Jeff: My IBL Story

Jeff Shriner is a Graduate Student at the University of Colorado

My story as an instructor begins with my story as a student. I completed my undergraduate degree through Hope College – a small, liberal arts institution – and my Master’s degree through Purdue University. I am currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder. As a student, my class sizes were typically small (< 30 students), and none of my professors used IBL methods. I was OK with that, because I learned how to be successful in lecture-based courses. In fact I have several fond memories of these traditional classes that were led by (mostly math) instructors that I looked up to. Naturally, when I began teaching in 2008 (during my Master’s program), I also used traditional lecture-based teaching methods. As general background, I have been fortunate that all of my teaching experiences have been with smaller class sizes (< 35 students).

Overall, using traditional teaching methods has gone very well for me. Certainly I was a bit rough around the edges my first semester or two, but I remember from the very beginning obtaining a natural energy from teaching and interacting with students.  I quickly became passionate about attacking the stigma of mathematics that burdens many of our students, seeking to help them better understand what the mathematical process actually looks like and appreciate the benefits of becoming independent problem solvers. By most external measures, I could argue I’ve been succeeding in that – I receive above average student evaluations, have good relationships and discussions with many of my students throughout the semester, and have won teaching awards in my graduate program. So why am I writing this right now? Why am I interested in changing anything, when most of the feedback I get from students tells me I’m achieving my goals?

I first genuinely started questioning my lecturing ways about a year ago, when I was teaching Calculus 2. We were probably a little over half-way through the semester, and were just beginning to discuss Taylor Series. I had just finished delivering, by my account, a beautiful and organized introduction to the topic. At the end of the lecture, one of my students (one of my best students) approached me with a question: “So, what exactly is a Taylor Series?” A teacher’s worst nightmare! The very point of my lecture had been missed by this student, which means it was likely missed by every other student. I think my first reaction was typical of a lecture-minded person: this student must have been having a bad day.

Or was he? It didn’t take long for all of my walls to come crumbling down. Was I really achieving what I thought I was achieving? Did student perception of what they were gaining in my courses match reality? By this point, I’d heard a lot about ‘active learning’, and was actually doing my best to implement what I thought ‘active learning’ meant alongside my lectures. It was time for me to dig deeper into what this meant, and actually feel confident that the way I ran my class matched my desired outcomes for my students.

I gained a lot of closure around this topic earlier this summer, when I attended the AIBL workshop hosted at Cal Poly. I gained so much at the workshop by hearing from and watching seasoned, talented instructors. Most importantly, though, I was able to finally verbalize a focal point of growth for me as an instructor that I actually believe, if achieved, will affect my students (in reality, not just in perception) in the ways I’ve wanted to from the very beginning: increase positive student-to-student engagement around the core material of the course.

This is what ‘active learning’ means to me now. Paralleling my experience with some math problems, the answer seemed obvious once I figured it out; this, after all, is how I have really learned most of what I know about mathematics – through productive interactions with my peers – and it actually fits the goals I have for my students:

  1. IBL methods make the mathematical process transparent. Lectures are clean and organized. If this is all we show our students, they think something is wrong with them when they start the homework and end up with scribbles, scratches, and mistakes on their paper. Real math is messy, and lecture fails at illustrating this.
  2. IBL methods encourage students to grow into independent problem solvers.  Francis SU spoke at a conference earlier this month, and described this as giving students freedom in the classroom.

‘Increasing student-to-student engagement’ is a simple description of what IBL is to me currently, but as a novice IBLer, I think it is a good pillar to focus on as I grow as an instructor. I’m also not abandoning lecture; I’m just trying to view it as a tool instead of the main vehicle that’s driving my courses. I’m excited to have a new focus for growth, and look forward to sharing successes, as well as ‘productive failures’ (thanks to Dana Ernst for the terminology), in future posts!

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