use lively examples. Students tend to pay greater attention and ask more questions when these examples are usedto explain a concept.

Examples should be related to real-life issues or experiences, such as the following, that can be used by Financial Mathematics lecturers to teach annuity with continuous compounding.

Brad Pitt wants to go to Swinburne University of Technology to complete a course in three years’ time. He estimates that he needs RM40,000 to finish the course. How much must he invest in a bank every month for the next three years at 9% compounded monthly to accumulate the stated amount?

Second, more tutorial discussions should be conducted to gain students’ attention. To make the mathematics class more interesting, students can form discussion groups to solve problems.

Each group can present their answers in front of the class. The following is a question that can be used for tutorial discussion: Allan Chang wishes to invest RM8,000 in a fixed deposit account for one year. He has two options: Bank AAA offers 3.7% interest compounded monthly, while Bank BBB offers 5% simple interest. Which bank should Allan choose? Justify.

Besides testing the basic understanding on both simple and compound interests, this example stimulates students’ analytical thinking and decision making.

Additionally, it can also be used to encourage students in class to justify why they choose Bank AAA or Bank BBB.

Finally, group discussions encourage team work and information sharing among students.

Third, visual aids should be used to explain highly abstract concepts. For example, many students find it difficult to understand the concept of probability because it requires both imagination and logical thinking.

The following example is often used to introduce the probability of independent events: A die is thrown and a coin is tossed. What is the probability of obtaining a six score and a head?

Students will get a better picture if a real coin and dice are used to show the outcome. Visual aids not only enhance students’ understanding on probability but they also increase retention.

Once the students have a good understanding on basic probability, they can tackle the more advanced probability concepts, for instance, Dependent Probability, Normal Distribution Probability, Central Limit Theorem and Hypothesis Testing.

Fourth, colour should be used to teach Time Series Analysis: Future sales of a company can be forecast based on trends, cycles, seasonal variations and irregular variations.

Many students find forecasting future sales a challenging task; however, colours can be utilized to distinguish the variations. For instance, blue can be used to calculate trends, while red can be used to determine seasonal variations.

Fifth, prompt feedback is essential to keep students interested on a subject. After quizzes and tests, feedback should be given to studentsas soon as possible.

Many students prefer lecturers who return their test papers promptly and provide positive reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement can be as simple as saying a student’s response was good, with an indication of why it was good, or mentioning the names of contributors.

Students will appreciate the subject more if the lecturer is able to give some indication of how well they have done and how to improve.

Sixth, a positive learning environment plays a crucial role in stimulating students’ interest. Students generally feel more comfortable asking questions and are more motivated to learn if the lecturer is sensitive toward their needs.

Some students may have a bad experience while learning Mathematics in their earlier years. Thus, they may exhibit Mathematics phobia, low confidence, and low motivation when it comes to quantitative subjects.

A positive learning environment provides nurturing experiences for students, which enhances their self-confidence.

Students require a learning environment that encourages them to develop skills without fear of failure.

It should promote a familiarity with the skills necessary to complete tasks.

Lecturers should strive to enhance students’ self-confidence so that they will enjoy learning; students who enjoy learning tend to demonstrate greater academic achievement.

Further, lecturers should also provide appropriate counseling to increase students’ motivation to master quantitative concepts.

The key to success in quantitative subjects is setting high expectations on the part of the lecturers. There is no one particular teaching style that is better than all the rest. A teaching strategy depends on the nature of subject taught, subject level, and students ’ academic background. It also depends on the students’ attitudes, facilities, and time constraints.

In sum, stimulating students’ interest in quantitative subjects requires lecturers to constantly make adjustments in order to meet their needs.

Tan Vie Ming is a lecturer with the School of Business, Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at vtan@swinburne.edu.my .