Monday, January 14, 2019

Opening a Course (and Launching Winter Term 2019)

It's early January, and that means for those of us on the quarter system that we're already up and running!  Classes started on January 7th, and we're off and away starting another academic term. This term I am teaching Calculus 1 and Advanced Analysis. Two courses at very different ends of the college math spectrum.  This post focuses on opening a Calculus 1 course. I'll save Advanced Analysis for future posts.

One thing that I focus on in my classes at the start of the term is student buy-in. Student buy-in is important, because math anxiety and problem solving don't mix well. Problem solving requires being stuck as part of the learning process, but the math anxiety filter paints being stuck as a really bad thing. Therefore, student buy-in is part of my plan on day 1 for classes like Calculus.

There are many ways to open a class. Dana Ernst, Northern Arizona University, has a great take on setting the stage. I take a simpler approach in my classes, which I think can be a good starting point, especially for those new to IBL. For the past several years, I have asked two simple questions.

1. What is one of your hobbies?
2. How did you get good/better at it?

Students are asked to talk to one another about this, and then go to the board and write their responses. Then we have a chat about the amazing range of hobbies and interests in the class.

Every class I have done this with generates a huge range of interests and hobbies! I love it!

And then we get to how they got good/better at it. In every instance I have done this activity, the big theme is practice. Practice. No matter the hobby or interest, how one gets better is through practice.

From that starting point, I pivot to share with my students what it takes to succeed in math. I share my insights as their instructor. Getting good/better at math is no different from what they did to get good or better at their hobbies. Getting better takes practice and focus. There is no math gene, and that anyone who puts in enough time and focused practice can be successful. That's the main message on day one.

After that opening, we are off to look at the course logistics (briefly) and doing some math for the remainder of the class period. That's day one in a nutshell.

Opening is necessary, but not sufficient to get students to take ownership of their learning. It's analogous to a race and getting out to an early lead. The race isn't over yet, so you gotta keep on going. What a good opening does accomplish is set things up to go on a path that squashes math anxiety. We may not all get there, but at least that's an explicit goal. The next consideration is to help students stay on that path, and I have another post coming up on ongoing student buy-in ideas.

That's how I open a course. What have you done or what have you thought about?

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The NSF PRODUCT 2019 Teams!

It's time again to share who is on the teams for the NSF PRODUCT project I've been working on with others. I think this list shows the depth and breadth of the movement, the amazing people (of course) on the teams, and also the size and scale of our project.

NSF PRODUCT info is available HERE, and the NSF page is HERE.

A massive thanks to the team members! They have taken on with passion and dignity the task of providing professional development to college math instructors. We have a big year planned, and I look forward to doing the work and sharing what we have done here on this blog.

Team MN IBL Workshop (jointly hosted with MAA NCS)
Kyle Petersen, Depaul University
TJ Hitchman, Northern Iowa University
Xiao Xiao, Utica College
Nina White, University of Michigan
Rebecca Glover, St. Thomas University

Team Portland IBL Workshop
Gulden Karakok, Northern Colorado University
Amy Ksir, Naval Academy
Phil Hotchkiss, Westfield State University
Stephanie Salomone, Portland University
Dana Ernst, Northern Arizona University

Team LA IBL Workshop
Elizabeth Thoren, Pepperdine University
Robin Wilson, Cal Poly Pomona
Danielle Champney, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
Rachel Weir, Allegheny College
Matt Jones, Cal State Dominguez Hills

Westfield Team
Chrissi von Renesse, Westfield State University
Volker Ecke, Westfield State University
Phil Hotchkiss, Westfield State University

Equity Team
Jess Ellis, Colorado State University
Briank Katz, Augustana College
Angie Hodge, Northern Arizona University

Regional Communities Team
Patrick Rault, University of Nebraska Omaha
Ryan Gantner, St. John Fisher College
Jane Cushman, Buffalo State University
Yousuf George, Nazareth College

Virtual Workshop Team, with a focus on Math for Elementary Teachers
Danielle Champney, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
Todd Grunmeier, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Evaluation Team
Sandra Laursen, University of Colorado, Boulder
Chuck Hayward, University of Colorado, Boulder
Tim Archie, University of Colorado, Boulder
Devan Daly, University of Colorado, Boulder

Katie Kahle, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
Winston Chang, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
SY, PI, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Does Instructor Personality Matter?

