Liza: The Power of Student Presentations

I had the opportunity to attend the IBL workshop at Cal Poly with Nick and David in July 2015. Prior to the workshop I had been using various forms active learning methods in the math classes that I have taught. I started teaching in 2005 after finishing my BS in Mathematics and MS in Secondary Mathematics Education at the University at Albany. Initially opportunities for active learning in my classes, such as think-pair-shares and student presentations were sporadic and informal. Over time, I began incorporating more active learning experiences in my classes. I also began formalizing these experiences culminating with my adoption of Team Based Learning (TBL) after attending a training held by the Institute of Teaching Learning and Academic Leadership (ITLAL) at the University at Albany in 2013 (directly after completing my PhD and before embarking on my first university faculty position).

In a nutshell, TBL involves dividing your course content into instructional sequences (similar to units). Each instructional sequence includes the following activities:

  • Individual Study
  • iRAT
  • tRAT
  • mini lecture
  • application tasks
  • test

You also divide your students into teams of 5-8 students. I create the teams on the first day of the semester. I have the students line up according to number of siblings, then I ask the students to count off by the number of teams that I want. I try to mix up the more and less dominant personalities and I think that siblings is a pretty good way to accomplish this. Students remain in these teams all semester in an effort to maximize the productivity of their collaborative efforts.
Students take the tRAT together (after the iRATs, or individual Readiness Assurance Tests, similar to a pre-test that they can and should prepare for) and do application tasks together. They also complete mid- and end of the semester peer team evaluations.

In order to administer the RATs, you will need to purchase scratch cards (immediate feedback assessment technique, or IFAT cards). This website also includes a Testmaker that you can use to write your RATs.

Thus far, I have used TBL in Algebra, Geometry, Prob/Stats, Math for Elem Ed, Math for Sec Ed, and Math Technology with great success. To learn more about TBL you can visit the TBL Collaborative website.

After attending the workshop on IBL, I decided that the main feature of IBL that I was missing in my classes was presentations. I chose to add presentations to my instructional sequences between application tasks and tests.

Classes began on August 17th this semester. The main course that I am incorporating IBL into this semester is Number Systems (the first of a three course mathematics sequence for Elementary Education majors). On day one I asked students to interview a neighbor about something that they are good at and how they became good at it. Next I asked students to introduce their neighbors. Then I summarized the key ideas that I had heard from the students. Most shared that they became good by tirelessly practicing and being persistent. No one said that they became good by sitting back and watching someone else do all of the work. I connect this to our class where we want to become good at math and therefore we must practice doing the math ourselves. I learned this student buy-in technique from Stan Yoshinobu at the IBL workshop and it went very well. I also showed a short (2 minute) clip on “Famous Failures” in an effort to foster a community where mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities.

After diving into the material an opportunity for student presentations came up towards the end of the second class meeting. I had three students volunteer for the problem and two presented (because the second student had a different solution strategy). I had every student in the class rate the presentations (3,2,or 1) and give feedback. I typed the feedback and ratings up and my evaluation and gave it to the presenters the next time that we met. I recorded their presentation grades in my excel grade sheet. I will also use this document to make sure everyone has presented x times before anyone presents x + 1 times.

Today was our fourth class meeting. I am absolutely amazed how the culture in the class this semester is different from any other class that I have taught before. Somehow by having students present early on and regularly, the students are not viewing me as the authority on how to do the problems or what the correct answers are. They are engaging in rich discussions within their teams and are eager to share during whole class discussions. Already almost all students (there are only ten in the class) have presented once. I am very happy with how things are going so far and eager to see how things unfold throughout the semester!

Nick: An IBLer is converted!

David’s post reminded me, as is often needed, that I should start at the beginning and not where I am now. Here begins my conversion story.

I went to high school at the North Carolina School of Sciences and Mathematics and did my undergraduate work at NC State. I graduated from the University of Maryland with my PhD in May of 2008. My wife and I both started at Stephen F. Austin State University that fall but since we couldn’t both be National Project NExT Fellows, my wife, Jane Long, became a Red 08 dot. My first exposure to IBL and a lot of new teaching ideas came through Jane and later through the Texas Section Project NExT and Jackie Jensen-Vallin (my Jackie number is 1 as I understand it).

