SNACK aims to satisfy hunger for math assistance

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The Student Numeracy Assistance Centre – Keele (SNACK) is a pilot launched by the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies to help students hone their numeracy-related skills.

By Elaine Smith, special contributor

The dream two professors had for a mathematics help centre at the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) has become a reality in the form of a SNACK – the Student Numeracy Assistance Centre – Keele.

The centre, a pilot project, formally opened online on Sept. 27, but the team behind it envisions that it will have a physical space similar to the Writing Centre post-pandemic to allow students to drop in, work on their assignments and get help on the spot.

Anita Lam
Anita Lam

“I suggested the name ‘SNACK’ (Student Numeracy Assistance Centre – Keele) to emphasize LA&PS’s approach to helping our students develop stronger mathematical, statistical and numeracy-related skills,” said Anita Lam, associate dean of teaching and learning at LA&PS. “The acronym is meant to be playful, so the centre is perceived as a welcoming place that can ease some of our students’ fears and anxieties about doing math. The name also emphasizes the importance of numeracy itself as a critical and transferable skill for all our students. We want our students to be able to confidently engage with numbers and quantitative data in a variety of contexts, whether in their courses, everyday lives or future work environments.”

Neil Buckley, an associate professor of economics at LA&PS, and Nabil Tahani, an associate professor of finance at the School of Administrative Studies (SAS), have long envisioned a numeracy assistance centre at York and helped establish a math boot camp for incoming students in 2015 and 2016. Unfortunately, students weren’t committed to attending a camp that had no grade and no consequences, so it was a short-lived experiment, said Tahani.

“However, the boot camp was a prelude to trying to establish a math centre,” Tahani said. “York has PASS (peer-assisted study sessions) for individual courses, but we thought it would be valuable to have something that was universally useful.

“Both of us saw the need. I teach a fourth-year finance course that is heavy in mathematics and some of my students were still struggling.”

Buckley added, “Economics is heavily mathematical and it’s not easy. There are a lot of resources available out there and students are not always sure which are legitimate, and which can really help them with the math skills they require, so it made sense to have a help centre.”

They created an ad hoc committee with colleagues from economics and SAS to explore the idea. When the LA&PS Student Success portfolio moved from the colleges to the dean’s office, Mona Frial-Brown, the manager of student success and access programs for LA&PS, came across their proposal and contacted Buckley and Tahani to discuss the idea further.

“This is a passion project of mine,” said Frial-Brown, who previously worked for Learning Skills Services. “As a former member of the Learning Commons Steering Committee, numeracy support has always been an important priority for me and for the group, and when LA&PS began working on academic support initiatives, the timing seemed right.”

Frial-Brown and Lam revived the proposal, gained the dean’s approval and created a steering committee that included Buckley and Tahani, along with: Cristobal Sanchez-Rodriguez, an associate professor from SAS; Tania Ahmad, the student success co-ordinator for economics; and Robert McKeown, an assistant professor of economics in the teaching stream, who has become the academic director of SNACK, to oversee the centre’s design and implementation.

“It has been exciting to fulfil the important priority of supporting students with a more robust numeracy framework,” said Frial-Brown.

SNACK is populated by peer tutors – upper-year students with excellent mathematics skills – who have been hired to offer one-on-one assistance to those LA&PS students who are not majoring in math, but who need help with the mathematics and statistics necessary to their courses.

“Being a tutor is a challenge – many courses include a numeracy component, so our peer tutors must be quite knowledgeable in a broad range of topics,” McKeown said. “Consequently, we provide our peer tutors with the resources and training to be successful.”

Frial-Brown said she’s “blown away by these amazing students who have quantitative, facilitation, and communications skills and can relate to other students as peers.”

Currently, SNACK is open for business Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Students who need help, said McKeown, “can just jump into Zoom with one click of their mouse. With peer tutoring online this fall, we wanted our students to be able to access help with the fewest possible steps.”

SNACK also offers other aids on its website, including videos focusing on specific math or statistics concerns.

“There are a lot of great videos online,” said McKeown. “If you can’t remember how to do one little operation, you can watch a three-minute video to refresh your memory.”

The team realizes that the hours may need to be adjusted based on demand and student schedules. They will also monitor the number of visits, the time each tutorial takes and the topics addressed.

“This is a pilot,” said Frial-Brown. “We’ll see what demand is like and adjust the schedule accordingly. We’re adaptable.”

They also hope to broaden their offerings to include faculty-led workshops on topics such as programming or statistics and to work in partnership with Learning Skills Services. The steering committee will continue to tinker with the program to meet student needs.

Tahani is delighted to see SNACK come to fruition.

“We welcome the launch of SNACK with hope and enthusiasm,” he said. “Many of our students in the Faculty of LA&PS have some weaknesses in mathematics, statistics and computing that they will carry with them throughout their education if not resolved. Our hope is that SNACK will help them overcome the difficulties they may encounter in quantitative courses, be it in business, economics or other social sciences courses, and allow them to thrive academically.” 

Added Frial-Brown, “Our ultimate goal for SNACK is to be really proactive and provide a broad spectrum of numeracy support to students at all points of their academic journey. We want to equip them with the skills that help them achieve their goals.”