"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment" -Ralph Waldo Emerson

I've been asked by many in one form or another about instructor personality. The basic question is, "Does personality matter?"

Let me get this out of the way first. Any professional instructor can teach effectively and can get students to buy-in and learn effectively, no matter what a person's personality is. Teaching, like being a craftsman or artisan, is a profession and as such can be learned by hard-working, thoughtful teachers. My belief is that personality does not really matter in terms of whether one can be successful at teaching via IBL. What matters are skills, vision, professionalism, effort, and passion.

With that out of the way, let's get to where the question, "Does personality matter?" comes from. There is a conjecture that certain personality types are better suited to IBL compared to others. For example, Mike Starbird, University of Texas, has been a strong proponent of IBL. He has a big personality, and he's an accomplished scholar and speaker. Some think he's the type of personality that can do IBL. But there are other personality types, other forms of learning, and the value of diversity of experiences, which combine to imply that there are range of ways to be successful as a teacher.  You'd don't have to be like Mike.

Mike is *an* example of a highly effective IBL instructor, and every instructor, who cares and puts in their time and focused energy, can be highly successful, while being true to their personality. You can be you, and carefully and effectively implement IBL methods. I really believe that. I'll also note that while Mike Starbird has a certain persona when he gives talks, I have been in his classroom as an observer, and he knows to pull back and let students do the talking and work on the material. It's learning first and foremost, and the teaching techniques that make that happen.

Let's refine the question. We could ask instead, "How do instructors use their personality as a strength?" Excellent teachers come in many forms. Math class is not a narrow, tall, and immutable monolith of a single, specific experience. It's a diverse landscape, drawing upon the varied experiences of instructors and students. Just as there exists a variety of music teachers and soccer coaches, math teachers are also a varied, diverse bunch (despite stereotypes trying to put us into a neat little box).

Here are a couple of oversimplified examples to get across a basic point. Assume say you're a more introverted, and not an animated speaker. You like to be thoughtful, and cracking jokes is not your style. But you are good at collaborating and understanding what students are saying. Then your strengths lie in the area of 1-1 interactions with students. It then makes sense to design your course using groups more. Groups can put you in a mode where you ask and listen to students, and build learning experiences from the small group interactions.

Now suppose a you are the type that does better with writing (versus speaking). Many of us prefer to write.  Then consider making more class handouts, supplemental handouts (recaps), and use email communication or LMS features like blogging or message boards. This might even be paired with flipped learning to further enhance what you can do in class. Then class time can be more focused on student-centered activities.

Hence, a basic point is that the IBL framework can be adapted to your strengths. Instructors can tune the course structure to take advantage their strengths. Personal strengths are not the only factor, but they can be factored in.

Another essential piece is communicating your strengths to your students. Informing students that "I'm not the type personality that gets in front of the class and does the big speeches... my strengths are in other areas, and I setup my courses so that I can better help you succeed in ways that utilize my strengths. Here's how I am setting things up so you get the best possible learning experience..." A core part of the message is letting students know you care and that you are thinking about how best you can help them.

Lastly, I'll also note that identity and culture are real factors. I won't get deep into this, but it needs to be mentioned. We know that gender and race influences perceptions and expectations. This is where advice gets tricky. I know what works for me, and what works for people I know. But what works for me may not work for you. Underrepresented faculty have added challenges compared to those who are more privileged. Yet, despite the fact that the terrain is not yet a level playing field and that some have to deal with more obstacles, there exists practical solutions that can allow you to be true to yourself.

In summary, instead of thinking of whether personality is good/bad for certain types of teaching, I believe it's more useful to start with your strengths and see where that puts you in Big Tent IBL. Every teacher is good at some aspects of teaching, and brings value to the classroom. Building off of these strengths, then is a key area to focus on. We can design our classes so that we take advantage of our strengths, and inform (repeatedly) to our students how and why class it setup in order to maximize their learning.

So what are your strengths? How do you use your strengths to shape your classes, while being your authentic self?

Happy New Year! It's 2019, and I wish you all the best!

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Nudges as a Teaching Technique

When we think about teaching and discuss teaching, we are usually focused on the framework, teaching methods, how to organize groups, assembling rich mathematical tasks, and more. This post is about thinking in human terms. It's about one specific (seemingly peripheral) action that can potentially have a large impact. It's called the nudge.

