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?