Wednesday, September 24, 2014

6 Responses to Students' Questions About IBL

Teaching is a cultural activity. Whenever students enter a classroom, they have expectations about their roles, and about what the teacher will do. If a teacher decides to do something outside of the norm, students are often confused and anxious about what will happen. Students often express these feelings with statements such as, 
"Why do we have to teach ourselves?" "I don't learn this way," or, "Why not just show me what to do?"

Over time, I have accumulated some ways to respond to these statements. I did not develop all of these myself; many of them have come from other instructors I have met at conferences and workshops. I should also say that these are things that I say to college students. If I had an audience of high school students, for instance, I would probably make these same points, but not necessarily in the same way.

  1. Think of me as a coach. When you think of things you learned outside the classroom, things like playing a musical instrument, learning to swim, or playing a video game, you probably learned a lot of it by trying things yourself. That is what we are doing here. By letting you show me what you tried, I can coach you, and help you figure out anything you are missing. To quote a student of Dana Ernst’s, “Try. Fail. Learn. Win.” In other words, people learn from their own efforts. And, like a swim coach, while I will expect you to try to swim on your own, I will also step in to keep you from drowning.
  2. Learning happens when we are actively involved. A lot of research has accumulated that suggests that classrooms in which students are actively participating and collaborating are better at promoting learning than classes in which students are passive. (Research on cooperative learning for K-12 is summarized in Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock, 2001, for example. The recent article by Freeman and colleagues reviews research on active learning at the college level.)
  3. Do not mistake struggle for “not learning.” We are often not very good at judging how well we are learning. When people watch a well-organized lecture, they rate their learning higher than when watching a poorly organized lecture. But tests suggest that the audience in each case learns about the same amount. In contrast to a lecture, when we participate actively, it can feel uncomfortable to struggle to come up with answers. But that struggle is part of learning. Consequently, students sometimes rate their learning in lecture courses as higher than in active learning courses, even when the data suggest otherwise. More than one study has pointed to this, but this is apparent in a study by Lake, 2001 (
  4. This course will help you develop the skills that employers want, such as independence, creativity, the ability to work in teams, the ability to learn new ideas, and skill in solving problems for which the solution is not immediately apparent. My goals for you in this class are not just to pass exams; I want you to learn skills that will be valuable to your long-term success in your chosen career. But developing these skills requires doing something different than watching the instructor and practicing similar work on your own time. It will require struggle, as you are learning to use a different set of skills than you may be used to using in math class.
  5. A lot of people tell me they hate math, or, “I’m just not a math person.” The kinds of experiences that lead people to make these statements have a lot to do with the way math has been taught for a long time. A lot of classes emphasize following the teacher’s steps, practicing specific procedures, memorizing mathematical facts, and developing speed at execution. While there is a role for these things, mathematics is about a lot of other things, and for the most part, it is these other aspects that interest mathematicians in doing mathematics. The other side of mathematics is about solving problems, finding new ways to understand mathematical ideas, and proving that the solutions we find work, or figuring out the cases where they don’t work. This kind of work does not proceed linearly, from problem directly to solution. Instead, we often take a winding road, hit dead ends, and have to re-evaluate what we are doing. This kind of mathematics is not straightforward, but it is exhilarating when we succeed, and even when we don’t, we often learn a lot.
  6. A good teacher is not defined by what he or she knows, but what he or she can get students to learn. It is what the students can do that matters. I can explain a lot of sophisticated mathematics, but that is no guarantee that you will learn it. Instead, I carefully prepare problems that will help you draw out your own ideas, and that are most likely to put you into a situation where you will learn the important ideas of the class. Then, as a class, we will struggle, but you will learn more than you would if this class was organized around me, as the instructor, explaining solutions to problems you have not yet thought about.
I’m sure other instructors have other ideas, and I’d be happy to hear them in the comments. Meanwhile, I hope these examples serve to illustrate the kinds of answers that an instructor can use. I find that both the use of analogies (as in #1) and the appeal to research (as in #2 and #3) tend to be my favorite. I probably lean on #1 the most, but I also mention the others regularly. In classes where the students are not STEM majors, #5 often resonates with the personal experience of many students, and can help open the door to having them consider other ways of organizing the classroom that can still be called teaching, or, better still, to think of the classroom as being about what the students learn, rather than what the teacher explains.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Who counts?

