Liza: Coping with the “it won’t work with my students” argument

I gave a talk October 28th at a NCTM Regional Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. The focus of my talk was how using IBL and Team Based Learning (TBL) has transformed my math classes. The talk was going really well until about ten minutes before it was scheduled to end. A teacher raised his hand and commented that IBL and TBL would never work with his students. The justification that he provided for his argument is that his students are way behind grade level (he was a high school remedial math teacher) and are unmotivated to do anything. He said that they don’t care about their grades or whether they graduate. He felt that his students would actually refuse to participate in IBL or TBL activities. My immediate response was to ask the teacher what a typical day looks like in his classroom. He responded that he lectures on a topic at the board and then gives the students an assignment related to his lecture. He said that the students will not complete the assignment on their own and that he typically has to spoon feed them the answers. At this point I realized that there was not enough time left in the session for me to “solve” the teacher’s conundrum. I told him and the others that I would share helpful reading and planning resources with them through email after the session and be available to answer questions in the future. I was very thankful for a teacher who raised their hand at the end of the session and commented that IBL and TBL would be worth the teacher’s effort to try, because the alternative was not working for him or his students. After the session I sifted through our AIBL dropbox for helpful resources and forwarded them to the participants. My main take-away from this experience was the extreme importance of BUY-IN. My goals of the session were to expose the teachers to an alternative to traditional chalk and talk, plant some seeds, wet their appetites, and provide resources. I think that I accomplished these goals.


Liza: Treating our (young adult) college students like we treat adults

Liza Cope is an Assistant Professor at Delta State University

It has been quite awhile since my last post on the activity “Which One Does Not Belong.” Over the past several months I have been doing quite a bit of work with inservice math teachers through a Math Science Partnership (MSP) grant and through my experiences with Math Teachers’ Circles (MTC).

I’ll start with the latter. I was introduced to MTC by fellow IBL professor, Dr. Judith Covington at the LA/MS Section of MAA meeting in 2014. If you have never attended a circle meeting, see if there is a circle in your area, and go check it out! If there is not a circle in your area, start one (as I did). The MTC site has tons of helpful resources that you can use to start and maintain a circle. I joined the MTC network and started the Mississippi Delta MTC in 2014. This year before the NCTM Annual Meeting I was asked to run a circle at the conference. I was blessed to be paired up with a creative genius and all around wonderful human, Henri Picciotto. Henri said that he had an idea for an activity that would work with the diverse audience that attends the conference. We emailed and talked a bit before the event, but I was not 100% sure how things would go. I was worried about the space… would it be big enough? too noisy? too many distractions? furniture… would it be conducive to collaboration? logistics… how would folks find out about it? content… appropriately challenging? what probing questions to ask? what if there was a question that I could not answer, etc… . Well, I am happy to report that it could not have gone better. Reflecting on the experience on my way home from San Francisco, I thought, that is how I want my college classes to go… the participants were all engaged, most worked collaboratively, but those who worked alone did so by choice, participants asked and answered each others’ questions, openly shared “ah-has” and “wonderments”- it was beautiful! At this juncture I thought, well I can aim for such an experience in my college classes, but I will probably not reach such an ideal, because my students are not as mature or experienced as the NCTM participants. I will return to this.

The other major project that I have been working on is a MSP grant at my institution. Through this project I had the opportunity to teach two graduate classes to 40 math teachers this summer. Similar to my experience with the MTC at NCTM, my classes with these teachers seemed to organically possess many of the key IBL characteristics we learned about at AIBL. Once again, I chalked it up to the class consisting of more mature and experienced participants than the undergraduate students in my college classes.

