Jessica: Initial Successes and Challenges

Jessica Williams is an Assistant Professor at Converse College.

The upcoming week will be the fourth of my semester. I am currently operating IBL style (but with a textbook) in my Real Analysis class, and I have Calculus III and Pre-Calculus doing much more activity-based work or presentation of problems at the board, though I am still lecturing.

So far… things are going pretty well! I am lucky to have only 11 students in Real Analysis and I know most of them from previous semesters, so that they trust me (sort of) and are comfortable talking to each other and me.


1) In Real Analysis I am modifying Annalisa Crannell’s IBL worksheets for my own use. The worksheets are wonderful and follow the book Understanding Analysis by Stephen Abbott, which is what I learned out of as an undergraduate and what I had committed to using before ever attending the IBL workshop. The students seem to be really enjoying working together on them, and in the first couple of weeks I had no shortage of volunteers to go to the board to present. One student exclaimed on the very first day, “This class is going to be awesome, I’m so excited!”

2) I modified Dana Ernst’s Setting the Stage activity in different ways and used in all of my classes on the first day, and this was a total success. (Thanks, Dana!) My students were in groups, discussing, engaging, and sharing with the class right away because of this activity, and I think that has significantly improved my classroom environments. In addition to my math courses, I’m teaching a class called Student Success Seminar (which I jokingly call “Intro to College 101”). The Setting the Stage activity went so well in there that my teaching partner shared it with other colleagues, and I have received praise all around for how well I’m doing teaching this class for the first time.


1) Made a student cry on the very first day! I made the first week of Analysis a series of worksheets called “Proofs Bootcamp,” since some of the students have never had a proofs class before, whereas others have had many (this is ongoing challenge and common in my department since we offer upper level courses mostly on a two-year rotation). This was intended to help get everyone a little closer to being on the same playing field. A notoriously tender-hearted student who is enrolled in both Calculus III and Analysis with me burst into tears while working with her group on the proofs bootcamp packet. A week later she came to me and said she had started to really enjoy the class. In particular, she claimed to like getting to see other students’ solutions on the board because it helped her understand how to think through the problems. Win! However, we soon hopped back on the roller coaster, as she came to my office in tears again before class on Thursday. She felt she couldn’t understand most of the recently assigned problems and communicated the fear of “getting a bad grade.” I have tried to set up assessment in this course so that homework is very much an opportunity to try and fail without penalty, so I’m wondering how to better assuage the fear of the bad grade (at least until exam time).

2) I feel like I’m moving at an absolute snail’s pace in all three of my classes. I was warned about feeling this way by basically everyone, so I’m not stressing too hard about it.

3) I find myself still functioning as the “expert” in the room, so this week I’m going to make a real attempt to only let other students comment/correct for the majority of the class. In class this past Thursday there was a huge decrease in volunteers to present the problems they were supposed to have worked on since Tuesday. There seemed to be a general fog around the definitions, which prohibited them from even starting. I ended up at the board for several minutes to dissect the definitions of maximum, upper bound, and supremum. I hope to pass on such a task to the students next time. I’m thinking of handing each student in the room a colored marker and telling them I’m not going to allow myself to have one at all. Until Tuesday’s class, to help with their fear of starting on problems they have no idea how to solve and to convince them how important it is to really engage with the definitions first, I told them to read the Medium post Habits of Highly Mathematical People. This appeared on my Facebook feed recently, and I really enjoyed the read.

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!