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

Friday, August 31, 2018

Beginning of the Academic Year and the Shokunin Spirit

The beginning of fall is a time when I like to reflect on what my goals are as a teacher. It's time to look at work what worked, what needs improvement, and see if new ideas from the profession can be implemented. The way I taught 10 or 15 years ago is very different than what I do today, because of this continuous effort to move forward.

One of my colleagues who teaches college math was once asked, "Why fix what isn't broken?" in the context of why work on improving classes we have been teaching for many years. Course evaluations are solid, and the instructor is well regarded. The question was meant in the sense of you're doing a good job, so why bother with putting in more effort.

The notion that captures an effective response to this question is the shokunin spirit or the viewpoint of an artisan or craftsman with a deeper sense of social obligation. (Shokunin spirit was highlighted in the movie, Jiro Dreams of Sushi.) In this view, it's not about getting there or making it to some achievement level, but to continually improve, strive for innovation, and give a 100% effort for yourself and the welfare of society. It's like the notion of practice makes perfect combined with running through the finish line. Why not work your hardest? Why let up, before the race is over? Why would you want to be the person who just coasts in?

There is a satisfaction of having tried your best and having found ways to innovate and improve, even if it's small steps that others won't notice.  The notion of hard work is sometimes viewed with a negative connotation in the U.S., where hard work is associated with slog, suffering, dreadful repetition. But that's where the point of view of the artisan comes in to lift things up. Artisans are passionate about their work, and hone, refine, and innovate as part of the process of doing what they do, because their process and work is intrinsically interesting and rewarding to them.

Teaching can be practiced with this same spirit. Yes, we could get away with passing out dittos from the 80s and hitting the play button. Or repeating our lines from the lectures notes we wrote a few years after we got out of grad school. An alternative is to look honestly at issues, read articles from Math Ed research, and collaborate with other professionals. We can learn about the documented issues and go to work on trying to make progress on some of them. Conceptual understanding, problem solving, math anxiety, DFW rates, equity and inclusion are not solved problems in college math, the last time I checked. There's a ton of work to be done. We got some fixin' to do!

"Why fix what isn't broken?" is not the question we should be asking. We should be asking, "What are we going to work on next?" As I head into my 19th year of college math teaching, my personal goal is to stay fresh, look for opportunities to make improvements to increase student success, and enjoy the daily process of becoming a better teacher.

Best wishes for a successful academic year, and I hope you also find a way to capture and find your own shokunin spirit!

Friday, August 24, 2018

Women Show Up in Math Ed Reform Efforts

In going through our summer 2018 numbers, I was reminded of a ongoing, persistent pattern. Women Show. Up.

Approximately 55% of participants of the three IBL Workshops in summer 2018 are women. Let's put this into context. Yes, women are half the population, but they make up far less than half the math profession. The AMS publishes reports that give us a good snapshot of the demographics of the profession. Only 15% of tenure/tenure-track positions are held by women. Women comprise 29% of non-tenure track positions (including postdocs), and women are conferred about 25-30% of the PhDs in the Mathematical Sciences.

This is of course a good thing. Women benefit from IBL courses in ways such that it *levels the playing field*. (Men benefit too, and the operative notion is level playing, not one that favors one group over the others. See Laursen et al 2014.) And female math instructors who can be mentors, role models and who also use IBL methods can make a positive impact.

Diversity of perspectives is one of the ingredients of creativity, scholarship, and maintaining a robust field. People have made arguments for why diversity in Math (or any field) is a good thing, and I'm not going to repeat those arguments here. I'm going to instead highlight a very simple idea. If a person, any person, male, female, non-binary wants to learn Math, that should be supported. Period.

Allyship isn't just about agreeing in concept. Allyship is about doing the right thing, or at the very least not getting in the way. Using appropriate active-learning methods or supporting others to use them is a doable step for anyone in the profession. Women, men, non-binary math instructors are all welcome to get off the sidelines and be involved in improving math learning for everyone. Active, intentional allyship matters.

This isn't a zero-sum game. If a female student learns more math, it doesn't take anything away from a male student. Or in this case if we note that women are showing up to IBL workshops, that's a good thing, and doesn't take away from the accomplishments of men in the subfield. Hence, let's acknowledge and celebrate the fact that women show up to IBL Workshops!

Friday, July 27, 2018

Student Voices Video: Episode 11

Here's Charlotte. She's a first year student at Cal Poly, majoring in Environmental Earth and Soil Sciences. Charlotte discusses how working on problems and learning other students' perspectives helped her own learning and her classmates' learning. Fruitful engagement and collaboration are two core components of IBL!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

France's Soccer Program, Professional Development in Math Teaching

The World Cup 2018 is going on as I write this, and I happened to come across this Vox Video that explains why France has far more players in the World Cup than any other.  "France was one of the first European countries to create an academy system for scouting, recruiting, and training talented young soccer players; many grew up in immigrant neighborhoods where their foreign-born parents had settled." 

How did they get to having the most soccers players at the top level? They have a system that invests in their people.

System-level success is intentional work. You could try to rely on luck, “osmosis,” or search for a magic bullet, like the special textbook or school choice that will mythically unlock the learning potential in our students. Or wait for the next generation of talented people to move us forward. Of course good materials and dedicated professionals are needed. I’m not discounting those things. We need those things. But thinking in terms of only books or simple, one-dimensional ideas isn’t a strategy should bet on. It's too passive, and ignores the power we have to act and work together now to harness our ingenuity and passion. Further, if it was that easy, it would have been done already generations ago.

I prefer an intentional, systems approach. Teaching is a human system, and improving education means thinking carefully about solutions on a system level. This includes addressing change as a community building effort. People do the teaching. People, primarily students, do the learning. People write the assessments, publish the textbooks, set the schedules, and so on. Education a human endeavor, and teaching (math) is a cultural activity.

To get at the core things that we need to do to make progress, we shouldn’t think only in mechanistic terms like schedules and books. Education is not a factory, and children are not machines. Yes, math teachers are humans :) Like France’s approach to developing soccer players, we’re developing an approach to professional development to establish a system for math instructors to learn about IBL methods and join a community for continuing, long-term development. We're supporting math instructors. We’re investing in people, and hence the community of practitioners who are key players in system. (We've highlighted our real-world successes so far in this post HERE).

Professional development, therefore, is a vital strategy. It’s how knowledge, skills, and practices of the broader profession can be efficiently shared with and learned by individuals. IBL Workshops are in this sense a framework or structure that can collect or house the community knowledge, and then provide coherent programs for new IBLers to learn quickly the skills and practices of effective IBL teaching.

Professional development is also an opportunity to build new leadership. Developing facilitators is developing community leaders, and this then grows the capacity for the profession to effectively implement improvements to education. Professional development is to faculty as classes are to students. (See our team of IBL workshop facilitators and IBL community leaders!)  This year I am attending exactly zero workshops, so others can learn to do this and own it. In fact, this is one of the main goals of our current project (NSF-PRODUCT).

Some caveats... Professional development does not solve all problems in education, but it's how we get at solving many of those problems. The point I'm making here is that investment in professional development is necessary. People solve problems, and professional development programs bring people together to share, grow, and find new solutions.

Designing a professional development system with intent is our mantra. Not only are we focused on running workshops to disseminate IBL methods, we also have an eye on community building and scalability of our workshop model.

More Links:
1. A Vision for the Future of Active Learning: Professional Development Centers

2. 2018 IBL Workshop General Info

3. Vox Video "Why France Produces the Most World Cup Players"