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!