Nick: Student Buy-in Plan

Getting students on board with the mechanics of IBL and establishing a good culture of learning in the classroom are two of the most important things that we do that students see. Most of the other checklist items are things that we as teachers do and spend a lot of time and effort on, but the students don’t see us doing these activities and do not usually notice or remark on the results (especially if they are done well). You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, so setting the stage for the course is very important.

The student buy-in plan was one of those tasks I wasn’t sure what I would be doing past the first day activity when I started IBL in my summer classes. Things moved so fast in the summer session that I ended up doing a few pep talks throughout the semester to remind students that getting stuck was okay and that working through some of their frustration with not immediately knowing what to do is a very valuable skill. I saw amazing changes in some students but a couple of students in each of the classes didn’t end up changing what they were doing and were surprised when they got the same results as when they went through the motions of math class. This reminds me of how I feel as I grade exams. I don’t notice all the student work that is good and correct but rather I seem to fixate on all the things that some students didn’t understand. In the end, the exam results often turn out great, but there is a lot of frustration over what is happening with a small part of the class. That small part gets most of the thought about what more I can do rather than celebrating the good things that have already happened in the class.

When I was getting ready for my fall classes and thinking about these checklist ideas, it made so much more sense that the student buy-in plan was really about aligning all of the decisions for the materials and mechanics of the class in such a way that students understand what is expected of them, why this is expected, and what you will be doing to help them succeed. The student buy-in plan is not a few activities to get or keep students motivated but rather a framework for everyone (instructor and students) to stay focused on the things that matter (big ideas of learning). This alignment of activities in class will come up more future posts I’m sure.

1st Day Activities: Setting the Stage or Starting the Conversation

In my 100 level geometry course, before passing out anything like notes or syllabus, I had the students count off by 10 and all of the ones, twos, etc get together. I really liked this method of assigning groups since groups of students that sat next to each other were mixed up into separate groups. Then I put up the following information:

Get in your assigned group, answer the following questions individually then introduce yourself to the other group members so that they will be able to introduce you to the rest of the class. Make sure to talk about at least the first two questions as a group.

  1. Name:
  2. Spirit Animal:
  3. I learn best when…
  4. Why are you in college?

This is a modified version of a first day activity that Todd Grundmeier showed at the IBL Workshop. After about ten minutes of talking in the small groups, I have each group stand up and introduce other group members as well as talk about their spirit animals. I use this as an opportunity to just sit in the middle of the room. This activity has worked very well in this class each time I use it. I really like the spirit animal question since it tends to be very disarming for the students and reveals a lot about their personalities. I never knew so many people identified with sloths… My spirit animal this semester was a mountain goat and I’m sure the students weren’t expecting me to say that. We discuss the last two questions as a class on a volunteer basis. The responses are pretty dry at first but they get so much better after students see that honest responses are really valued by everyone. The realization of a supportive setting is so valuable for setting up our first mathematical activities because it does not come from anything I am saying but rather what the students are saying.

In my junior level linear algebra class, I tried a modified version of Dana Ernst’s Setting the Stage activity.

While I think we had a good discussion of what learning and an education really is, a few difficulties came up based on the first day activities. I had several students in the class that did not show up for the first day of class. When one of them came by my office the next day, I found it very difficult to explain what we did in class and the philosophy of what we will be doing. The extra time I put into the syllabus and introduction to the notes/problems (more on this later) helped in that I could ask the student to read this stuff and then refine the explanation based on any questions that the student had.

The other thing that came up was a couple of students were really off task during the first day activity. I was somewhat concerned when these students didn’t seem to notice (or care) that what they were doing was distracting others and taking a lot away from the conversation that the class was having. Even after some guidance from me about focusing on what we were supposed to be doing, they didn’t seem to get what was happening. I am struggling with how much direct guidance to give these student especially based on all of our discussion about the value of figuring out things yourself. Another one of the ironies of my implementation of IBL so far.

As always, let me know if you have any ideas in the comment section or by email at longne at sfasu dot edu.


4 thoughts on “Nick: Student Buy-in Plan

  1. I need to work on getting better student buy-in. I like your group introduction idea. One small change I would suggest is to change “spirit animal” to “Patronus” to avoid cultural appropriation.


    • Evelyn, thanks for the input. Next semester I plan on having a slightly different question since some students felt like they had to pick an animal. Other students had no problem picking Beyonce or other kinds of different responses.


  2. lizacope says:

    Nick, I love using the spirit animal as an ice breaker! I used it one summer when I was coaching a team of teachers. I had them “Build their wild self” using this website:

    Next we shared our spirit animals and explained why we chose the animal parts that we did (the website lets you make yourself a hybrid animal).

    Finally, I cropped our images into one image and we used that as our team photo (we were working on a team that was a part of a larger community of educators).


    • Thanks Liza. I like the idea of the students building thier wild selves before that first class and having that be something we talk about. How to get that done is another thing entirely.


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