My first teaching experience was in high school when I did an independent study on Linear Algebra and ran a seminar for some other students the next semester. I taught recitation sections, physics labs, and later lower level classes as an undergraduate and continued this as a graduate student. I have always tried to incorporate what I would now call active learning ideas in my teaching but only with incremental success. At least some part of my classes have always meant to be a discussion between the students and myself, whether this be through a Socratic method or student presentations. At each of my stops in my academic career, I felt like I became a better teacher but I was not satisfied with what I had done.

I used to feel as if the students were divided into thirds. The top third was going to be successful unless I did something to hold them down. The middle third had possibility to succeed but may have some gaps in knowledge or maybe they just needed to be inspired. The last third were either not interested or unwilling to do the work to succeed. I thought it was my job to reach as many as possible in that middle third while continuing to grow the top third. Any success I had with the last third was just a bonus. This of course was an oversimplification and I knew it wasn’t really true.

A couple of realizations that I have had over the seven years I have been at SFA are:

  • You can’t expect students to subliminally get why you may be doing something different. In many ways, text is better than subtext.
  • You are not supposed to trick students into learning with activities, you need to get them to understand and appreciate learning as a process.
  • All the personality, stage presence, good interactive technology, and well crafted lectures don’t make a difference in retention of ideas and students’ abilities to put those ideas into a proper context. All of those things are great for inspiration and motivation but I feel are lacking as tools for longer lasting change in students.

A wonderful summary of these ideas came from my teaching in a Business Calculus course. I actually tracked throughout a semester how my lecture went (evaluated by myself on a 4 point scale) and how students did on that material through followup work. Dishearteningly, I noticed a negative correlation. The better my lecture went (coverage, student attention and engagement) the less the students would do the practice and follow-up work to actually understand the ideas. Something had to change.

Over the years, I noticed I lectured less and talked with students more about why I did things the way I did things. I have been fortunate to surround myself with great people to talk to and many of them patiently waited for me to figure things out on my own (a very IBL idea, right?). One of the biggest things I had to figure out was how to force the issue ,for lack of a better phrase, of long term change in students. I won’t go on any further about this slow process but I want to encourage other people who are going through this since it is a process and everyone moves at their own pace.

As far as implementing my current version of IBL, it all happened quickly because when you want to make a change, you just need to make that change. I had been thinking about trying IBL in the Plane Analytic Geometry class I was about to teach last January. After talking to a few people at the JMM, I decided I would have my own “Summer of IBL”, in that I would write some materials and attend the workshop on IBL at Cal Poly SLO. I still had another week after this decision before the spring semester. Sometime in that week I decided to try IBL in all my spring classes (the Plane Analytic Geometry and a Multi-variable Calculus). I would best describe the approaches as IBL-lite with a traditional text. While there were some great success stories from those classes (including a now famous student discussion about whether 0 = -0), there were also other things I knew needed to change.

My summer was very productive on the IBL front. I wrote my own problem set for the Analytic Geometry course and have already tested them with great success. I am supposed to be writing my linear algebra notes and problems now. Additionally I will be doing a differential study on student outcomes with a traditional Analytic Geometry and an IBL setting over the next 18 months. The workshop in SLO was a really great experience for me to see what other people are doing and get involved with the IBL community. I hope this blog becomes an extension of the enthusiasm and community of support and discussion that I have encountered this year.

David: An IBLer is Born

Every good blog needs an origin story. So, before I start sharing my struggles and successes in adopting an Inquiry Based Learning approach to my courses, I thought it best to back up a little.

I began to consider an IBL approach as a graduate student (in early 2013) when Ron Taylor presented a colloquium at Iowa State University on Active Learning strategies. I had always been under the impression that such approaches sacrificed the all-important “coverage.” Too many of my colleagues, however, had taken an interest in the approach for me to ignore it. Ron’s talk emphasized that IBL in particular is a commitment to teaching by letting students discover the power of their own minds, paced by student progress. Perhaps most importantly, we (as instructors) get real-time feedback from the students about how they are doing.

Fast forward to MathFest 2014 in Portland, OR. I was just starting my first full time teaching position at Quincy University, and was in Portland to kick off my Project NExT fellowship (I’m a Gold ’14 dot). I ran into Ron for the first time since we’d met in Iowa, and we started talking about IBL, as well as the TeXas Style Introduction to Proof notes that he had coauthored with Patrick Rault. Ron mentioned that there were small grants available through the Academy for Inquiry Based Learning to help novice instructors generate the “activation energy” necessary for a successful IBL classroom. Category 1 small grant applicants are required to select a target course (and IBL materials) for their first foray into IBL, as well as a mentor to guide them through the startup process. Since students are already told that Introduction to Proof is a course where things will be done “differently” than they are used to, this seemed a natural choice for a novice IBLer’s first attempt. Applications were due 4 weeks after I returned from MathFest, and 2 weeks in to my very young teaching career. At the closing talk for our Project NExT workshop, Joe Gallian urged us to “Just say yes.” And so that’s exactly what I did.

