Obtaining feedback on a math circle is a fairly natural impulse for a coordinator. This person has initiated the circle with a particular purpose in mind, presumably out of a desire to provide an exciting mathematical opportunity for secondary students. So it stands to reason that the coordinator will be interested in finding out how successfully this purpose is being achieved. Although the director probably has a fair grasp of the overall effectiveness of the circle, it is very easy for this person to get caught up in organizational details and miss important trends or shortcomings. Therefore it is important to pause periodically to solicit friendly but frank feedback, or otherwise objectively gauge the health of the math circle.
Praises and gripes are freshest in students’ minds immediately following the presentation, so they are most likely to express their feelings to their friends outside the building or to their parents during the trip home. Hence parents can be an excellent source of information. Make a deliberate effort to say hello occasionally to parents standing alone or (better yet) chatting with other parents. Inquire whether their kids are enjoying the math circle and ask directly if the parents would recommend any changes based on what they hear from their children. This form of question avoids the dilemma for parents of revealing students’ criticisms verbatim, but keeps the focus on the kids as opposed to opening the floor to suggestions for steering the circle towards the parents’ vision of what a math circle ought to provide for their collegebound son or daughter.
The other method of discovering students’ reaction to the math circle is to ask them by way of an anonymous survey. Limit the questions to those items that are most important. Most students only have the patience to answer one or two open-ended questions thoughtfully, so make them count. The survey might cover aspects of the circle such as the level of the material (too easy or hard?), the topics covered (routine or fascinating?), the style of presentation (droning or engaging?), what the students liked, and what they would change. For example, after conducting a survey the coordinators of the Washington University Math Circle discovered that students were regularly lost during talks, and were able to adjust the level accordingly. Don’t wait until the end of the year to take stock; the time is ripe at any point five or six meetings into the schedule. As motivation, make a completed survey the students’ ticket for snack or pizza that day. A sample form is shown in the appendices.
Coordinators who will be making reports for individual or corporate donors supporting the circle need to be even more deliberate about gathering feedback. In addition to the above approaches it is important to settle on an objective yardstick for measuring the success of the circle before the academic year gets underway. Attendance figures and breakdown of audience composition by gender and race could all be important, depending on the stated goals of the original funding proposal. Be sure to write down positive student and parental testimonials as soon as possible after hearing them; they fade from memory all too quickly. Take pictures of students actively engaged in mathematics. Record any honors garnered by students at the math circle as they come to light; this item might also be included on a follow-up year end survey. The sample grant report in the appendices can also suggest further data to collect.
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