Jeff: The First Inning

Jeff Shriner is a Graduate Student at the University of Colorado

I suppose I should begin by explaining my title. I played baseball for most of my life up through my early 20’s, and have always admired many things about the game. Given that we’re currently in the thick of the post-season and my Chicago Cubs (I was born into Cubs fandom) are still giving me hope, I could not resist a baseball reference. I could probably write a whole post on the lessons we can learn by drawing analogies from the game of baseball, but I’ll spare you and discuss just one.

Pitching has always been my favorite position on the field, and one thing I learned as a pitcher was that in order to be successful, I had to grow with the game. That is, I could study hitters as much as I wanted to before a game began, but I always had to be ready to adapt and change that plan depending on what was actually happening in the game. This has also been my experience with IBL. I spent numerous hours this past summer thinking and talking with experienced instructors about best practices and methods that have been successful for others in the past – I came into this semester with a thoughtful plan. But the moment anything in my plan was not working (or was not working as I had envisioned it should in my head), I was fairly quick to become discouraged. It’s very difficult to leave this mindset that if I don’t get it right the first time, then I must be failing (which is an important reminder as we try to guide our students into a productive failure mindset). This is where my analogy helps me personally – I’m currently in the first inning of my journey. I must give myself space and time to grow into IBL – not just what studying film says should work – but what actually works for me.

Now that you all know where my head’s at, here’s what I’ve been learning so far (I am teaching 2 sections of Pre-calculus):

Like so many others, for my buy-in on day one I used Dana Ernst’s setting the stage activity. Also like so many others, it worked really well! It really is as simple as asking some basic (but important) questions and giving space for students to respond. Our students care about these things, and this is a great conversation starter on day one.

I’ve been trying to make heavy use of group work and think pair share activities. At the end of group work, I try to get a full class discussion as often as possible to summarize main points. Leading an effective classroom conversation in which I am not in the center is very, very hard. Like Jessica, my students still look to me as the expert in the classroom, probably because I have a very hard time shutting my mouth. I have a small core of students that are eager to participate, ask questions, and engage, but I’m having trouble getting everyone in the class to be engaged.

I’ve been assigning weekly writing reflections, in which I ask students to respond to the following:

  • What did you learn this week?
  • Can you think of any connections to previous material, or anything outside of class?
  • Has what you learned created any new questions or topics that you’re curious about?
  • Do you have any general questions or concerns about the course?

My motivation is simple: I want to give students space to stop and think about what they’re doing. I know I’ve gone through classes without doing this at all, and would have benefited greatly by just pausing periodically to paint the larger picture in my head of what’s going on. These have elicited some great responses. But I’m having a similar issue here: a small core of students respond thoughtfully on a consistent basis, while others don’t take it very seriously (or don’t submit a response at all).

One of the main themes we consistently refer back to is that mathematics is roughly “good ideas + effective communication”. We had a discussion recently in class about the millennium prize problems. They were shocked at first that there were actually million dollar prizes on math problems, but seemed to be very intrigued. We talked about how many people submit solutions for these problems but don’t receive the reward – in some cases because they’re wrong, but in some cases because no one knows if they’re right or wrong. They might be very clever, and have some very good ideas, but they cannot communicate them so another person can comprehend them. This tangible example has really helped with the buy-in on why we’re picky on how we communicate, and why it’s important. This has been very helpful in classroom discussions and providing feedback, as we’ll often say things like “all of the good ideas are there, but let’s discuss how we can communicate this more effectively”. I like rewarding their efforts and creativity, while still being able to nudge them to improve something. This is what I consider to be a main success so far in the semester – my students are thinking about the communication aspect of mathematics, and why it’s important.

One of my sections is an online format. In this section, my main efforts to engage students are

  • embedded exercises throughout the lesson (I create Livescribe PDFs with a smartpen) in which I ask them to pause to take some time to struggle with, then come back to the lesson to work through it. They turn in their work ‘portfolio’ (mistakes, corrections, everything) weekly.
  • discussion boards with prompts that are meant to provoke deeper thought on conceptual ideas. This has again created some really good conversation between individual students and I, but I have not been successful at all in getting students to engage with each other. I do think they read each other’s posts, but they never comment or ask questions of each other, which was something I was hoping for.

The online format has just been challenging in general, so if anyone has experience or ideas about this, I’d love to hear them! 

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