In this post, I discuss federally defined graduation rates. 

If you have not heard, accountability of the sort that has been in place for K-12 for more than a decade seems to be creeping into higher education. 

In some ways, I am happy that this discussion is taking place. As a professor, I take pride in seeing students learn, grow, graduate, and move on to success in their adult lives. I think it is good that institutions of higher education are looking at graduation as a measure of the accomplishments of an institution, and that they are focusing on ways to support students in reaching their goals. However, as often happens, finding an appropriate way to measure graduation is not as simple as it seems, and the current definition does a great disservice to some institutions.

Much of the discussion of graduation rates is based on the Federal Graduation Rate (FGR), which measures the percentage of first-time, full-time freshmen who graduate within six years of entering their original four-year institution. If you went to college immediately after high school, took classes full-time while working part-time, and graduated within 6 years, this definition probably seems perfectly reasonable on the face of it. If you fit that profile, congratulations. More than half of college students do not.

For purposes of illustration, suppose we are looking at the graduation rate for “Big State University (BSU).” In the FGR:
  • Transfers are not counted for anyone’s benefit. If a student begins his/her college career at another institution (whether a community college or another 4-year institution), and transfers to, and later graduates from, BSU, that student is not counted toward the success of either BSU or the original institution. Neither one!
  • If a student begins his/her BSU career at less than a full-time unit load (often 12 units), or begins in mid-year, then s/he also does not get counted toward the success (or failure) of the institution. Nothing that happens with that student will impact the FGR reported by BSU.
  • I have been told, but have not been able to verify, that even if a student withdraws for a semester, or stops taking full-time course loads, that s/he is removed from eligibility to be counted as a graduate.
Taking these factors into account, the American Council on Education estimates that about 61% of students at 4-year schools are excluded from the calculation. Sixty-one percent! How do institutions have a conversation about their successes and shortcomings when they ignore more than half of the students in their calculation?

To give you another perspective, I looked at my own institution to find out how many of our graduates are being counted toward our success, as measured by the FGR.

Using public Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data from my institution, the data and my calculations indicate that 306 students who graduated from the university in 2012-2013 were among the students counted in the FGR, meaning that they were first-time, full-time freshmen in one of the years 2007-2010. Does that sound like a cozy and intimate graduation ceremony? I guess that depends on where you went to school. But in fact, the institution awarded 2,481 bachelor’s degrees in the 2012-2013 academic year. That means that fewer than 1 in every 8 graduates is counted as part of the university’s official graduation rate. How do we define the success of an institution when 7 out of every 8 students receiving degrees, or more than 2,100 of its graduates, do not count toward the accomplishments of the institution?

The university serves a population with a lot of students eligible for financial aid, and serves a lot of non-traditional students who may work full-time. That is part of the institution’s mission, and one I am proud to serve. But the FGR does not measure our success.

So, the next time you hear about graduation rates in higher education, be glad that the individuals care about students being able to complete their degree. And then tell them that there is a lot of success that is not being counted.

I am not the first person to make at least some of the points here. Yesterday, I searched for “federally defined graduation rate” and I got hits that included articles and blog posts making exactly some of the points here. But I don’t think they have looked at the problem from the other end, how many of an institution’s graduates are or are not students who count for the FGR.

Here is one example of an article discussing some of these issues:

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Excitement of September

It’s September, and my wife, my daughters, and I have all started our school years. I am excited, as I am nearly every year at this time. September is the time for hope. I have new students that will be engaged and, I hope, experience the joy of learning. I am teaching a course that I have never taught to a group of students, most of whom I have already had. I am excited about working with new content and seeing the ideas that students will bring to it.

In just two class meetings, there have already been some highlights. In one class, the students were deeply engaged with the concept questions that I used with them. The debate was lively, and this set the tone for good discussions of student presentations. In my other class, we left a question unresolved, but two students turned in two different, but both viable, solutions to the problem, which will lead to a good discussion this coming week. 

I hope your year is off to a good start.