Archives For IBL

The best way to learn is to do; the worst way to teach is to talk.

Quote by Paul Halmos from The Problem of Learning to Teach

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.

Prior to this summer’s MathFest in Portland, I was a co-facilitator for a four-day workshop on inquiry-based learning. My co-facilitators were Stan Yoshinobu (Cal Poly, SLO), Matt Jones (CSU Dominguez Hills), and Angie Hodge (University of Nebraska at Omaha). I love being a part of these workshops. Even though I’m there to help others get started on implementing IBL, I benefit tremendously from the experience and always leave feeling energized and fired up to teach. If you are an aspiring practitioner or a newish user of IBL, I highly encourage you to look into attending a future IBL Workshop, which is run as an MAA PREP workshop.

On day three of the workshop, I gave a 30-minute plenary talk. Most of the sessions are designed to be highly interactive and this was one of the few times that we “talked at” the participants. At the end of day two, I had given the participants a choice of topics for the plenary and the request was to describe the general overview of my approach to IBL in proof-based classes versus a class like calculus. So, that’s what I set out to do. The slides I used for my talk can be found below.

I’d like to think that my talk was more than the content of the slides, however, the slides ought be useful on their own for someone that is curious about IBL. This talk was similar to others about IBL that I’ve given in the past.

Here’s a classic quote from RL Moore:

That student is taught the best who is told the least.

During his talk yesterday at the RL Moore Conference, David Clark provided a slight modification:

The student is taught the best who is told only enough to ensure that he or she will continue to work hard, stay engaged, and make progress.

I think David’s revision does an excellent job of capturing the experience I hope to provide the students in my inquiry-based learning (IBL) classes with.

The past two years, Angie Hodge, Stan Yoshinobu, and I have organized an Inquiry-Based Learning Best Practices special session at MathFest. We’ve had a fantastic turn out in terms of speakers and attendees both years. This year we thought we would try something new and decided to organize a poster session instead. Here’s the abstract for the session:

New and experienced instructors implementing inquiry-based learning methods are invited to share their experiences, resources, and insights in this poster session. The posters in this session will focus on IBL best practices. We seek both novel ideas and effective approaches to IBL. Claims made should be supported by data (student responses, sample work, test scores, survey results, etc.). This session will be of interest to instructors new to IBL, as well as experienced practitioners looking for new ideas. Presenters should have their materials prepared in advance and will be provided with a self-standing, trifold tabletop poster approximately 48 in wide by 36 in high.

One of our goals of the poster session is to increase interaction between presenters and attendees. We hope that someone can wander around and gather a lot of information about implementing IBL in a short period of time. I’m not usually a fan of poster sessions, but I’m looking forward to this one. The poster session takes place on Thursday, August 7 at 3:30-5:00PM in the Hilton Portland, Plaza Level, Plaza Foyer. If you are attending MathFest, please stop by the poster session. Also, if you think you have something interesting to share, we encourage you to submit an abstract. The deadline for submission is Friday, June 13, 2014.

Questions regarding this session should be sent to the organizers:

Angie Hodge, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Dana Ernst, Northern Arizona University
Stan Yoshinobu, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

If you want to learn more about IBL, check my “What the Heck is IBL?” post over on the Math Ed Matters blog.

High Five A few weeks ago, Stan Yoshinobu asked me to round up a few student quotes about their experience with inquiry-based learning (IBL). The intention is to use some of the material he gets for pamphlets and flyers for the Academy of Inquiry-Based Learning. I contacted a few of the students from the abstract algebra course that I taught in the fall and here is what they had to say.

“I’m a very shy person. Presenting math problems in front of an audience of math students was at first excruciating, but by the end of the course I realized I had gained an enormous amount of confidence. I truly feel that the IBL process has given me access to internal resources I didn’t realize I had available.”