The basic idea of the nudge is to check in with students during group work time, before or after class, or via email. A nudge is a way to touch base with students to see how they are doing and to open a dialogue. It gives students opportunities to engage, and is an invitation by the instructor to students to discuss Math.  Here are just a small set of examples.

1. "Hi Sandy! How are you doing with the homework?" as a student settles in before class. Sometimes it'll be that it's going fine. Other times the student will be reminded to ask you a question about one of the problems.

2. When visiting a student who has been quiet... "Hi Amy, show me what you have for #7... That's a nice idea. You know we haven't seen you present in a while, would you be willing to share your ideas with the class later?"  Affirmation and success are great ways to get people more involved.

3. Or sometimes students are stressed about the course, and it isn't right to discuss personal issues in class. Perhaps sending an email is useful. "Dear Matt, I thought I'd follow up and see if you can make office hours this week to discuss your situation..."

4. You notice a group is not talking much. "Hi! I thought I'd come over here and encourage your group to work with each other. Take turns sharing how you did the problem..." Nudges can be used for accountability without raising the stakes, keeping things friendly and focused on the task at hand.

5. A student looks frustrated working on problem. Go over and check in. "Let's see if we can talk this through together..." Usually the student has something you can work with, and then setting them in a fruitful direction via a hint and some structure, can be help. Even just talking through the thought process can help and be calming. Reassurances that the struggle is part of the process also helps.

Teaching is a cultural activity. I've mentioned this repeatedly on this blog. Teaching is much more than following a script or clear presentations or putting people into groups. Beyond the framework are the human interactions and the teacher-as-coach idea, going past cheerleading. (The difference between cheerleading and coaching has been talked about on this blog HERE.)  Nudges (AKA good communication, attentiveness, and building rapport) helps complete the package.

To dig a bit deeper, an instructor could mention in the front of the class for students to email to setup appointments or that making mistakes is okay, and that can have some effect on some students. But following up and nudging students takes this up a notch. Imagine you're a student and there's good advice being mentioned by the instructor up at the front of class. That can be influential. But what if the instructor also comes to visit your group and checks in. That can be a far more impactful experience.

Nudges also send the message via your actions (not words) that you care. Words matter. So do actions. Saying and doing, can then be the proof to the students that their instructor cares and wants them to succeed.

So here's a nudge to readers to try some nudges. And share with us how it goes!

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Guest Post by Dr. Sandra Laursen on Gathering Feedback from Students

SY - Hello colleagues! This is a guest post by Dr. Sandra Laursen, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Gathering feedback from students has several potential benefits for IBL instructors. It can be important for student buy-in — building that reservoir of goodwill that helps them stay with you when the math gets tough.  It shows students that you’re listening and are interested to know about their experience and how (within limits) you might improve it.  It also helps them recognize what they can do differently themselves to improve things too. And the data can help figure out how to get better at how you implement your IBL approaches, or head off a small problem before it becomes a big one.

When you help students recognize what they learning (and indeed that they are learning at all! ), this is a form of metacognition, or thinking about one's thinking. Fostering metacognition is a good learning practice in general, one of the best.  It can help frustrated students to realize they are making progress and gaining some knowledge and skills they may not have recognized until they stopped to write them down or talk about them.  Sometimes their peers' testimony is more powerful than anything you can say.  A few weeks into the term is usually a good time; in rare cases, a second time later in the term too, to see if changes you have made are working.

Here are some student feedback strategies I’ve gathered over time from IBLers and others.  Some are take-home assignments (anonymous feedback will be the most candid) and some are things you can do in class to foster metacognition.

1.  What works?  This open-ended format asks students to write short answers to each of these:
  • What is working for you about the teaching and learning in this class so far?
  • What is not working for you about the teaching and learning in this class so far ?
  • What can you do to improve your learning?
  • What can the instructor to do improve your learning?
2.  Roses, buds and thorns:   Students write half a page about their learning experience which must include at least one rose, one thorn, and one bud.  Roses are positive things, thorns are negative things, and buds are growth-- new understandings or changed attitudes.

3.  Start-stop-continue:  Students write three short sentences:
  • one thing they'd like to stop doing in class to enhance their learning.
  • one thing that they would like to start doing in class to enhance their learning.
  • one thing that they'd like to continue doing in class to enhance their learning.
4.  Plus-delta:  A daily feedback method where students write short responses to two questions:
  • Plus: What helped you learn today?
  • Delta: What should we change together to help you learn better?
5.  Consensogram: Baseline knowledge/emotion check on any topic. If you Google consensogram, there are a bunch of images (mostly with younger students) that show it in use.  I could imagine using this to launch a discussion to help students recognize what they are learning beyond mathematics:  speaking and listening skills, teamwork, logical thinking, appreciation for others’ thinking, and more.

