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Wednesday, September 16, 2009.

Math prof has found formula for student success

In the decades old battle to help students overcome their dread of math, Antelope Valley College Professor Nabeel Atique thinks he’s found a winning formula.

It starts with understanding and embracing various learning styles – some of which he encountered growing up in countries around the world. Then he challenges students about their math attitudes, followed with some innovative ways to help them succeed.

Nabeel & Student
Mytisha Polidore volunteers to do a math problem on the white board while she gets encouragement from Professor Nabeel Atique.

“I never liked math, ever,” said Andrea Zepeda, one of 35 students who enrolled in Atique’s morning Math 60, Prealgebra class. “Now I’m not afraid to go to the next level. I don’t feel embarrassed. I don’t feel he would judge me in any way.”

It’s a powerful endorsement from a former math hater, yet it’s a sentiment that is prevalent among students in the class.

“I understand the material a lot better. The instructor is hands on. He doesn’t move on until everyone understands it,” said Mytisha Polidore.

Atique’s class is the lab for this experimentation. Thus far, the results indicate Atique has achieved success.

Students are staying in the class and they are learning.

A B for a major test grade would be seen as a positive for many with math anxiety. However, the students in his class had that as the class average for his first major test. The mid-term class average squeaked in at 78 percent, a C+.

The two-hour long class sessions are done in such a way to keep students engaged, including use of a PC tablet that projects math problems on the white board while the instructor faces the class.

“I’ll lecture for roughly half the time, then students do group work for half the time with tutors walking around,” Atique said. The two tutors are advanced math students that have the advantage of being able to relate to students on a peer level. A student who might be reluctant to call on the instructor could instead call on a fellow student.

Also, the tutors have the advantage of making connections with students to draw them to the Learning Center for additional help.

Atique calls upon students to do problems on the white board, which may sound threatening to those with math anxiety. Atique overcomes that by creating a nurturing environment and one in which he tries to relate to students on a personal level.

“I do my best to create an environment where they want to go to the board,” he said.

His desire for personal connection even led Atique to learn Spanish so he could relate better to Spanish speakers in his classes. He spent several weeks living with a family in Costa Rica as part of an immersion program in Spanish.

“I’ve learned Spanish over the last 15 months. Now I’m very comfortable speaking it,” he said. “I’m genuinely interested in their culture and where they’re from.”

Students, in turn, show interest in Atique’s life.

There’s more to Atique’s intensive, multi-faceted approach to teaching than just his personal desire to succeed.

Atique is the math representative for AVC’s Basic Skills Initiative, a statewide effort to cope with the large numbers of adult Californians not prepared for college-level work.

With thousands of students arriving at California’s 110 community college campuses lacking the necessary skills in reading, writing and math, the state launched the program to provide training and support for professional development.

The ability of Atique and hundreds of others statewide to effectively address the basic skills needs of students will have profound implications for California beyond colleges and stretching into the workforce.

Atique believes it’s a natural fit for him.

Atique is a native of Bangladesh. Since his father worked for an airline, Atique and his family lived in various places across Europe and Asia.

“It was a great way to experience different places, different cultures,” he said. Thus, his own experiences with immigration, language barriers and various teaching styles have prepared him well for his current position.

“It’s almost like a logical calling,” he said.

He cited one example of his own challenges in grade school. Enrolled at a school in India, he received very low marks on his essays. His teacher informed him that the flowery, prose style of writing he’d learned at an American school in Italy was not suitable for his current school.

“Those days were very hard.”

Atique prevailed.

“Growing up, I always liked the technical fields. But I also struggled with math.”

By the time he was ready for college, he was focused on electrical engineering. He enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical and computer engineering. He earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University.

While employed for a chipmaker in Northern California’s Silicon Valley he took a part-time job teaching – “for fun” -- at a community college.

“I realized after three semesters I loved teaching far more than my electrical engineering job,” he said. “I just love teaching. I find it very rewarding.”

Atique was offered a full-time teaching position at AVC in 2006.

When AVC launched its Basic Skills Committee in 2007-08 to develop solutions, Atique volunteered to represent the math department. His students are glad he did.

“It was a logical place for me to be. I knew it would be a commitment of time, but I was willing to do that,” he said.

“I’m very up front with my students: ‘I’m here to help you. My goal is to help you succeed in this class. I will find more than one way of explaining a problem’,” he said.

Furthermore, he reinforces and, sometimes, even introduces students to the practical aspects of what it takes to be a good student.

What’s the primary hurdle for students to overcome?


“Attitudes. My attitude or the student’s attitude” can limit student achievement, according to Atique.

“Our job is to deal with it. We can’t resign ourselves to say they had problems elsewhere. We have to help students the best we can.”

Atique’s goal is to expand his methods, including the use of in-class tutors, to more classes on campus.