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Sherry Mantyka, director of the Mathematic Learning Centre, in her classroom at Memorial University in St. John's.Paul Daly/The Globe and Mail

Sherry Mantyka witnessed too many students entering university without an understanding of multiplication, addition or basic algorithm. They passed high-school math, and had strong enough admission grades to earn a place in university. Yet, something was missing in their math skills.

"It's so tragic when students are coming out of high-school with such a big handicap ahead of them and there is no need for it," Dr. Mantyka said.

"It smacks of a lot of memorization without a whole lot of understanding, which is impossible to work with if you're ever going to try and solve problems using mathematics."

Dr. Mantyka is the director of the Mathematics Learning Centre at Memorial University, where her remedial math program, dubbed an "intervention program," employs a psychological element.

Students entering Memorial have to write a compulsory test in order to take any mathematics classes. Those that fail are placed into Dr. Mantyka's non-credit program. They can move on to earn credits in university math courses only if they pass. The devastation many students feel in having to enter a remedial program prompted Dr. Mantyka to appeal to psychologists.

The unique program has also helped Dr. Mantyka shape the cognitive part of her program so that students can become more effective learners. Dr. Mantyka, for example, has seen students understand some basic concepts, but become flummoxed when another element is added. She observes those behaviours and then takes those observations to a cognitive psychologist at Memorial, who explains to her how the brain works on that particular problem. Dr. Mantyka then designs teaching paradigms to develop new learning behaviours for that student, or if a group is experiencing the same problem, for several students.

"Getting the students over that shock requires some pretty patient, sensitive care," she said.

Students who pass the remedial program do better not only in their math courses, but their language courses as well. Further, their graduation rate is 240 per cent better than those who don't complete Dr. Mantyka's program.