“IBL created an environment for me where I felt comfortable enough to try proofs without the pressure of needing to be 100% right on the first try. So now in later upper division courses I am more comfortable with trying more complex problems, which ultimately lead me to do undergraduate research. And in all honesty, the classroom culture created by the IBL setup is what sold me on pure mathematics and has made me a better independent learner.”

“IBL helps prepare the student for the real world by teaching them how to create intuition. When you get to the real world or higher level mathematics courses, you will not always have someone there to tell you how to solve the problem.”

“By far, and without a doubt, inquiry-based learning is the best way to learn mathematics. Most methods for teaching math involve an instructor showing how to “do” various problems often involving computations and formulas, and then the students mimic the process for similar problems. IBL, however, asks the students to use what they know (or assume) to be true in order to create their own ways to solve problems or form logical arguments to validate other ideas. And logical arguments, not computations, not formulas, are the basis of all mathematics. Being able to form logical arguments is not something that can be mimicked, it must be discovered on one’s own, which is exactly how IBL works. Hence, when it comes to math, real math, and not just computations, IBL is the way to go.”

It would be a crime if I didn’t mention my all-time favorite student quote about IBL that was written on a course evaluation at the end of my introduction to proof course from the spring 2013 semester.

“Try, fail, understand, win.”

I believe that this last quote perfectly captures the essence of an effective IBL experience for a student. If you want to know about IBL, check out my post, What the Heck is IBL?, over on Math Ed Matters.

Undergraduate Student Poster Session

The Joint Mathematics Meetings took place last week in Baltimore, MD. The JMM is a joint venture between the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America. Held each January, the JMM is the largest annual mathematics meeting in the world. Attendance in 2013 was an incredible 6600. I don’t know what the numbers were this year, but my impression was that attendance was down from last year.

As usual, the JMM was a whirlwind of talks, meetings, and socializing with my math family. My original plan was to keep my commitments to a minimum as I’ve been feeling stretched a bit thin lately. After turning down a few invitations to give talks, I agreed to speak as part of panel during a Project NExT session. The title of the panel was “Tried & True Practices for IBL & Active Learning”. Here, IBL is referring to inquiry-based learning. Last year I gave several talks and co-organized workshops about IBL, so I knew preparing for the panel wouldn’t be a huge burden.

The other speakers on the panel were Angie Hodge (University of Nebraska, Omaha) and Anna Davis (Ohio Dominican University). Each of us were given 15 minutes to discuss our approach to IBL and active learning and then we had about 20 minutes for questions. For my portion, I summarized my implementation of IBL in my proof-based courses followed by an overview of my IBL-lite version of calculus. Angie discussed in detail the way in which UNO is successfully adopting IBL in some of their calculus sections. Anna spent some time telling us about an exciting project called the One-Room Schoolhouse, which attempts to solve the following problem: Small colleges and universities often struggle to offer a variety of upper-level courses due to low enrollment. According to the ORS webpage, the ORS setting allows schools to offer low-enrollment courses every semester at no additional cost to the institution. ORS is made possible by flipping the classroom.

If you are interested in my slides, you can find them below.

I’m really glad that I took the time to speak on the panel. The audience asked some great questions and I had several fantastic follow-up conversations with people the rest of the week.

As a side note, one thing I was reminded of is that speaking early during the conference (which is when the panel occurred) is much better than speaking later. The past couple JMMs, I spoke on the last day or two, and in this case, my talk is always taking up bandwidth in the days leading up to it. It’s nice to just get it out of the way and then be able to concentrate on enjoying the conference.

