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How to get better at math

Posted 10:32 a.m. Friday, March 10, 2023

Mitch Haeuser, ’19, mathematics major and physics minor, had a rocky start to college. But some discoveries about college helped him learn to thrive.

How one student transformed a 1.6 GPA into six, full-ride graduate school offers.

Mitch Haeuser was in his second semester at UW-La Crosse when his grades dipped to a 1.6. Despite that lackluster start, his academic career at UWL ended with six offers for full-ride scholarships to doctoral programs in mathematics at flagship U.S. universities.

How did he do it? Haeuser’s story is a road map for those who hit academic speed bumps. He hopes it inspires them to never give up when classes seem too hard or their future unclear.

“The person I was initially in college has sort of vanished,” he says. “I completely changed my lifestyle — from not attending classes to getting involved in everything. And I think people noticed that."

Haeuser is now attending Iowa State University’s graduate program on a full-ride scholarship with the goal of earning his doctoral degree in mathematics. He hopes to one day become a professor.

"I want to inspire people and show them that math and learning are beautiful like Dr. [Tushar] Das and other professors here did for me,” he says. “Every professor at UWL was inspiring. They all made me want to be a teacher and help students who had a rough start like myself come out of their shell and become who they want to be.”

A Rocky start

Mitch Haeuser, ’19, mathematics major and physics minor, stands with Tushar Das, associate professor of Mathematics and Statistics.

During his first two semesters at UWL, Haeuser was going through the actions of going to college, but he didn’t know why. He simply needed to get his degree, so he could get a job. He frequently stayed up late, slept in and skipped class. He didn’t study for tests and bombed them. His G.P.A. reflected his effort, skimming just above a 2.0 his first year.

When work was assigned in core math and physics classes, he would stare at complex-looking questions on the computer screen for a few minutes, decide they were too hard and give up.

"I think fear was huge part of my first two years in college — going from high school to college was a big jump,” he says.

It seemed better to him to turn in no assignment at all than one riddled with wrong answers. He didn’t want to be judged for not understanding. “I was afraid to apply myself because I didn’t want to fail,” he explains.

That was his thinking until his second semester grades hit that 1.6 at mid-semester, signaling he was headed toward academic probation. Haeuser realized he couldn’t continue this way and graduate.

“I was sad about it and I was scared that I was failing,” he says. “I wanted to show that I could succeed.”

That was the impetus to turn things around. Haeuser didn’t employ all the strategies below at once. They built on each other. Each semester he got a bit deeper into the community, engagement and learning that college is truly about, and the rewards were far greater than he ever imagined.

How to change struggle into success

Mitch Haeuser was a first-generation, transfer student from Western Technical College went on to earn a full-ride scholarship to graduate school at Iowa State University. Here Haeuser tutors at UWL’s Murphy Learning Center.

1. Start with a simple step: Haeuser knew if he wanted to turn his grades around, he needed to start attending every class and doing the assigned work. A seemingly simple thing, Haeuser says forcing himself to do these two tasks immediately improved his grades. Doing the assigned work meant attempting every single problem and assigned reading before class. Then, he was prepared for lectures where he could be more actively engaged in discussion, be present and listening. These strategies led to his first A at UWL in a challenging class, Calc 2 (MTH 208), during the fall semester of his second year.

2. Ask for help: Haeuser also made a habit of asking questions about concepts he couldn’t grasp while studying on his own. He would ask them in class or during office hours. If he didn’t have a specific question in mind, he would think about something not covered in class, but part of the reading that he wanted to know more about.

He discovered he wasn’t the only one seeking additional help. Walking through the Mathematics & Statistics Department halls at random times between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., he often found faculty offices with five or more students working through problems with professors. Several faculty members kept office hours late in the evening to allow students to get done with post-class activities. Haeuser became a regular in these sessions. Sometimes he would just go to office hours to hear what others asked.

Haeuser admits that asking questions is hard. “I’m still afraid to ask. You feel like, I don’t know this, but this person next to me probably does,” he says. But overcoming that fear was key because if students don’t understand something, chances are subsequent building concepts will be more difficult to grasp, he notes. Plus, asking questions frequently led to interesting and in-depth conversations with professors, which helped him get to know them more. That paid off when he received academic opportunities later in his college career because of professor recommendations.

"The key to student success is to realize there is an instructor who cares about my goals and my success; and that instructor is inviting me to come [to office hours] and join a community of life-long learners,” says Tushar Das, associate professor of Mathematics and Statistics.

Das says incoming students often don't have a clear idea of what office hours entail, and more importantly how interactions at office hours will positively impact their learning and career trajectories.

“I've surveyed students to find out what they think office hours are and have found many barriers and myths that are important to address. Students often feel like they are imposing on a faculty's precious time, or feel like they shouldn't come to office hours because they aren't prepared,” says Das. “We as faculty must work to dispel such myths, to inform students about what exactly office hours are, and to encourage our students to visit! Our department is known throughout campus for building a strong and inclusive learning community through active participation in office hours.”

3. Make a mindset shift: When Haeuser started at UWL, he was afraid to try because it would feel so much worse if he tried and failed than if he hadn’t tried at all. But over time he discovered that he learned the most by trying something hard — especially when he failed. Failing at a math or physics problem was an integral part of the learning process. “My mindset now is that you have to fail to do good. You have to try new things and if they don’t work out, you learn something,” he says. “There is a lot of learning in that struggle.” In fact, he got so good at trying hard things and failing at hard things that it began to seem pointless to try only easy things. “If it’s easy, you already know it. You shouldn't be doing it. It's not challenging you,” he notes.

