Math, stereotypes, and social belonging

Philip Gressman, professor of mathematics, is one of the instructors who teaches the largest entry-level calculus course at Penn, Math 104. Over the years, he’s seen students struggle with the rigor of the content and wondered how he could mitigate the anxiety related to those challenges.

person looks perplexed holding a pencil staring into middle distancw with chalkboard behind them with math equations.

“It’s a math class that a lot of people take,” explains Gressman. “It’s also the last math class that a lot of people take. In that sense, it represents the pinnacle of mathematical expectations for a lot of people.”

Those rigorous expectations can cause anxiety. Self-doubt can spiral: Why am I struggling? Am I the only one finding this challenging? Is there something wrong with me that makes this class so difficult?

Last year, Gressman hatched a plan to help his students improve academically. Instead of focusing solely on numbers and equations, Gressman focused on improving feelings of social belonging. The idea was sparked by his participation in Penn’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), which offers programs to help instructors excel in their teaching. As part of a teaching seminar, Gressman read the book “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do” by the social psychologist Claude M. Steele. The book focuses on stereotype threat—a situational predicament in which people are or feel themselves to be at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group—and how that perceived threat can detrimentally affect performance.

Gressman is one of the faculty members working on the Bridge to Ph.D. Program, a mathematics master’s program designed specifically for groups that are traditionally underrepresented. The program prepares underrepresented students for direct entry into the Ph.D. program and provides full funding.

“I would like to see mathematics work harder to identify talent in marginalized or excluded communities and pave the way for more students to be equipped to pursue a Ph.D., should they wish to do so,” explains Gressman. “The Bridge to Ph.D. and being aware of the importance of social belonging is a good start.”

Read more at Omnia.