6.  The SALG (Student Assessment of their Learning Gains) instrument is a survey instrument developed specifically to address the fact that institutional end-of-course forms often focus more on what students liked rather than what they learned.  It is highly adaptable by instructors; see

The SALG-M is a form of the Student Assessment of their Learning Gains (SALG) survey instrument that is customized for undergraduate mathematics courses. My research colleagues and I have used this survey to examine students' learning gains across a range of cognitive, affective, and social domains and it is available to instructors and researchers. To examine or use the SALG-M, please download these instructions and visit to set up and customize a copy for your own use.    —>  go to Tools item

7.  Your local teaching and learning center may be able to help you.  Many of them offer focus groups and other ways of gathering student feedback.

Whenever you gather feedback from students, in order to get the buy-in benefit, it’s important to do something with it --to respond to their feedback in some way.  Tell them a few key points about what you heard and understood, and how you are taking it on board.  You don’t have to report back on everything students said, just a few key points that may be actionable this term.  This might mean explaining your teaching approach:  if they don’t like presentations, for example, it doesn’t mean you stop doing them. Rather, respond by saying something like, "Many of you responded that you did not like presentations. Here is why I find them valuable.... I do want them to benefit your learning, so please take a few minutes and write on a notecard a few suggestions for how we can make student presentations more beneficial to you."  (thanks to Jess Ellis Hagman for this example)

Learning is a joint effort; it’s always smart to ask students what they can do as well as what you can do. Meet them partway by making an adjustment yourself, even a small one, based on their feedback--and be sure they understand that you’re responding to their input.  This shows them you’re listening!  Recognize too that some of students’ ideas about what to do about a problem are more useful for telling you what the problem is, but not necessarily providing the best possible solution to that problem. So try to treat their suggestions as helping you diagnose their concerns.

Finally, self-reflection and collaboration with colleagues are key tools for improving your practice.  Can you journal for a few minutes after class or at the end of the week?  Annotate assignments or the syllabus with things you’ll change next time? Read a blog post or a book on learning? Swap classroom visits with a colleague? Agree with a colleague to try a specific feedback practice and then discuss what you learn from it?  Join a listserv on teaching and learning or follow fellow educators on twitter?  Paying attention to what your students think and feel is a powerful tool for improvement, and being interested in strengthening your IBL practice is already a great start.

More about metacognition:
Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.  See Ch. 7, How do students become self-directed learners?  (I recommend the rest of this book too)

More on administering and responding to student feedback, from Prof. Robert Talbert, Grand Valley State University:

More examples of feedback methods and questions:

Monday, September 17, 2018

Cliff's Column on Productive Failure

Note from SY: I'm pleased to announce a new column on The IBL Blog by Cliff Bridges, CU Boulder. This column is going to focus on Cliff's perspectives on productive failure and messages to students. Please share with your students and colleagues! Turning you over to Cliff!


I’m Cliff Bridges, long time math PhD student, first time blogger. I’m here to talk about my experience as a mathematician. The “my experience” part is really the crux of this idea, not the math involved. The math is really just a launching point where lots of folks can grab on and enjoy the ride. I am using “lots” and “enjoy” pretty loosely here… I don’t know how many math folks there are who read blogs, and the ride on which I plan to bring you is pothole-ridden and the only pit stops are on dimly lit backroads. And the background music from “Jaws” is playing. And your cell phone battery is on 1%. But let me get to the point…

Cliff Bridges

This column is intended primarily for math students. As a student, I haven’t felt encouraged to think about my experiences as a mathematician, but rather to focus on the math and assume that the rest will work itself out. But the rest, the interactions with colleagues, the personal doubt, the institutional practices, did not always work itself out. For that matter, that math didn’t always work itself out either! I hope the reflection in this and future posts can reach students and provide the encouragement to sit with their experiences in both math and the rest.