4. Join the learning community: As Haeuser spent more time in the Math & Stats Department, he noticed where a lot of math majors go — the Math Lounge (or Mathematics & Statistics Research Laboratory) in 102 Cowley Hall. Amid the couches and books, Haeuser noticed several students regularly at work at the blackboard, presenting and pondering mathematics problems with Das.

It wasn’t a lecture from professor to student. It was almost the opposite. The students would present the material while Das would be an active student asking them questions that would lead, in turn, to fresh questions and so on. He could see the student’s think actively on their feet, unafraid to be asked questions, and their eyes fired up with new ideas as the seminar progressed.

Haeuser had discovered Das leading an independent study with students Kelly Emmrich, Hunter Rehm, and Daniel Morrison (all of who were past Math & Stats Club execs, and who are currently pursuing fully-funded doctoral degrees in theoretical mathematics at Colorado, California and Vermont, respectively).

Independent studies are a regular occurrence in the Math & Stats Department, led by several faculty members. Haeuser was intrigued. He approached Das to ask to be part of one. Das offered him a one-on-one independent study in Spring 2018 that would allow Haeuser to dig deeper into the material from his previous Linear Algebra (MTH 309) class.

Engaging with students and faculty in office hours and through independent studies leads to a strong sense of belonging in the “Math & Stats family,” says Das.

“Finding that community is more than half the struggle,” explains Das. “Once you feel that you belong, you realize you have a whole network of students and faculty who are there to help and support you. Then the sky is the limit."

5. Be an independent learner: In his independent study Haeuser was required to read and understand a mathematics book on his own and then explain it to Das. The goal was to improve his ability to critically read and think about what the author was writing and why it was true. And the answer was never, “because the book says so.”

“Students often hold on to the myth that there is an arcane finality to math — once you encounter some math on a printed page, you can’t challenge it, you can't question its hypotheses — that there is absolutely nothing in between the lines,” says Das.

In independent studies, students see math is “not dead and calcified to a page. It is alive and teeming with possibility,” explains Das. “That first independent study really awoke something in Mitch – something came forth unlike in any class he had been in.”

Haeuser describes that first independent study as “really hard.” “I was sad, frustrated and happy… all of the emotions in one,” recalls Haeuser. But becoming an independent learner through that experience was one of the most vital skills he learned in college, he adds.

“We all need to be independent learners,” says Das. “I may read something and not know what it is about, but I know how to attack it, how to tackle my ignorance. As faculty, we have constructed a range of learning strategies that lead us to be particularly effective independent learners. We're in the learning biz, so maybe it's not surprising that we have such skills! Once students start to learn about these tactics, they can take them and apply such to any situation in life.” Haeuser subsequently took independent studies with Das throughout the rest of his academic career.

6. Embrace what fuels you: In high school Haeuser saw math as plugging numbers into formulas, but in college he saw how computations could be beautiful as one starts to understand the logic behind the computations. He first noticed that in a pre-calculus class, but he didn’t fully embrace math until he discovered upper level courses on proofs and logic.

A Logic and Discrete Math course (MTH 225) with Edward D. Kim required him to make a verbal argument about why a math proof was 100 percent true. “It was math like I had never seen before,” he says. “Seeing math like that for the first time made me care more … I was not just getting the grade. I was getting an education.”

This internal motivation led him to read books that were not assigned, spend more time in the math lounge and in office hours, and take more independent studies.

These settings allowed more time and space to ponder complex math problems with others. He became “part of the math community.” In fall 2019, he was selected to be president of the Math & Stats Club.

“I had found my path and I loved it,” he recalls.

Haeuser’s passion for math was evident to all those around him. It ultimately resulted in his selection to attend a four-week Summer Student Theoretical Physics Research Session (SSTPRS), directed by Gates at Brown University in 2018. Only two UWL students were selected to participate in this renowned research program.

“It was surreal. I didn’t have the grades or much going for me. I was just passionate,” says Haeuser. “That was mind blowing for me because I was able to do that without being successful from the start."

7. Give yourself permission to go slow: When Haeuser would try math and physics problems early in his academic career, he would give them only a few minutes before giving up. Growing up students are trained to work quickly through math and science problems. Haeuser figured if he didn’t understand it right away, he wouldn’t with more time and effort. By the end of his academic career, he didn’t give up so easily. He would take the time needed. “If I read a math book now, it is very easy to go slow. I don't get mad if I read one page an hour. I don't get frustrated. I enjoy it. Overcoming that frustration and persevering has played a huge role in succeeding in these courses.”

8. Learn deeply. Don’t cram: Haeuser could get by cramming early in his academic career, but that technique did not work in upper level courses. He learned that when he crammed for tests, he didn’t retain the information for the following class. In fields like math, where new information builds upon previous foundation, that was problematic.

Haeuser admits he received an A in Calc 2 but mainly because of a lot of cramming. By becoming a math tutor for the Murphy Learning Center, he was able to go back and relearn that foundational knowledge in a more complete way by teaching it to others, which in turn helped him succeed in his later math classes.

9. Be optimistic: Haeuser says the tendency for students in college is to get down on oneself for every misstep. Despite his A in Calc 2, he fell into an academic rut again during his second year on campus. But he didn’t let that set him back permanently. He has college friends who have had a perfect academic record who have one bad test and get down on themselves, thinking they’ll never reach their graduate school or career dreams because of a grade. He advises students to keep a positive outlook and see how his grades didn’t define him. “Don't be so hard on yourself: We are the worst critics of ourselves,” he says. “You can always bounce back and work harder.”

UWL Math & Stats Club members and others meet with Jim Gates, Brown University’s Ford Foundation Professor of Physics, during a visit to campus.