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.

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