I’ve experienced a lot of failures in my math career. This is a phrase I hear a lot, but I rarely hear details about what those math failures are. This vague sense of “everybody fails, just try and try again” makes it hard for me to relate to any one person’s experience. And that makes it hard to identify how much struggle should be expected on the path to success and how much is too much. Well, this column will be about the details of these struggles, failures, and how I or others get through them. This is my service to the readers: to provide an example of the emotional turmoil failure can instigate in a person, and show how one person identifies this turmoil and works through it. To be very clear, this column will focus on the stumbles through paths to success, not the success itself. To be less clear, this is like an opposite Facebook.

Before I really begin with my stories, I want to do a bit of hedging. If you ask any of the people who know me best, they would be shocked that I am writing about my emotions. Delving into my emotional content is a new practice for me, but it is something I am very interested in. And I’m excited to go through this learning process with all you!

Okay, now for an explanation of how I arrived at the conclusion about writing about failure. I participated in a summer Inquiry Based Learning workshop a few summers ago, and really latched on to the ideas presented there. I had already tried to encourage student engagement in my classroom, but maybe I didn’t have the right verbiage to be able to convince others, or even myself, that IBL was definitely the way I wanted to frame my courses. In any case, this workshop gave me the tools and data to back up my decisions about my teaching philosophy.

That fall, returning to my campus to teach in a newly invigorated way, I focused on the idea of “Productive Failure”. I hear that in the business world this is called “failing up” or “failing forward”, but the idea is the same: to use one’s mistakes as building blocks for a future success. To me, the idea sounds lovely! I can tell myself that I’ve never really failed, I’ve just discovered what my goal should have been from the start. This always reminds me of that one line in the song “She’s Always a Woman” by Billy Joel. My students, however, seemed to focus on the underlying structure of this idea: failure.

Failure is hard. I don’t want to downplay that. For my students, failure means you have to take the class again, and in college you have to pay for that. There are harsh ramifications of failure. But there are imaginary ramifications as well: failure means your friends will banish and unfollow you from twitter, or Santa will leave coal for you instead of a present. Okay, hopefully these ramifications sound a bit outlandish, but the feelings associated with them are very real and therefore just as harsh. Many of my students honestly believe that failing means they are somehow less deserving of good things. I have had a student tell me straight to my face that their parent would love them less if they failed! With a little coaxing that student dropped the idea as just fearful thinking, but a switch had already been flipped in my mind: I have to get students through the idea of failure in order to get to the idea of productive failure. Blogging about my failures is the best idea I have had that might help students prepare for the emotional expenditure of failing. So here I am, inviting students to walk with me through my failures so that when they face failures alone, the journey may seem less daunting.

Hopefully my students will be able to get something from this blog. They might see for the first time a teacher admit to not knowing everything, which might give courage to pursue teaching. Or mathematics. Or just a life where they aren’t afraid of getting something wrong. Maybe a fellow graduate student will get something from this blog. They’ll read the blog and decide that “it” is worth one more shot. Maybe “it” is their degree. Maybe “it” is just one more job application. I don’t know who will get something out of this blog, but I bet a lot of people can get something out of it. We all fail and none of us fails gracefully every time, but bringing this productive failure idea into everyday conversation might make the prospect of failing a little less scary.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

IBL Video Series on How to Teach via IBL

I'm happy to announce the new AIBL Video Series page. This video series focuses on topics that we cover at IBL Workshops. It's a virtual, self-paced, virtual IBL workshop (a la Khan Academy) for those who cannot attend a workshop (yet). Virtual workshops do not replace intensive summer workshops, but we also recognize that waiting until next summer is waiting too long for some. Scheduling or lack of traveling funding may be issues that prevents a math instructor from attending a summer workshop, and here at AIBL we believe that all students should have access to the latest student-centered, active teaching methods. Cost or logistics should not be a barrier to progress, and we are doing what we can to make things a bit better.

To help bridge the gap, I've created an initial series of videos intended for college math instructors. While K-12 teachers are welcome to use the videos and join the conversation, our focus is in shifting the teaching culture at the college level.

One way to look at this video series is as an expanded IBL Workshop Zero. It'll get you going, if you can put in the time or get you more ready just before a summer workshop. We'll be adding more videos, and please feel free to send us topics you want to learn more about and we'll try and make videos on topics that the community wants.

Lastly, while we don't have the resources now for a mentoring program, we do have an active community on our AIBL Facebook Group. If you have a question, post it there! We are also looking into other venues to host and support online communities for math instructors to help one another.  More on that is forthcoming.

Links AIBL Video Series Page AIBL Facebook Group