Using Brain Theories to Sweeten the Lesson - Southern Maryland Headline News

Using Brain Theories to Sweeten the Lesson

CSM Professor Tom Seremet Recognized for Excellence

College of Southern Maryland Professor and Faculty Excellence Award Recipient Tom Seremet has applied brain research theories to his daily teaching for years. By ramping up engagement among students through active learning and collaborative activities, and by incorporating strategic reading techniques into his math lessons, Seremet has seen a substantial drop in both the withdrawal rate and number of below-average grades in his classes. (Submitted photo)
LA PLATA, Md. (Dec. 15, 2009)—Everyone uses techniques to stay focused during a long presentation or class, but College of Southern Maryland Math Professor and Faculty Excellence Award Recipient Tom Seremet says the brain needs only one thing to help it focus on the topic at hand-variety.

"Our brains weren't designed to listen to long lectures or 75-minute-plus math presentations," said Seremet, who has applied brain research theories to his daily teaching for years. "Early in my career, I did it, too. I would get cranked up, talk for an hour and be covered in chalk dust, but the average and below-average students didn't know what you were doing or talking about half the time," he said. Each day's goal is to teach a lesson plan, he explained, but progress is limited if students are not getting the material. "So, you have to adjust your methods to how people really learn."

Seremet has been teaching mathematics for more than 40 years, with 25 of them at CSM. Active in curriculum development at the college as well as with high school teachers in Southern Maryland, Seremet is the college's latest recipient of its Faculty Excellence Award for making outstanding contributions to teaching, curriculum and professional development with the college and the community at-large.

In addition to teaching, Seremet has served for 10 years as the chair of the math, physics and engineering department and has been a frequent presenter at math and teaching conferences.

In evaluating his teaching, Seremet focused on two perspectives: "Most students cannot learn math from watching the teacher alone, and students often use their textbooks ineffectively, "he said. "While I was updating my teaching skills and perspective, I attended some conferences on brain research and I started to apply brain research theories to what I was already discovering in my classroom. I learned that the human brain starts to shut down and brain waves settle after 12 to 15 minutes of straight listening. So now, instead of me standing in front of the class lecturing, I break my lessons into segments lasting less than 12 minutes on average that incorporate more communication amongst the students," he said.

"First, we talk about the lesson we are about to cover and do some example problems. This allows students to build upon their previous experience. Next, I present the new material, trying to stay within the 12-minute block. Then the class works in groups or pairs to solve a few problems, discuss the answers and talk about the connections they made to previous lessons. The students then complete a few problems which they turn in at the end of class," he said. This after-sheet allows Seremet to determine whether students have acquired the skills they need to progress to the next lesson.

"If a lesson isn't absorbed, for example if you are doing some problems using the distributive property and the students aren't getting it, you can't move on to the next lesson because so much of algebra is based on being able to apply previous formulas to the new material," he explained. "So if they didn't get it, I need to carve out time in our next session to go over that concept again; it is a benefit in that it breaks up the routine of teaching and shows me what worked or what I need to revisit and it takes the individuality of each class into consideration. The after-sheets reflect their understanding of the material and I can immediately see who needs extra work, study groups etc.," said Seremet, who encourages all of his students to form study groups.

"In community colleges, you hear all sorts of reasons why students can't study or do the homework, but my mantra to them is: You might not think you have the time to form a study group but do you have the time to repeat this course? Once they form groups, I try to make myself available to visit if the group needs additional help," he said.

Seremet has applied brain theories to his algebra classes with a great deal of success. "The thing I am most proud of is that I have gone from about five students dropping a class to one or two withdrawals per section. By forcing the students to be actively involved, they feel more invested in the class. They are less likely to walk away from it," he said. "The result is that I am not losing as many of the students who have traditionally struggled. Not only are they participating; they are passing, which is a huge improvement because many would have bailed out the first few weeks of class."

Seremet holds a master's from George Washington University and a bachelor of science from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and is an elected Maryland State Delegate to the American Mathematics Association of Two Year Colleges and the former vice president of the Maryland Mathematics Association of Two Year Colleges.

"Education is a big part of my life. Not my greatest love, that is my family, but a big concern. How do you get people motivated to learn and fuel that desire for learning? This may sound strange but this economic crash may be a boon for educators because more of our freshman students are settling in and really taking advantage of what the college has to offer. Jobs are few, money is tight and it appears they are seeing education as a path for themselves. Maybe the hardships we are living through will translate into more respect and value being placed on education because they will be able to see for themselves how it really changes lives," he said.

"I look around at the faculty, all disciplines and I think what an amazing group of people. Where else could I work and hear such wonderful comments about my employer and co-workers from the community? CSM is part of the culture in this community and it is an honor to be a member of this group. This award is just the icing on the cake," said Seremet.

More than 20 CSM faculty members have been recognized by their peers with the Faculty Excellence Award for making outstanding contributions to teaching, curriculum and professional development with the college and the community at-large. For information about CSM's faculty awards, visit For information about the college, visit

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