My grant application was successful, and as Stan Yoshinobu will tell you, this led to my planning a “Summer of IBL” (cue the Bryan Adams background music). After a year of teaching by the “traditional” lecture approach, I attended (in short succession) the Legacy of RL Moore conference in Austin, the IBL Workshop in San Luis Obispo, and MathFest 2015 in Washington, D.C.. Each conference provided me with opportunities to network with experienced IBLers, discuss startup issues with other novice instructors, and to see a different part of the country. The IBL Workshop, in particular, was an important week, intensely focused on getting one-on-one time with practitioners who had taught our target course. The NSF has just awarded a $2.8 million grant, called PRODUCT, for Cal Poly to expand and continue the IBL Workshop program, and I strongly encourage interested faculty (and high school teachers!) to attend future workshops. I’ll share more in a future post about my specific takeaways from the 2015 edition, but it was, above all else, instrumental in giving me the confidence and courage to take my courses in a new direction. For me, IBL is more than a pedagogical style. It is a supportive community of like-minded individuals focused on doing what we believe is best for our students, and sharing freely the resources that make this possible.

-David Failing

Nick: Getting Things Started

Now that I am out from underneath summer teaching, I am preparing my fall classes. I will be teaching two sections of Plane Analytic Geometry and one section of a junior level Linear Algebra class.

I will be doing all these classes in an IBL setting without a book. This is not a big deal for the Plane Analytic Geometry classes because I wrote my own set of problems this summer and have tested them once already. My typical class will start with students presenting selected problems in randomized small groups. I will be collecting students responses for all the problems but I will only be grading selected ones. After discussing presentations and whatever else comes up, I will be handing out the next section of problems and assigning random groups for work during the last part of class. The grading for the geometry classes will have two exams and a final in addition to graded homework and presentations.

I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable with how much students work together outside of class since it can be difficult to really assess how much a student really knows. But I am also a huge proponent of clear and effective communication, so I like student’s discussing ideas with each other. What I have done for the last semester or two is to allow students to discuss as much as they want about the ideas but not at all about their work. I try to give them clear examples of where a line is crossed, like when you see someone else’s work, you will unconsciously (or maybe not so unconsciencely) write your work in a similar fashion and thus represent someone else’s ideas as your own. I would love to have input on how other people allow for students to discuss things without allowing full collaboration.

I taught the junior Linear Algebra class this summer using a textbook and a mostly IBL format. While it was immensely helpful to have a text in helping me organize my ideas and the flow of content, I was really unsatisfied with how much students used the book as a crutch, even when working on problems that I wrote. For this reason, I will be writing my own notes and problems for the fall. I found several resources for other questions and ideas in TJ Hitchman’s notes and David Clark’s Linear Algebra notes and questions from JIBLM. I have what I think is a good outline of where I want to get as far as content and what steps I would want to do to get there. As I need to start writing the notes later today, I am still trying to decide if I want to write the notes and problems similar to how my Plane Analytic Geometry notes work in that I am giving them out section by section with everyone working at roughly the same pace. I am also considering doing something closer to a Moore method setup, where students work at their own pace and problems are presented as they get completed. This second possibility may be too ambitious for me at this point since I am not confident that I could get students without a proofs class to make good progress.

As I write more activities and problems for courses without a text, I am noticing the fine skill of writing problems that illustrate and prod students to discover a new idea versus problems that allow students to practice and apply ideas. It takes me as long to decide what kind of problem comes next as it does to write five problems. In reflection on the activities and problems I wrote this summer, I noticed how much easier it is find the right balance later in the semester. Whether this is because I have practiced writing questions or whether students are more adaptable to new situations, I don’t know.

As always, your thoughts and input on these ideas is appreciated.

-Nick Long

A New Blog for a New Way of Teaching

Hello everyone. This blog will focus on the ideas, the successes, and sometimes the failures involved in implementing Inquiry Based Learning (IBL) in the mathematics classroom. We will have several authors with many different opportunities for discussion, so let us know if you have any questions or ideas.

-Nick Long