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Math teacher's techniques help students
teach themselves
March 8, 1999

tretching imaginary rubber bands, Chuck Vinsonhaler helps students find an answer to a problem on the blackboard.

"Does this help?" he asks. Some students remain puzzled. Others call out possible solutions. But no one is about to give up.

An energy resonates among them, and a lively dialogue ensues. There are more questions and more guesses. Vinsonhaler is pleased. The exercise works: the students are thinking.

Today, Vinsonhaler, a professor of mathematics and department head, is teaching his class in problem-solving, a course he developed for non-math majors. A professor at UConn since 1968, Vinsonhaler is known as a mentor and role model for students. For his "extraordinary success in teaching" he was recently awarded the 1999 Award for Distinguished University Teaching of Mathematics from the Northeastern Section of the Mathematical Association of America.

For years, students have given Vinsonhaler consistently high teaching ratings -- among the highest in the mathematics department. He was named the 1992 Connecticut Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement of Support of Education, and was a University of Connecticut Teaching Fellow in 1994-95.

"Throughout his career, he has made profound and lasting contributions to the mathematical education of students at all levels, while at the same time maintaining an active research program in algebra," says Jim Hurley, a professor of mathematics. "He elicits a very positive attitude about mathematics."

K. Peter Krog, an assistant professor at Marist College who holds a Ph.D. from UConn, views Vinsonhaler "as a model for the kind of teacher and mathematician I hope to be one day."

Others agree. "I've observed Chuck in his classroom, particularly in his problem-solving class," says Keith Barker, director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning. "He has a technique that I have never seen used as effectively as he has. He has them problem-solving in groups, works with them, and encourages them to look for solutions - without telling them they're wrong. The atmosphere is very conducive to learning."

Vinsonhaler, who even in large classes knows each student by name, tells them he "loves answers" and "any answer" is welcome. "We often learn more from wrong answers than from right ones," he says. He also tries to learn as much as he can about each student's learning style. Not surprisingly, there are always long lines of students at his door during office hours, where he offers friendly, patient and concerned assistance.

Despite all the accolades he has received, at age 56 Vinsonhaler remains modest. "There are lots of good teachers in the math department and at the University," he says."If you look at the characteristics they share, they take the time to stop and think about their teaching - to pause and reflect - which is a technique that I teach to my problem-solving students." He also encourages teachers to experiment and to share ideas.

To that end, a few years ago he started the Teaching Tip of the Week, in which faculty and teaching assistants contributed ideas on how to be more effective. He used to edit and publish the tips electronically, and awarded a chocolate bunny for the best tip each week.

Students respond well to the problem-solving class, Vinsonhaler says.

"I show the students that there is more to mathematics than just plugging and chugging with rules they memorize. I try to show them they're good thinkers -- even if they got Cs in algebra, hated geometry, and had a teacher yell at them in trigonometry," he says.

Vinsonhaler founded and built the department's Actuarial Science Program, and until assuming the headship of the department in the fall of 1997, was its director. Under his leadership, the program has grown from a handful of students with a couple of actuarial courses to one of the largest and most distinguished programs in the country. Vinsonaler continues to advise a third of the program's undergraduate majors, and is major adviser to all the actuarial graduate students.

Sherry Fisher