Jessica: My Path to IBL

Jessica Williams is an Assistant Professor at Converse College.

I completed my undergraduate education at a small, liberal arts college (Transylvania University in Lexington, KY), and this is the type of institution to which I have returned. My undergraduate classes were lecture, for the most part, with the occasional group work. It was only in independent study courses that I found myself presenting problems at the board. I loved all of my math courses, and in them I was a successful student. In fact, I think if I had been placed in an IBL course I would have, at least initially, strongly disliked the idea!

My next move was to the mathematics PhD program at the University of Iowa, and I became passionate about teaching during my first semester as a teaching assistant. The majority of my time as a TA was spent in lecture mode. My teaching evaluations were always very positive; I was praised especially for my enthusiasm, organization, clear explanations, and accounting for all details in the problem solving process. I felt that I developed personal connections with many of my students, and that I was relatively successful as a teacher. There was no moment where I paused and thought, “Gee, maybe I should overhaul my teaching methods.”

In my fifth and final year of graduate school I first became a Section NExT fellow with the Iowa section of the MAA. I attended the sectional meeting that fall (2014) and met many amazing educators who were using IBL in their classrooms. It was at this meeting that I became convinced of IBL as a more effective way to teach mathematics. The classroom experiences many professors spoke of were so much more meaningful and student-centered than those occurring in my classrooms. TJ Hitchman delivered a final address (with IBL flair) that left me unbelievably excited to start down the IBL path. I left this conference inspired and motivated. “I will IBL all the things!” – me, October 2014.

Then, in what felt like the blink of an eye, I applied for dozens of jobs, spent a few weeks flying around the country for interviews, finished a thesis, defended said thesis, moved almost a thousand miles, and began teaching three distinct courses as a newly minted professor. I promptly took out each of my course textbooks and wrote some nice, comfortable lecture notes. I spent the year developing a lot of notes and a handful of activities for six different courses, and before I knew it I had completed my first year as a professor. I had not succeeded in jumping off the IBL cliff (which is exactly how I envisioned it in my mind), but I had survived.

Along the way, I was fortunate enough to be a 2015-2016 national Project NExT fellow, and I continued to hear about the case for IBL. Nay, the imperative need for IBL! As I listened to mounting evidence, I began to feel that I was truly doing my students a disservice by continuing to mostly lecture. Despite the wealth of information I now had at my fingertips from Project NExT, I felt like I needed more resources. I needed some gear, preferably a parachute, in order to make the jump.

The Academy of Inquiry Based Learning’s IBL Workshop provided me with the parachute I felt I needed. I attended one of the June 2016 workshops in San Luis Obispo with the intention to prepare myself to teach in an IBL style. I cannot say enough positive things about this workshop; it was career changing. The week was spent discussing methods, challenges, successes, materials, and worries (of which I had many). In only a few days, but with endless assistance from the fantastic facilitators, I designed my Real Analysis course for Fall 2016. My very first IBL course was ready to launch.

This brings me to the present day. I am currently two weeks into the semester in which I am teaching this IBL course. Simultaneously, I am working hard to crank up active learning techniques in my other two courses (Calculus III, Pre-Calculus). For the most part I am excited and hopeful, but I maintain a healthy dose of fear and skepticism as necessitated by my risk-averse personality. As I continually remind my students of productive failure, I also remind myself. Here we go!


One thought on “Jessica: My Path to IBL

  1. TJ says:

    Hi Jessica, I am flattered to show up in this story. And I am glad you are trying out an IBL course structure. Be sure to give yourself permission to figure out what works for you and your audience, and you will do good work.

    Don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you want to chat about it some time.

    Liked by 1 person

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