Welcome to another installment of the 4+1 Interview, where I track down someone doing cool and interesting things in math, technology, or education and ask them four questions along with a special bonus question at the end. This time I caught up with Kate Owens, a professor in the Department of Mathematics at the College of Charleston. Kate is an innovative and effective teacher whose work with students is well worth paying attention to, and she's someone I've enjoyed interacting with for several years on Twitter and elsewhere.

You can find more 4+1 interviews here.


  1. What's your origin story? That is, how did you get into mathematics, what led you to earn a Ph.D. in the subject, and what led you to the College of Charleston?

As a kid, I was often bored in math class at school because I didn’t find it particularly challenging or engaging. My dad has a Ph.D. in mathematics and he was always happy to give me new mathematical ideas to think about. In seventh grade, we were supposed to design posters featuring our favorite number, and I picked 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 -- the number of permutations of the Rubik’s cube. I had no idea how to solve the cube, but I was really interested in things like combinatorics and math that wasn’t the “boring stuff” they were making me do in algebra class.

In high school, my plan was to study astrophysics or aerospace engineering. Inspired by images coming from the Hubble telescope, my dream job was to work for NASA. During my first few semesters of college, I was an astrophysics major. One day I realized that I was much happier in calculus than in physics; I spent most of my physics courses feeling confused. More than once I went to my calculus professor asking for physics insight. I got the sense that I spoke mathematician and not physicist, and I changed majors. Eventually I finished my degree in Pure Mathematics from U.C. San Diego. I decided to pursue graduate school in mathematics and I was accepted into the Mathematics Ph.D. program at the University of South Carolina. I finished my M.A. there in 2007 and completed my Ph.D. in 2009.

While in graduate school at the University of South Carolina, I fell in love with another graduate student. He finished his Ph.D. in 2007 and we married in 2009, right as I wrapped up my own dissertation. We spent a long time talking about how we could achieve both our family goals and our career goals, and eventually decided that we would follow his career path -- even if it meant giving up my own job search. My husband accepted a postdoc position in Texas; after a year, he transitioned to an industry job and we moved to Charleston, South Carolina. I had contacts from graduate school and spent a few years at the College of Charleston as a Visiting Assistant Professor before a permanent Instructor position became available. I’ve been teaching here since 2011.

2. One of the innovations you've championed is the use of mastery-based grading. In your view, what is the purpose of mastery grading, and how well does it work with your students?

Before I switched to mastery-based grading, I had concerns about how well grades were correlated with student learning. Grades, even those given on assignments early in the semester, always seemed like a final judgement since my students didn’t have a way to demonstrate growth in their understanding. Also, I realized that I couldn’t always diagnose knowledge gaps among my students; many students might earn the same grade on a test for very different reasons. After handing back their assignments, I wouldn’t know how to advise them on what topics they should review or how they could improve. I wanted my gradebook to reflect exactly what content a student knew at this particular time, instead of what percentage of topics they knew at some point in the past.

Now that I’ve switched to mastery-based grading, my gradebook reflects what each student presently knows and what topics they still need to work on. Additionally, it gives me an overview about what the entire class knows already, what they’re still struggling with, and what ideas are most appropriate for us to tackle together next.

The reasons I switched to mastery-based grading are still there, but the two big reasons I won’t switch back to traditional grading are something different. First, mastery-based grading has changed the kinds of conversations I have with students in a fundamental way. I no longer have conversations that begin with questions like, “Why did I get only 8 out of 13 points on this problem?” or “What percent do I need to make on Test 3 to have an average of 88% in the class?” Instead, conversations more often begin with things like, “I don’t how a quadratic equation can tell me if its parabola has x-intercepts or not, can you help?” Students are able to track what they’ve mastered and what they haven’t. Second, my system allows for students to improve old scores, so students are incentivized to learn old material that they didn’t quite get the first time. I believe in the importance of having a growth mindset. Mastery-based grading is built on the belief that grades should reflect demonstrated knowledge and  that providing many opportunities for the demonstration of newly gained knowledge is important.

3. College of Charleston is one of the oldest higher education institutions in the United States, founded in 1770. Have you perceived any tension between the history and tradition of the institution on the one hand, and your innovation in the classroom on the other? (If so, how do you make innovation work for you? If not, how does the culture of CofC support both tradition and innovation?)

