Liza: Bells and Whistles

I am just getting back from the Connected Educator Luncheon on my campus. This is an annual event where the Office of Instructional Technology (OIT) staff recognize faculty members who were nominated by students as being “connected educators.” Roughly thirty faculty members were honored at the luncheon along with two “winners,” who received the most student nominations.


During the luncheon the  OIT staff had a slide show playing with pictures of the nominees and representative quotes from the students who nominated them. I was sitting near the front of the room and was able to read each of the quotes. I was struck by the key themes that motivated the students to nominate their professors. OIT defined a “connected educator” as a faculty member who makes an “exemplary contributions to teaching with technology, demonstrated commitment to student success, and the sound application of technology to facilitate achieving measurable learning objectives.” Many of the student quotes included praises for professors who used contemporary technology tools to engage them during class. However, I also saw several quotes commending professors for simply responding to student emails or sending reminders about course related announcements. Several students also commented on how their professors cared about their success, believed in them, challenged them, and encouraged them to persevere. I was struck how, although this was a technology award, the focus of most of the comments was students expressing their appreciation of professors exhibiting the fundamental characteristics of a caring educator.

I am quite confident that there is an association between this being my first year using IBL and this being the first time that I was recognized at the Connected Educator Luncheon. I have always felt connected to my students and loved teaching, however, IBL has enhanced both of these areas for me. I feel more connected to my students, because I am able to witness them grappling with problems, understand their strengths and weaknesses, challenge them intellectually, and provide them with the individual support that they need. Traditional teaching methods did not provide me with these opportunities to connect with students. Additionally, I am enjoying my classes more than ever, because I get to watch students experiencing “aha moments,” helping each other, thinking critically, and enjoying mathematics. I know that my students can tell that I love teaching them and I am happy to see that this is inspiring them to love learning.


Liza: How RATs can enhance student learning

Given that the creepy and crawly critters are everywhere as Halloween approaches, I thought this would be a perfect time for me to write a post about RATs. The focus of this post will be RATs, what they are, how I use them, and why they can enhance student learning. Readiness Assurance Tests, or RATs, are brief assessment instruments that I administer at the beginning of each learning sequence (aka module or unit) in my classes to, as their name suggests, assess students’ readiness for the content that they are about to learn. RATs are a component of the Team Based Learning (TBL) that I discussed in my August 2015 post. Please check out this post,  “The Power of Student Presentations” to gain a better understanding of TBL, how I am integrating it with IBL, and the nuts and bolts of RATs.

The week before the RAT I tell my students what material they should read to prepare for the RAT. Then on “RAT day” students first take a individual RAT (iRAT). My RATs each have ten multiple choice items with five answer choices. Students are asked to circle their answers on the questions sheet, and to write their answers on a answer sheet, which I collect.


After I collect students’ iRATs, I pass out a immediate feedback assessment technique (ifat) scratch cards to each pre-established team (of 5-8 students).


Next the students’ work collaboratively to answer the questions as teams (tRAT). One person on each team is designated as the scratcher, who scratches the answer that their team agrees on off of their team ifat scratch card (similar in look and feel to a lottery card). If their answer is correct, a star will be in the spot of the answer they selected, and they will earn 10 points on their tRAT. If the answer is not correct, the team members continue to discuss the questions and choose the correct answer. If the correct answer is obtained on the second, third, fourth, or fifth attempt, the team earns five, three, zero, or zero points, respectively on their tRAT. The teams continue to work in this manner for all ten questions.

While students are working on their tRATs I score the iRAT answer sheets. Once everyone has completed the tRAT, I pass back the graded iRAT answer sheets. Students find the average of their iRAT and tRAT scores. This average grade is what I record in my grade book as their final RAT grade for that learning sequence. At this point, I ask students if anyone wishes to appeal any question or wants me to go over any questions. The amazing thing about the process is that through the collaboration and immediate feedback process the student misconceptions and confusions are usually resolved. This whole process typically takes 15-30 minutes.

Initially I was worried about how RATs would go, but I have found that my students actually look forward to RATs. In fact several beg me to add a team component to the end of the unit tests. I have also seen an improvement in student understanding of the material. I think that this is because they are taking responsibility for their learning and reading the chapter before class (to prepare for the RATs). Additionally, the RATs (and other formative assessments that I use) give them immediate feedback so they are able to self-regulate their learning.

If you are interested in learning more about TBL, check out the Team Based Learning website. Also, 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 and print your RATs (so they match with the answers on the scratch cards).

Nick: How Things Are Going Right Now

I have changed a few of the mechanics of how my pre-calculus level geometry class goes. Most of these are in response to not being able to give students enough individual time to keep them working after they get stuck. This summer, I had a substantially smaller class, when combined with the longer meeting time, allowed me to talk to students about their work several times every class. In order to make sure students are able to make regular progress on the current problem sets, I have limited the presentation and discussion of homework to the first 30 to 45 minutes of each of the 75 minute class. After that, we break into randomized small groups (3 to 4 students) to start working on the next set of problems. I also make sure that each group looks at a variety of problems before the end of class. I think this is allowing students to get past any small gaps or frustration and give better attempts at all of the problems in each set. I am hoping to get fewer students who make no good attempt at problems. I have also learned which students I must meet with daily and which ones will be able to progress using their small group discussions. But the same problems with less individual contact has created a different atmosphere in each of my two sections.

One section of geometry has really responded to everything that we are doing and they have collectively changed the way they attempt problems, the way they discuss problems, and the attitude that they have about math (and hopefully college) in general. When students in this section understand the problem sets, they are really excited to present the ideas to others.The other section of geometry has had a more fractious take on everything.

A personal challenge has been the unevenness of learning in the IBL setting. While I expected this as part of the change to IBL and a more realistic learning process, it can be very emotionally draining to help students through this process. This is especially difficult when students are not being respectful of others. Sometimes this means that they use tone of “How do you not know this?”, other times they speak over each other (or me). One day I feel like students make great steps in both understanding the material and their approach to mathematics in general, and the next feels like a totally different experience. The daily mechanics of class are the same but the emotional response of the students seem to be very different. This is one of those benefits, and difficulties, with connecting to students more than just being in the same room a few times a week. In particular, I am working to try to engage specific students before they get too frustrated in order to try to keep productive work going and to encourage respectful explanations and discussion.

In the future, I am looking to build in more opportunities for students to get help when they are stuck. One thing that has been helpful is to remind students that it only takes a few seconds of talking to me or other students to become unstuck. This happens at the start of every class as they prepare in small groups to present homework. I am trying to get them to come by to get this push before the next class meeting as well.  We will see how much of this I can affect.

My linear algebra class is a more traditional approach to IBL with students working through a problem set, presenting in class and discussing difficult ideas. They turn in homework each class. The non-proof problems are graded as a set out of 3 points. I have given a rubric for students to understand what each level means as more than a 0, 33%, 66%, or 100%. I find that it is useful to give regular reminders to students about this process driven grading and the inclusion of points for meaningful presentations. I also grade proofs on a 0-2 scale and allow as many resubmissions as are needed.

About 80% of students regularly attend class meetings and are making progress on my meta-goals of careful thought and communication. Content has progressed slowly but students are appreciating the great increase in individual feedback compared to previous courses. In fact, this week students took their first exam, which caused several students to come talk to me about how they are doing. All of these conversations were focused on the bigger picture of how to change students into effective thinkers and communicators. The students almost never brought up ideas of content. They talked about how to be better at the other stuff. It was just the lift I needed after some of the difficulties in Geometry.