One highlight of the conference was having a pair of my current undergraduate research students (Michael Hastings and Sarah Salmon) present a poster during the Undergraduate Student Poster Session. Michael and Sarah have been working on an original research project involving diagrammatic representations of Temperley-Lieb algebras. I’ve been extremely impressed with the progress that they have made and it was nice to be able to see them show off their current results. The title of their poster was “A factorization of Temperley–Lieb diagrams” (although this was printed incorrectly in the program). Here is their abstract:

The Temperley-Lieb Algebra, invented by Temperley and Lieb in 1971, is a finite dimensional associative algebra that arose in the context of statistical mechanics. Later in 1971, R. Penrose showed that this algebra can be realized in terms of certain diagrams. Then in 1987, V. Jones showed that the Temperley–Lieb Algebra occurs naturally as a quotient of the Hecke algebra arising from a Coxeter group of type $A$ (whose underlying group is the symmetric group). This realization of the Temperley-Lieb Algebra as a Hecke algebra quotient was generalized to the case of an arbitrary Coxeter group. In the cases when diagrammatic representations are known to exist, it turns out that every diagram can be written as a product of “simple diagrams.” These factorizations correspond precisely to factorizations in the underlying group. Given a diagrammatic representation and a reduced factorization of a group element, it is easy to construct the corresponding diagram. However, given a diagram, it is generally difficult to reconstruct the factorization of the corresponding group element. In cases that include Temperley–Lieb algebras of types $A$ and $B$, we have devised an efficient algorithm for obtaining a reduced factorization for a given diagram.

Perhaps I’m biased, but I think their poster looks pretty darn good, too.

All in all, I would say that I had a successful JMM. I had a lot more meetings than I’ve had in the past, so I missed out on several talks I really would have liked to attend. There’s always next year.

Do hard things

December 3, 2013 — Leave a comment

Zach GoldenbergRecently one of my former students at Plymouth State University, Zach Goldenberg, was awarded the 2013 Graduating Senior Award of Excellence. Zach is an amazing person and the award is well-deserved. I was fortunate to have Zach as a student in several of my classes, including Calculus I, Calculus II, Intro to Proof, Number Theory, and Abstract Algebra. As a freshman, he was the top student in both calculus courses. In the other courses, he consistently stood out as one of the top students. In addition, Zach was one of four undergraduate research students that worked on an original research project with me during the 2010–2011 academic year. Along with his fellow researchers, Zach presented the findings of their research at two regional conferences and presented a poster at the Joint Mathematics Meetings. Zach was instrumental in the success of this research group. Zach graduated summa cum laude with a double major in mathematics and political science. He was heavily involved with service opportunities, giving back in the local community at the Pemi Youth Center and internationally through his work with PSU’s Nicaragua Club and as an intern with Compas de Nicaragua, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving lives in urban and rural Nicaragua.

One of the things that I like best about Zach is his enthusiasm for life. His positive attitude is contagious and makes him an absolute pleasure to be around. He is constantly smiling and providing words of encouragement to those around him. Zach has been an exceptional role model for others by demonstrating that hard work pays off, and that the right attitude can make the difficulties and challenges enjoyable.

Below is a short video in which Zach was able to provide us with some words of wisdom.

When asked whether he had any advice for future students/graduates, Zach responded with:

Do hard things. It’s not that I want people to try and fail at things, but even if they do try and fail, that sometimes is the best experience that you can have. Try to do impossible things; you’d be amazed at how much you grow in just trying to do that. Try to do something bigger than yourself.

This dude is going to help change the world for the better. Well done Zach!

Zach’s perspective resonates with the reasons that I choose to teach via inquiry-based learning (IBL). Of course, I want my students to learn mathematics in my classes, but what I really want is to provide them with an opportunity to have a transformative experience. I want my students to yearn for challenges and to learn to turn their stumbling blocks into stepping stones.

This past Thursday was the first day of student presentations in my calculus class. It went awesome! The plan is to spend one whole class period each week having students present and discuss problems. The remaining three classes each week will be predominately spent on direct instruction and some small group work. I was emotionally prepared for a crash and burn session as it is often the case that the first day of student presentations in my calculus classes can be a bit rough. I’m totally okay with this as it always improves. But Thursday didn’t leave much room for improvement.

