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New Math Professor Seeks to Teach Students True Meaning of Success

Photo by Alyssa Lyman

The BYU Department of Mathematics has a new mathematics professor, and he is no stranger to teaching exceptional individuals like BYU students.

Dr. Mark Allen, who started teaching at BYU this fall, said that while he was a post-doc teaching at the University of Texas, a large group of students came to him and asked about their grade.

“I had ten people—ten people!—come to my office after the second exam, all discouraged, all with the same problem, all wondering what they should do,” said Allen.

Allen said that, like BYU students, most of his students had been top in their class in high school, and all of them struggled with the newfound rigor of college courses. He helped them understand that students need to measure their success by their personal performance, not by comparison to others.

“That’s something I try to help them understand: You need to adjust how you see success based on your own improvement,” he said. “Let your motivation be understanding the material, and if you understand the material, and you don’t get the highest grade, that’s ok. You still learned what you needed to.”

Allen sympathized with students who struggle with complicated mathematical equations. As a graduate student at Purdue University, he remembered how difficult classes had been. Now, Allen has seen the other end of those complicated equations.

“Now that I look back, I realize (the equations) were actually quite simple,” Allen said.

The quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson “That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do, not that the nature of the thing has changed but that our power to do has increased,” is a guiding principle for Allen and those in his classroom. Allen’s strategy for teaching is to start simple.

“If you can’t do the difficult problem, try the simple problem,” he said.

Allen said he wants to teach students why something is true, not just present a proof of its veracity. When trying to understand a challenging new math concept, it helps to start with simple cases of the concept.

Of course, Allen’s own research is far from simple.

“I study non-local equations, which take into account actions far away. Often in real-world problems, those sorts of interactions can’t be ignored,” he said.

Allen’s research focuses on small influences from entities such as gravity. This, in itself, is applicable to life when examining the influences people have on others.

For example, Allen’s graduate advisor influenced Allen by encouraging him to solve difficult problems, even if it meant repeated attempts.

“In life, one idea is to keep trying, know when to take breaks, but keep trying for solutions. Take different approaches,” Allen said.

Allen hopes to take this same approach when mentoring students: keep trying, know when to take breaks, but keep helping students in their academic endeavors.