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The Art of Marking Math

Written on June 17th, 2015

[caption id=”attachment_11165” align=”aligncenter” width=”800”]CEMC Math Markers Above: A film still from the University of Waterloo’s CEMC Contest Marking promotional video.[/caption]

Every May for the past 18 years, TDChristian Principal William Groot has gathered with 200 dedicated volunteers at the University of Waterloo to mark 28,000 full solution mathematics contests. The contests are completed by students in grades 9-12, in over 500 communities.

As a member of the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing (CEMC) team, Groot rubs shoulders with math teachers across the country, and gleans ideas for mathematics questions, marking, and teaching.

There are a few reasons the TDChristian principal has, “an exhilarating time” at the event and wants to see more Christian math teachers in Ontario to take ahold of this PD opportunity. For one, the conversations between test marking sessions are almost always lively and engaged, often revolving around concrete examples of student work.

As teachers mark the tests, they’re exposed to the different ways that students across the country attempt to problem solve—so, perhaps it’s not surprising there is plenty to discuss.

[caption id=”attachment_11162” align=”alignleft” width=”351”]w.g Above: A film still from the University of Waterloo's CEMC Contest Marking promotional video. TDChristian Principal William Groot, has been marking with the CEMC for 18 years. TDChristian Principal William Groot[/caption]

“You see how they (the students) present solutions,” said Groot. “It’s always interesting to see how students from BC compare to students from Northern Ontario, or compare to students from different places across the country … Every once and a while you get this gem of an answer and think, oh that might be a really neat way for me to teach it next time. I never thought of that! So you see things in a new light after being so used to seeing things in your own way.”

Groot takes part in the marking sessions for other reasons, too. He’s a firm believer the the tests marked through the CEMC are valuable learning opportunities for students all around the world.

“The contests that I mark help students look broadly at a solution, rather than narrowly at the solution,” he said. That open minded approach to math is important to him—and a posture that he wants to see high school kids adopt, particularly the many who tell him that, “they like math because there’s only one answer”. Groot often responds to that comment by reminding students that math isn’t simply, “a tool to do things”. It’s also, “a way of viewing the world and looking out,” he said. “You’re diverging instead of converging.”

Groot also appreciates the tests for their ability to identify kids with a good mathematics intuition and those who prefer a procedure based, systematic approach.

“We want to identify kids who are good at processes and procedures and then say, now open your world and start going with gut reactions … Start taking risks and making connections so that you can see the world broadly.”

When teachers at the CEMC marking event aren’t talking about the student solutions that wowed them, they’re likely conversing about what’s happening around math learning in their schools, or ministry expectations, or simply dialoging about the struggles involved in teaching. 

Through both the marking and the conversation, “you’re learning and being stretched pedagogically,” said Groot.

“It doesn’t actually sound all that fun,” said CEMC Director Ian VanderBurgh in a recent promotional video about the event. “Sitting in a room and marking 28,000 papers with 200 people in three days. But the teachers who come really, really enjoy themselves.”

Although he’s been marking with the CEMC for almost two decades, Groot is still excited to return every year and deepen his understanding of math education—the subject is one in which he continues to find meaning and joy.

Much of that has to do with the unique perspective he brings to the study of math, and its relationship to faith.

“If you read stuff about Christian mathematicians, too many, in my opinion, see mathematics as being something of order. They always talk about the inherent order in mathematics. Well, I think mathematics has disorder in it as well, and it’s finding the connections in that disorder—that’s the beauty in it.”

Some of the best mathematics students to pass through TDChristian have moved on to something called Big Data, said Groot, which involves logging many pieces of data to determine why something has happened. The interesting trends spotted in this process can be useful for all kinds of purposes—whether that be in studying how changes in animal chromosomes relate to the the growth of cancer or exploring how a business might tap into a new revenue stream.

“Because, when we see different patterns, we can then create something that is new and that’s different,” reflected Groot. That’s where the, “playful, fun, and inventive” side of math comes into view, and one of the reasons he believes math to be, “an art”.

Click here to see a promotional video about the annual CEMC math contest marking event.