My Challenges Were Not That Severe

Story by

Mitra L. Devkota







A student has to struggle with many difficulties while trying to adjust themselves from one educational system to another. International students studying math are no exception to the challenges. I am giving a rough outline of some of the problems I faced as a mathematics graduate student in the US.

As a mathematics graduate student here in the US, one of the main difficulties I had to face while starting to pursue my graduate study was the difference in the educational system in terms of the use of computer and technology. For example, in my home country Nepal, the traditional way of mathematics teaching was to explain the ways of solving mathematics problems, proving theorems and corollaries, and in most of the cases, memorizing important results, formulas and the theorems. Those problem solving techniques were limited in notebooks and textbooks. In most of the cases, the problems solved in class used to be the potential problems to appear in the examinations. One would succeed well in exams if he/she would be able to memorize problems/ theorems.

When I started my study in the US, I found the way of teaching mathematics totally different from the system explained before. In the US, problems are, of course, solved from the textbooks, and in addition to that, those results are verified/ demonstrated making the use of technology (computer and software programs). For instance, if one had to invert a 3X3 matrix in linear algebra class, the traditional system of teaching this in Nepal is to find a matrix of cofactors, then find adjoint of the matrix, and finally divide the adjoint of the matrix by the determinant of the matrix. In the US, in addition to explaining this way (a long, tedious and time consuming way), students are taught to invert a matrix by using computer software (R, MATLAB, MATHEMATICA, and many others) and graphing calculators. If one has to teach solving a system of simultaneous equations via graph, in Nepalese educational system, we used to find couple of points lying in those lines, plot those lines and the point of intersection would be the solution of the system of the equations. But, in the US, in addition to explaining this concept using this method, lines are plotted in computers, and the point of intersection would be demonstrated making the teaching more practical, interesting and easy for the students to learn.

In addition to the use of computer technology, the other problem faced by international students in the US is the use of different terminology for a given word. This may be because of the different system of English (American English and British English). For example, in Nepal, I learned/ taught that area of a rectangle is the product of its length and the breadth. Here, “breadth” is called “width.” When I used this formula while teaching in the US, my students did not understand what breadth meant. I was surprised to see this as I was using an English word as well. Then, one of the smart students of the class (who seemed to be quite familiar with British as well as American English system) clarified the confusion to the students as well as for me. He explained that in the US, we use width rather than breadth, and that way, the confusion was removed. Similarly, the difference in pronunciation of mathematical terms also created some challenges. For example, in Nepal we learned/ taught that the word equation was pronounced as “ik-wei-sn,” with an “s”-like sound in the middle, but when I used this pronunciation in the US class, my students did not follow me. Later on, I realized that they pronounce it as “ik-wei-jn,” using the sound “j” instead of “s.”

Another difficulty faced by international students in the US is the difference in examination and homework system. In the first assignment of Real Analysis I submitted in the US school, I submitted the whole note book to the professor where the professor had to grade just first two pages in it. He was surprised and asked me why I was handing him the entire notebook, and I was again confused why he was asking me why I am handing him the whole notebook. Then, I saw one of my friends handing in only the two pages as the assignment, and then understood what the problem was.

In the first semester of my US study, probably it was the first week of the class. Professor came to the class and announced that there would be a quiz the following week. I went to the class getting ready for the quiz (assuming that quiz would be similar to the one we had in Nepal, professor divides the class into some groups and asks oral questions to the groups). But when I was waiting for the quiz to start, the professor distributed a set of questions for each student. I was waiting for the group to be formed by the professor, but other students had already started working on their problems on their own, independently. Then, I asked the professor what was going on. He explained how the quiz takes place in the class, and then I was prepared to that system from the following weeks.

These are just some examples of the problems faced by international students, especially mathematics students, in the US educational system. One of the implications of my writing is that in the face of numerous confusions and challenges like these, an international student has to be patient in order to adapt to the new environment. Another implication is that the severity and the complexity of the problems faced by different students could vary, and in my case the challenges were not that big as there could be similarities in mathematics teaching and learning between the two countries. Another reason for my problem being not very serious could be that I came to US with extensive experiences in teaching and learning, which might have helped me in making my transition process smoother. It is also possible that I was a relatively quick learner of the materials and the technology provided by the instructor, so in spite of the initial setback, I quickly started doing well.

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