While planning for my fall classes this past week, I reflected back on my experiences with the MTC  at NCTM and the MSP participants, but this time I dug a little deeper… What made them work? Was it really just the participants? True, they are more mature, have chosen to be math teachers (although many of my college students have chosen teach math too), and have more experiences… but what did I do differently with them? If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that I treated these students differently than I treat my college students. For example: I was more comfortable giving them completely uninterrupted work time, I was better at resisting the temptation to “help” (a.k.a. provide answers), and I was less controlling of the structure of the class. Additionally, I  used activities with them that were more conducive to IBL learning. These activities were more open ended and challenging than the activities I typically use with my college students. I am happy to have had the time to reflect on these experiences.

My goal for this year is going to be to get my college classes to run more like my MTC and MSP classes ran. Although it might not be possible to reach this ideal, it does not mean that I should settle for the status quo. Nick and I agree that one of the arguments that professors make against implementing IBL is, “I can’t make it work perfectly, so I don’t want to try it.” Contrary to this misconception, I remember Dr. Yoshinobu describing IBL as a continuum. I know that in order to move closer to the IBL end of this continuum, I must start treating my college students like adults. Please look for follow-up posts in the coming months on specific changes that I have made and their impact in my classes.

Liza: Which One Doesn’t Belong

I was first introduced to Which One Doesn’t Belong (WODB) at a talk given by Dr. Skip Fennell at NCTM Regional. I was very impressed with the engaging discussion that WODB inspired among the participants of Dr. Fennell’s session. I also loved how the focus was not on the correct answer, but rather developing participants ability to explain their thinking and justify their answers. Unfortunately, I was unable to use WODB with my students after the conference, because the semester was over (except for final exams). However, ironically a couple of weeks after the conference at a meeting of our local Math Teachers’ Circle one of the participants shared WODB . The circle members (all math teachers) absolutely loved it! Now that the spring semester has started, I am looking forward to incorporating WODB into my classes. I think that it will fit well with IBL methods. More specifically, I plan on assigning WODB items to students and having them present their problem solving processes and answers to the class. I also think it would be beneficial to ask students (particularly my preservice teachers) to create their own WODB. I am looking forward to using WODB this semester and will be sure to follow up on the blog with how things go.

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).

Liza: Evaluating Presentations

It is twelve days into the semester and I feel that I have reached a important milestone… every student in my IBL classes have completed their first presentation! Even though I have small classes (n = 2, 8, 12, and 22, but the 22 is a Algebra class, so the presentations are pretty quick), I consider this a milestone, because (to be completely honest) I was initially quite worried that certain students would not muster up the courage to present in front of me and their peers. I have worked hard to establish a culture where making mistakes is okay and even decided to allow students to revisit presentations within one week of their initial attempt without any penalty. However, as I began observing and interacting with my students, I noticed that I had a few shy students who lacked confidence in each class. I did have to use the “volun-told” method with the last 2-3 students, but after being told that it was their turn to present, they did not resist presenting. I believe that seeing that some of their peers’ presentations were not flawless from the gate, but they still ended up clearly solving and explaining the problem, helped minimize the fears that the shyer less confident students felt about presenting. I also think that the day one buy-in activities (that I described in my “Power of Student Presentations” post) have contributed to a classroom culture where it is okay to make mistakes and students feel safe sharing.

Each time that a student presents I ask all of their peers to write down a rating of the presentation as well as some feedback. In our rating system a 3 represents a presentation that is accurate and well explained, a 2 signifies a presentation that is partially incorrect or partially confusing, and a 1 is given if the presentation is unclear or inaccurate. I also ask students to write down at least one meaningful piece of feedback (to avoid feedback such as “good job”). Thus far, I have been typing up the peer evaluations and my evaluation and returning it to the presenter at the beginning of the next class meeting. I also have been maintaining an excel document based on the format that Dr. Stan Yoshinobu shared with us after the 2015 IBL Workshop.