Class started by me asking for volunteers to present their proposed solutions to the problems from their Weekly Homework assignments. I anticipated being met with silence while students stared at their desks. The plan was to then gently nudge people to present. Instead, I had more people volunteer than we had problems. That wasn’t a problem I was expecting. I think I have a good group of students, so I maybe I had nothing to do with this. However, I am suspicious that the heavy marketing that I did helped a lot. Also, I’m curious how much my Achievement Points experiment played into the number of volunteers. Whatever the case, the students were ready to rumble.

In case you are interested, here is the general format for student presentation days, which will typically occur on Thursdays. A few days before the students are to present, I assign a Weekly Homework assignment. You can find the first one that the students did by going here (it’s not terribly exciting). For the most part, the problems on the Weekly Homework assignments are a subset of the material covered the previous week. I’m a big fan of having the students circle back on concepts as much as possible. The students also have Daily Homework assignments that consist almost entirely of problems from WeBWorK.

When the students arrive to class on presentation days, they are supposed to have completed or done their best to complete all of the problems from the Weekly Homework. Upon entering the room, students should grab a colored felt tip pen. I have a box of pens in a variety of colors. The students love the sky blue and purple ones and hardly anyone ever chooses the red ones. During class students can annotate their work only with their felt tip pen. My approach to this is nearly identical to what is described in my Math Ed Matters post located here. The big picture is that I want students to be able to process what they have on their paper as other students are presenting. However, I also want to make sure that I know what work students had done before they entered the room.

One difference between what I describe in the Math Ed Matters post is how I grade the homework that students are presenting problems from. In my other classes where presentations play a more prominent role, the students are presenting problems from their Daily Homework and it is these problems that they annotate with the felt tip pens. In this case, I grade the Daily Homework with a $\checkmark-$, $\checkmark$, $\checkmark+$ system. But in my calculus class, since the students are presenting problems from their Weekly Homework, the students are annotating these problems. Moreover, since students are revisiting topics from the previous week, I feel comfortable weighting the Weekly Homework in calculus more and grading it harshly.

There is no penalty for students using the felt tip pen and I encourage them to annotate to their heart’s content. However, when grading the assignment, the annotations are more or less ignored. That is, they are graded on the work they had done before class. The students need some coaching with how to use the felt tip pen, but they seem to dig it.

At the beginning of class, I usually write down all the problems that I’d like to see presented and then I ask for volunteers. In the case that more than one person wants to present a particular problem, the student with the fewest presentations has priority. If there is no priority, I try to choose one of the volunteers at random.

Depending on the number of problems and their difficulty, I will either have the students all come to the board at once to write down their solution while I bounce around the room answering questions or we’ll have one student come to the board at a time to present their proposed solution. In the first case, after the solutions are on the board, we will discuss each problem. In most cases, I’ll have the student that wrote down their proposed solution lead a discussion with the whole class about the problem and their solution.

Here is where my approach likely differs from many others. I don’t want all the solutions to be correct. I’d rather have students make mistakes. Ideally, I’d like to see a mixture of correct answers, answers with small mistakes, and answers with huge errors. It’s not that I want students to screw up. What I want is to have something to talk about. One of the greatest advantages of doing student presentations is that the audience should take on the role of skeptic. This makes the student engage with the material in a much different way than if they watch me. I’m an authority and usually the students just believe everything I say. I encourage the students to be willing to share what they have. It’s a low stakes endeavor for them. Just being willing to present is what they get credit for. (This is different in my upper-level proof-based courses.) On the other hand, I don’t want students to present total crap either.

This semester I have 48 students enrolled in calculus. I’d prefer a smaller class, but I can make it work. The goal is to get as many students to the board as possible. On Thursday, 9 students presented. I’m always concerned about how many students in class are engaged on presentation days. However, I’m confident that it is many orders of magnitude more than when I lecture (and I like lecturing and I think the students like it, too).

