As a professor, I take a lot of professional pride in my teaching. As part of that professionalism, I am always looking for ways to improve the learning experience for my students. In this post I am going to describe how some small changes have made a really noticeable impact in one of my classes. (That's where this post title comes from: a little variation has added up to a big change.)
Before I can describe what I did, I should give a little background about what happens in my classes. For now, I am going to focus on my Transition to Proof course. I teach via inquiry-based learning (IBL). As part of that approach, I use student presenters a lot. This means that students come to class having worked on problems (mostly proofs) at home, and they come to class knowing that for most of the problems, someone will have an opportunity to present their proof attempt in front of the class.
This semester, one of my goals is to improve the quality of the discussions that follow a student's presentation. To achieve this goal, I made a couple of changes. In the past, I collected work from everyone at the beginning of class. Then, a presentation proceeded through the following steps:
- A student wrote their work on the board
- The student explained their work.
- The class proceeded through a Think-Pair-Share: They were asked to look at the work in silence, then share ideas with a partner, and finally ask questions or make comments to the presenter.
- During this entire time, the presenter remained standing to answer questions about their work.
This term, I started in a small classroom with a small chalkboard and a projector screen fixed in place in front of the chalkboard, so that using (most of) the chalkboard was only possible if I unhooked the screen from the wall and set it on the floor. This was part of the inspiration for a new presentation procedure:
- I photograph student work and upload it to NotesPlus, and project the student work via iPad.
- The student explains their work, but sits down immediately, rather than waiting for questions.
- The class proceeds through a Think-Pair-Share: They look at the work in silence, then share ideas with a partner, and finally ask questions or make comments, BUT now the presenter is not on the spot during the discussion, as he or she is sitting down.
These changes are minor, just changing the medium of the presentation, letting the presenter sit during Q&A, and letting students keep their work in front of them for comparison. But the discussions have been stronger for the four weeks of this semester than in years past. My hypothesis is that the students feel more comfortable asking questions with me at the front, even though I am still directing questions back to the class or to the presenter. The class no longer feels like it is putting the presenter on the spot when they raise issues. Moreover, they are able to ask questions based on their own efforts that they now have in front of them. I am sure there are other factors involved in the improved discussions, including the fact that cohorts of students vary, and this group seems to have a number of people willing to share. Still, it is amazing how small changes can have such a visible impact.