Tuesday, July 31, 2012

IBL Instructor Perspectives: Ron Taylor, Berry College

Ron Taylor is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Berry College.

1. How long have you been teaching and what was your teaching style before you started using IBL?

Including some adjuncting and teaching in grad school, I have been teaching for 18 years.  The last dozen of these years have been spent in a tenure track position at Berry College, a small liberal arts college in northwest Georgia.  Before I started using IBL I would have classified myself as an interactive lecturer.  By this I mean that I would spend a lot of class time doing the talking, but a significant portion of that talking was in the form of asking questions.  I didn't often talk for a whole class period, but I was the one in charge of what was going on.  I did occasionally use group work, or have students come to the front of the class to write solutions, or parts of solutions, on the board, but I always had a standard textbook and a sheaf of notes that laid out the direction that class was going to go each day.  This approach more or less mimicked the classes I had as a student, though there was some contrast.  All but one of my classes all through college and graduate school were lecture style classes, but there wasn't much in the way of group work in class or having students writing on the board.

2. How did you learn about IBL and when did you begin using it in your classes?

I had heard of the Moore method before I started using it, but I can't place my finger on where I first heard about it.  I had one Moore style class in graduate school, a point set topology class, and I think that the professor may have mentioned that he was using the Moore method, but I don't remember him telling us much about how the class was going to go or why he was choosing to do it that way.  So I spent the semester thinking that he "wasn't teaching us anything" and didn't enjoy the class, even though in hindsight I feel like I learned a lot of topology that semester.  Then in the spring of 2003 several students asked me to teach a directed study class in number theory and I thought that this would be a good place to try out this method.  We had a textbook, but we spent class time working through problems and talking our way through the proofs in the book.  It wasn't as much of a Moore method class as it could have been, but it wasn't bad for a first go without really knowing what I was doing.  (In addition to being a rank novice at using IBL I didn't really know a lot of number theory either.)  At the time I don't know that I made the connection between what I was doing in the number theory class and what I had experienced in the topology class, but the students seemed to be engaged every day and so I thought that it was at least a partial success.  During that semester I was invited to the Legacy of RL Moore Conference by virtue of being a Project NExT Fellow.  It sounded interesting and so I went.  I felt like I learned some stuff about teaching while I was there and I decided that I would try to ramp up the use of IBL (as I then envisioned it) in my classes with a concomitant decrease in the amount of time I was lecturing.  I've been back to the Legacy Conference ever since, co-chairing the planning committee for the past three years, and I feel as though it is paying off for my students.  Now my goals with IBL are two-fold.  One is to expand the amount of time I use IBL in class and the second is to improve the IBL stuff I have been doing.  I wish my topology professor had explained what he was doing so that I could have had a better experience that semester and maybe started teaching this way sooner rather than later.  I may also have gone on and taken some more topology.

In addition to the payoff for the students in my classes, there has been payoff for students at Berry in other classes.  In 2005 several of my colleagues and I applied for a startup grant from the Educational Advancement Foundation because we had discovered that several of us were trying to move away from lecturing.  We started with a group of six faculty in 4 departments which has grown to a group of almost twenty in more than half a dozen departments.  Since we started this IBL group on campus, other campuses have tried to replicate this process and several of us have won teaching awards based in part on our use of IBL techniques in our classes.

3. What was one of your best IBL experiences?

The single best hour of class I've ever had was in a real analysis class several years ago.  A student was presenting something that she had started the class before, but had to cut short because we ran out of time.  I suspect that she was happy about this because I don't think she had the full answer the first time.  Anyway, she got up to do her presentation and when she got through she asked if there were any questions and about half of the small class had the same question.  They all seemed to think that her proof wasn't quite right and they were asking about one particular part.  But the other half of the class, including myself and a philosophy professor who was sitting in the class, thought that she was right and we couldn't see where they were finding fault with what she had done.  The rest of the class period was spent with the two groups trying to figure out where the misunderstanding was and in the end it turned out that she, and those of us who were saying that she was right, were all making a jump in our heads that the other students wanted to see explicitly written down.  (I wish I could recall the particular detail, but it is lost to the winds of time.)  In the end it wasn't really a big sticking point in the proof, but some of the students weren't making a connection that others of us were making.  They learned a lot that day about how to ask good questions and I learned a lot about how to get out of the way and let the students make sure that things are right. [Editor's note:  This example is a great one!  Please also consider keeping a teaching diary to write down these gems.]

The best whole semester of class I have had may have been a knot theory class I taught where we used a combination of the Moore method and POGIL worksheets.  We didn't "cover" as much material as I had in the past, but we went much deeper into every topic that came up in the class.  The students, who had been immersed in a culture of active learning since they had been at Berry, were really good about asking lots of questions and generating discussion in class almost every day.  When one of them would get up to present the others weren't shy about asking questions if there was something amiss.  And they had learned to do this in a way so that no one ever felt put down when there was a question, so the presenter was able to go with the flow and worry about the correctness of the mathematics or helping a classmate understand something, rather than worry about being wrong in front of peers.  We did some challenging stuff in that class, and some of them worked harder than they had ever worked in a math class before.  But in the end they all seemed to have a really good time and to learn a lot.

4. What advice do you have for new IBL instructors?

Find something that sounds interesting (Moore method, POGIL, Just-In-Time Teaching, Think-Pair-Share, etc) and give it a try.  If it doesn't work as well as you had hoped, then tweak it and try again.  Listen to feedback from the students about what worked and what didn't wok so well.  Don't let them talk you into abandoning the methodology, but let them help you make the methods and materials you use better.  Above all else, let your students know that you believe in their abilities and give them the chance to rise to the occasions that you present to them.  Of course, you also have to remember that having the chance to rise to an occasion also gives someone the possibility of falling flat, so let students know that it's ok to make mistakes so long as they are willing to learn from them.

Also, try to find like-minded colleagues who will help you navigate through the hard times that you will invariably encounter.  In addition to the mentoring available from AIBL, you may find people at your local institution.  The culture of inquiry we have at Berry wouldn't be nearly the same if it weren't for the diverse group of people who are using strategies from a wide spectrum of active learning techniques.  This has been extremely beneficial to all of us in terms of having people to talk to when things aren't going as well as we would like.