In typing up students’ ratings and feedback I am noticing that most students are rating their peers’ presentations as a 3 and very few are providing any meaningful feedback. I am concerned about the lack of discrimination in the evaluations. Two of my classes are for students majoring in Elementary Education and one is for students majoring in Secondary Mathematics Education, so I feel that the presentations have two important purposes. For one, I feel that they are a vehicle for improving the students’ understanding of the math concepts. Secondly, I feel that they will help students improve their ability to effectively explain the math concepts. Given the critical importance of presentations, I want students to take the rating and feedback system seriously. Going forward, I have decided to provide students with the following rubric:

rubric for presentations-

I think that using this rubric will ensure that the presenters obtain worthwhile feedback and it will eliminate the need for me to type up all of the evaluations. Overall, round one went very well and I am confident that round two will be even more successful!

Liza: The Power of Student Presentations

I had the opportunity to attend the IBL workshop at Cal Poly with Nick and David in July 2015. Prior to the workshop I had been using various forms active learning methods in the math classes that I have taught. I started teaching in 2005 after finishing my BS in Mathematics and MS in Secondary Mathematics Education at the University at Albany. Initially opportunities for active learning in my classes, such as think-pair-shares and student presentations were sporadic and informal. Over time, I began incorporating more active learning experiences in my classes. I also began formalizing these experiences culminating with my adoption of Team Based Learning (TBL) after attending a training held by the Institute of Teaching Learning and Academic Leadership (ITLAL) at the University at Albany in 2013 (directly after completing my PhD and before embarking on my first university faculty position).

In a nutshell, TBL involves dividing your course content into instructional sequences (similar to units). Each instructional sequence includes the following activities:

  • Individual Study
  • iRAT
  • tRAT
  • mini lecture
  • application tasks
  • test

You also divide your students into teams of 5-8 students. I create the teams on the first day of the semester. I have the students line up according to number of siblings, then I ask the students to count off by the number of teams that I want. I try to mix up the more and less dominant personalities and I think that siblings is a pretty good way to accomplish this. Students remain in these teams all semester in an effort to maximize the productivity of their collaborative efforts.
Students take the tRAT together (after the iRATs, or individual Readiness Assurance Tests, similar to a pre-test that they can and should prepare for) and do application tasks together. They also complete mid- and end of the semester peer team evaluations.

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 your RATs.

Thus far, I have used TBL in Algebra, Geometry, Prob/Stats, Math for Elem Ed, Math for Sec Ed, and Math Technology with great success. To learn more about TBL you can visit the TBL Collaborative website.

After attending the workshop on IBL, I decided that the main feature of IBL that I was missing in my classes was presentations. I chose to add presentations to my instructional sequences between application tasks and tests.

Classes began on August 17th this semester. The main course that I am incorporating IBL into this semester is Number Systems (the first of a three course mathematics sequence for Elementary Education majors). On day one I asked students to interview a neighbor about something that they are good at and how they became good at it. Next I asked students to introduce their neighbors. Then I summarized the key ideas that I had heard from the students. Most shared that they became good by tirelessly practicing and being persistent. No one said that they became good by sitting back and watching someone else do all of the work. I connect this to our class where we want to become good at math and therefore we must practice doing the math ourselves. I learned this student buy-in technique from Stan Yoshinobu at the IBL workshop and it went very well. I also showed a short (2 minute) clip on “Famous Failures” in an effort to foster a community where mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities.

After diving into the material an opportunity for student presentations came up towards the end of the second class meeting. I had three students volunteer for the problem and two presented (because the second student had a different solution strategy). I had every student in the class rate the presentations (3,2,or 1) and give feedback. I typed the feedback and ratings up and my evaluation and gave it to the presenters the next time that we met. I recorded their presentation grades in my excel grade sheet. I will also use this document to make sure everyone has presented x times before anyone presents x + 1 times.

Today was our fourth class meeting. I am absolutely amazed how the culture in the class this semester is different from any other class that I have taught before. Somehow by having students present early on and regularly, the students are not viewing me as the authority on how to do the problems or what the correct answers are. They are engaging in rich discussions within their teams and are eager to share during whole class discussions. Already almost all students (there are only ten in the class) have presented once. I am very happy with how things are going so far and eager to see how things unfold throughout the semester!