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New Faculty: Dr. Francis Duah

Assistant Professor, Department of Mathematics
September 14, 2021
Dr. Francis Duah

Francis Duah

The Department of Mathematics welcomes its first expert in mathematical pedagogy, Francis Duah, external link. The former high school teacher-turned-professor joins us from a tenure-track position at the University of Chichester in England. He’s now working hard to move the dial on student engagement in mathematics education.  

What sparked your interest in math pedagogy — and why is it more important than ever?
When I was a high school student back in Ghana, Africa, I took the lead in helping my schoolmates learn mathematics. Even back then, I knew there was a little bit of a teacher in me. I was also inspired by a physics teacher named Patrick Mensah-Amoah (also now a university professor). At school, he was — and still is — kind, helpful, thoughtful, and committed to his teaching and students. He always went that extra mile to help students. I eventually wanted to be as good as him at teaching.

Sadly, nowadays, students often give up easily and far too soon — before they’ve really had a real go at their math problems. If they drop out, the financial costs can be high, both for the university and the student. And the emotional costs can be devastating and long-lasting. Many students don’t realize that there are many difficult problems that even experienced mathematicians haven’t solved yet — but that doesn’t mean “they’re no good at math”. So, now, I research “math resilience” — why students give up, whether it’s possible to measure resilience, and how to train them to persist.  

You have three strands of research on the go. What are they?
Firstly, I look at the ways in which individuals and groups actually learn mathematics content, and what the impact is on students' achievement and progression to graduation. Secondly, related to that, I also investigate different approaches to designing and delivering undergraduate mathematics content. We’ve already had very positive results in experiments where incoming students performed better in courses that were co-designed by current students and faculty members.

Thirdly, I’m researching how to make participation in undergraduate mathematics widely accessible to all groups of society. Over the next few years, I hope to contribute to the university's vision of inclusivity and diversity by helping to make math and STEM-related subjects more accessible to students from a wide range of social backgrounds.

You take a non-traditional “participatory approach” to teaching. What exactly is that?
I believe it’s the best way to achieve planned learning outcomes in undergraduate mathematics. But it’s very different from the usual expectation of a professor standing at the podium lecturing. Instead, the approach views learning and teaching as a social activity — one that promotes discussion and working together amongst learners and learning facilitators. It also holds that assessment should reward engagement, and not just the correctness of solutions to mathematics problems. This new approach can feel very risky to traditionally-minded teachers, and it will certainly take time to change centuries-old traditions. But it’s a challenge that I’m ready to take up.  

Give us a few fun facts about you personally?
I’ve lived in England for years and love walking around in the British countryside, especially the beautiful Lake District. I also enjoy spending time in the bowling alley. But note: that’s good, old American ten-pin bowling — and not grass or lawn bowling, which people associate with England!

My favourite movie is Mrs. Doubtfire. My favourite food is jollof rice, a savoury West African rice dish. And I love playing board and card games with my family.