Setting the Stage

January 14, 2015 — 10 Comments

Whenever I’m teaching via inquiry-based learning (IBL), it is important to get student buy-in. I often refer to this as “marketing IBL”. My typical approach to marketing involves having a dialogue with my students, where I ask them leading questions in the hope that at the end of our discussion the students will have told me that something like IBL is exactly what we should be doing.

In the past, I would just wing it on day one and it’s been different every time. However, I’ve had lots of people ask me to describe exactly what I do and I also thought it would be a good exercise for me to sit down and think carefully about the activity. So, in the fall of 2014, I created some slides to guide the activity, which I am now calling “Setting the Stage”. Since then I have shortened the activity and made some improvements. The current version of the activity is inspired by TJ Hitchman, Mike Starbird, and Brian Katz.

The main idea is that I want to get students thinking about why we there and what we should really be striving to get out of the course. In addition, it helps students understand why I take an IBL approach in my classes. Below is an outline of the the activity.

Directions to the Students

  • Get in groups of size 3–4.
  • Group members should introduce themselves.
  • For each of the questions that follow, I will ask you to:
    1. Think about a possible answer on your own.
    2. Discuss your answers with the rest of your group.
    3. Share a summary of each group’s discussion.


  1. What are the goals of a university education?
  2. How does a person learn something new?
  3. What do you reasonably expect to remember from your courses in 20 years?
  4. What is the value of making mistakes in the learning process?
  5. How do we create a safe environment where risk taking is encouraged and productive failure is valued?

Each time I’ve run the activity, the responses are slightly different. The responses to the first two questions are usually what you would expect. Question 3 always generates great discussions. The idea of “productive failure” naturally arises when discussing question 4 and I provide them with this language sometime while discussing this question. Listening to the students’ responses to question 4 is awesome. It’s really nice to get the students establishing the necessary culture of the class without me having to tell them what to do.

After we are done discussing the 5 questions, I elaborate on the importance of productive failure and inform that I will often tag things in class with the hashtag #pf in an attempt to emphasize its value. I also provide them with the following quote from Mike Starbird:

“Any creative endeavor is built on the ash heap of failure.”

I wrap up the activity by conveying some claims I make about education and stating some of my goals as a teacher.


  • An education must prepare a student to ask and explore questions in contexts that do not yet exist. That is, we need individuals capable of tackling problems they have never encountered and to ask questions no one has yet thought of.
  • If we really want students to be independent, inquisitive, & persistent, then we need to provide them with the means to acquire these skills.

Lofty Goals

  • Transition students from consumers to producers!
  • I want to provide the opportunity for a transformative experience.
  • I want to change my students’ lives!

Below is the Spring 2015 version of the slides that accompany the activity.

You can always find the current version of the LaTeX source at my GitHub repo located here. Note that I’m using the beamer m theme for the slides, which require the Mozilla Fira fonts by default. Feel fee to steal, modify, and improve. And please let me know if do.

Dana Ernst

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Father of two boys, husband, mathematician, cyclist, trail runner, rock climber, and coffee drinker. Columnist for MAA blog Math Ed Matters.
  • Justin Dunmyre

    Dana, this is awesome, thank you for sharing. I’ve often struggled with how to start my courses because lecturing on the first day sends the wrong message. Our semester starts in a few weeks, so I’m going to steal this and report back with how it went!

    • Awesome. Please let me know how it goes.

  • Mike Starbird’s quote reminds me of Winston Churchill who said, “Success is the ability to move from one failure to the next with no loss of enthusiasm.” I have that quote on my office door.

  • Nice, and I’m honored to be cited.

  • Dana, awesome questions. I stole them for my stats class, and I’ve never seen such a radiant group of stats students as the group that emerged from that discussion.


  • Dana,
    Thank you so much for these questions. I used them in class today (not for a Math, but CS class). I also added to Question 4 to suit my course needs by asking them to identify places in the course structure as examples of this. It was such a dynamic discussion!

  • Priscilla Bremser

    Dana, I’ve been meaning to let you know that I used a version of these questions on the first day of linear algebra in February. Because of where I teach, I changed the first question to read “What are the goals of a liberal arts education?” The conversations in both sections were great. I made sure that the people in the small groups took turns reporting out, so that everyone had the experience of speaking to the whole class at least once on the first day, indeed “setting the stage.” I took notes and posted them on the course website. I’m getting around to this now because I mention this activity in a post to appear on April 20 on the AMS “On Teaching and Learning Mathematics” blog ( ), so fair warning.

    • Priscilla, thanks for letting me know. I’m looking forward to the upcoming blog post.

  • Amanda Taylor

    I used these questions in my Calculus II and Calculus III courses today. They went very well. Thank you.