Reading comics in class? It's just a way to learn maths

Prof Toh (above) and three colleagues came up with the method to teach maths after hearing from teachers that it is hard to engage low-achieving students in the subject. It took about a year to design the package (left), which includes different stor
Prof Toh and three colleagues came up with the method to teach maths after hearing from teachers that it is hard to engage low-achieving students in the subject. It took about a year to design the package (above), which includes different storylines and questions.PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Prof Toh (above) and three colleagues came up with the method to teach maths after hearing from teachers that it is hard to engage low-achieving students in the subject. It took about a year to design the package (left), which includes different stor
Prof Toh (above) and three colleagues came up with the method to teach maths after hearing from teachers that it is hard to engage low-achieving students in the subject. It took about a year to design the package, which includes different storylines and questions.PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

NIE team testing the use of comic strips, storytelling to engage students in subject

Reading comics is usually frowned upon in classrooms, but a team of professors has come up with a method that makes use of exactly that to teach mathematics.

The storytelling and comics approach has been tested on more than 100 Normal (Technical) students at three secondary schools this year and the National Institute of Education (NIE) team behind it hopes to introduce the method to more students.

Associate Professor Toh Tin Lam, deputy head of NIE's mathematics and mathematics education academic group, said: "Usually, people think a good maths lesson is a lesson in which teachers can explain concepts well... but there's more to it.

"It's whether a teacher can engage students in mathematical discourse, excite the students using simple stories and make the subject natural."

Using methods drawn from storytelling and comics is quite new here, he said, but more common in countries such as South Korea and Japan.

Teachers had given feedback that it is hard to engage low-achieving students in mathematics, he said, prompting him and three colleagues to think of a new way to teach the subject.

The other researchers are Dr Cheng Lu Pien, a maths lecturer; Associate Professor Lim Kam Ming from NIE's office of teacher education and psychological studies department; and Assistant Professor Jiang Heng, from NIE's curriculum, teaching and learning group.

The project, which cost about $90,000, was started in 2014 and is funded by NIE. It took about a year to design the package, which includes different storylines and practice questions.

The team worked with external illustrators to draw the comic strips. The package comes with an online platform for students to have more practice. So far, two topics - percentages and statistics - have been done.

The three schools in the pilot study - Dunman Secondary School, St Hilda's Secondary School and Anderson Secondary School - have spent a few weeks teaching percentages with the new method since January. Their Normal (Technical) students will start learning statistics in the third term, in July.

The method has shown signs of effectiveness in the early stages. In a survey covering 24 students in Dunman Secondary, around two-thirds gave positive feedback that the topic of percentages was easier, more fun and more applicable to real life with the method, while the rest still found the topic difficult.

Prof Toh, who is an author of Maths 360, a textbook used by many Normal (Technical) students here, plans to conduct interviews with selected students to find out how the comics method has worked.

He hopes to interest more maths teachers in trying the method, which he thinks might work for upper primary levels too.

Mr Harris Mohammed Reza Halim, 31, a physical education and maths teacher at Dunman Secondary, said: "Normal (Technical) students are more interested in things that are relevant, things that are practical... Getting them engaged can be quite challenging."

He said they relate better to familiar scenarios found in the comic strips, such as calculating discounts at the Great Singapore Sale, or comparing local food prices over time.

"We get the students to relate their life experiences and show how practical maths can be in their lives, " said Mr Harris. "They were quite surprised by how much chicken rice used to cost, and we used percentages to explain to them. Then we talked about things getting expensive and inflation.

"(The students) are more engaged and excited. There's a lot of two-way communication, as opposed to the teacher just providing information," he said, adding that most of his students did quite well in percentages during the midterm examinations.

The teachers from the three schools will share their experiences at the Mathematics Teachers Conference at NIE on Thursday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2016, with the headline 'Reading comics in class? It's just a way to learn maths'. Print Edition | Subscribe