You’re right -- the College of Charleston is the 13th oldest educational university in the United States. We are a public, liberal arts college with an undergraduate enrollment around 11,000. The Math Department has over 30 faculty members, whose research areas encompass algebra, numerical methods, logic, number theory, statistics, and more. I believe that our differences in background, research, and instructional methods give us strength as a department. Since CofC is a small liberal arts college, it means that a lot of our mission is about delivering quality undergraduate instruction. Although each faculty member makes different choices in their courses, we have a supportive Department that allows each of us to make our own academic judgments about our courses.

In the Math Department, I’ve helped pilot a program turning traditional, lecture-based college algebra courses into emporium-style classes. In our program, students only work on topics they haven’t yet mastered and in which they have the opportunity to get more one-on-one help on a daily basis. Over the last several years, our data have shown that students are more successful in these college algebra courses as compared to the traditional format, both in terms of course grades and also their raw scores on our departmental-wide final exam for the course. We are now researching longer-term trends of a student’s path through several linked courses (college algebra -> precalculus -> calculus I -> …), and we hope to find ways to raise student success through this course sequence. I’m also piloting an emporium-style approach in precalculus and gathering data about how it’s impacting students.

Outside of the Math Department, one way that CofC supports innovation is through our “Teaching and Learning Team (TLT) for Holistic Development” division. Part of TLT’s mission is to provide support and professional development for faculty interested in cultivating a culture of innovation on campus and in their courses. More than once, I have participated in Professional Learning Clubs about mastery-based grading. They were both a reading group -- we read Linda Nilson’s book Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time -- and a support group, offering each other instructional ideas about ways to implement mastery-based tasks or non-traditional grading schemes into our courses. I’ve also been a panelist talking about mastery-based grading at TLTCon, CofC’s “Teaching, Learning, and Technology Conference.” There are several faculty members here at CofC who are using non-traditional grading schemes, and I hope our group will continue to grow.

4. What's something with your teaching and your students right now that you are excited about?

Our semester is almost over here at CofC. Our last day of classes is April 23 -- only a couple of weeks from now! On the last day of my precalculus course, we have what I call a “Re-Assessment Carnival.” On this day, each student may choose to re-try as many problems as they can complete in the 50-minute class. This gives them a last opportunity to demonstrate knowledge of our course standards before the final examination. It’s an exciting thing to watch: Students are thrilled that they’re allowed to take an extra 6 quizzes. From my viewpoint as the instructor, I am thrilled to give out high-fives as they finally master those tricky problems we’ve seen all semester. Mastery-based grading means students can’t get by relying on partial credit, and so they really have to re-visit the tricky topics several times -- but it’s a really great moment when students realize everything has finally clicked.

+1: What question should I have asked you in this interview?

What are some projects you’re involved in outside of the classroom?

I’m very involved with our “Science and Mathematics for Teachers (SMFT)” Master of Education (M.Ed.) program. This is an interdisciplinary program designed for in-service middle school and high school teachers. At the end of this semester, two of our students will present their Capstone Projects and officially complete their degrees. I’m excited to see how their projects turn out and how their learnings will impact their classrooms and students.

  • Although most of my time is spent on teaching-related tasks, one of the best parts of my job is when I get to be a learner instead of an instructor. Graduate student Colin Alstad is defending his masters thesis (“Categorifications of Dihedral Groups”) later this month. Serving on Colin’s thesis committee has given me a great excuse to keep learning more math -- in this case, some category theory.
  • Since 2015 I’ve been the co-Director for the College of Charleston’s “Math Meet,” an annual event held each February. The Math Meet attracts hundreds of students from the region -- this year was the 41st annual Math Meet and we hosted over 450 middle school and high school students from South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. In one day, we offer more than a dozen different events, including three levels of a Written Test, a Math Team Elimination, a Math Team Relay, several Math Timed Sprints, a Physics Brainstorm, a Chemistry Brainstorm, and a trophy presentation in the afternoon. While it seems like the 2019 Math Meet just wrapped up, we have already begun planning for Math Meet 2020.
  • Lastly, I’m a parent of three fantastic kids (ages 8, 5, and 3), so I spend a lot of time juggling work-related tasks with gymnastics practice, soccer games, swim lessons, playing outside, laundry, etc. I’m excited for the summer months since it means I’ll have more time to spend with my family. In particular, it’ll mean more time to share some mathematics with my 8-year-old son -- he has decided he wants to become a mathematician when he grows up!