On Thursday, most of the solutions where flawless, but we also had a few that led to excellent discussions. In each of these cases, the presenters did a good job at fielding questions and comments from the audience and from me. This works because I make it a point to develop a community of trust. The audience has to behave appropriately. I encourage students to clap after each presenter and they clapped loudest after the two students that were at the board the longest due to flawed solutions. One of these students had told me before class that she did not understand function transformations (last week we were still reviewing precalculus). I encouraged her to volunteer for a problem related to function transformations, so that she could show us what we had. Indeed, she did have some misunderstanding, but in my view, this was the most beneficial presentation.

The fall semester starts in a couple days and I’ll be teaching Calculus 1 (for like the 15th time) and our undergraduate Abstract Algebra course. Despite my relatively low teaching load, I’ll also be advising 3 undergraduate research students (on two different projects) and 2 masters thesis students. Combined with the fact that I’m still frantically trying to prepare brand new IBL materials for my Abstract Algebra class, I expect a very busy semester. For this reason, I decided not to mess with the format of my calculus class very much. I think it has room for improvement—namely ramping up the IBL aspect of the course—but this will have to wait until a later semester. I feel a little guilty about this, but I’m no use to anyone if I’m trying to do too much.

Notice that I said that I wouldn’t mess with the format “very much.” I am going to make some small changes. In previous semesters, I always devoted one class period a week to students presenting problems at the board. This has always worked well for me, but last semester I tried something else that I don’t think was as successful. So, I’ve decided that I’ll return to presentation days. In the past, I had a fairly nebulous way of assessing student presentations. I want to encourage students to present, so I make it worth something. But on the other hand, I don’t want it to be a high stakes thing. A class typically benefits more from the discussion surrounding a less than perfect solution to a problem than they do from a presentation that is flawless. So, I encourage students to share what they have. Of course, I don’t want students putting crap up on the board on a regular basis either. In a small class, this isn’t very hard to manage, but in a class with 45 students (which is what I currently have enrolled in my calculus class), it gets a little trickier. I’ve been thinking about how to manage this for a few weeks.

The latest version of WeBWorK—which we use for our online homework platform—has a new feature called “Achievements.” You can read more about this here. This basic idea is this:

Instructors now have the ability to create and award “Math Achievements” and “Math Levels” to students for solving homework problems and for practicing good WeBWorK behavior. In a nutshell, students can earn achievements by meeting preset goals. For example, they might earn an achievement for solving 3 homework problems in a row without any incorrect submissions, or for solving a problem after taking an 8 hour break. Earning achievements and solving problems earns students points and after a student gets enough points they will be given a new “Math Level”.

I have zero experience with the WeBWorK Achievements, but I thought I would give it a try. I don’t want to make earning them mandatory and I don’t want to offer extra credit either. So, I’ve been passively brainstorming how to handle them.

Northern Arizona University now requires faculty to take daily attendance in all freshman-level courses. However, how we take this data into account is up the instructor. It just has to count for something. The past couple semesters, I’ve been diligent about taking attendance, but I’ve always been a little bit vague about how it does or does not impact a student’s grade. Policies like, “you’ll lose a letter grade if you miss X number of classes,” drive me nuts.

Yesterday, I decided it was time to sort out what the plan should be for presentations, WeBWorK Achievements, and attendance. I had read a short article about gamification in education (I can’t remember which article) recently and I thought, “hey, why don’t I just gamify this stuff that I’m not sure what to do with.” In general, I’m not a fan of offering points for things that students should naturally do (and I’m also sure I have tons of counterexamples to what I just said), but I’m going for it anyway. Maybe this is a horrible idea. Here is what I currently have on their syllabus.


As per university policy, attendance is mandatory in all 100-level courses, and in particular, I am required to record attendance each class session. Daily attendance is vital to success in this course! You are responsible for all material covered in class, regardless of whether it is in the textbook. Repeated absences may impact your grade (see the section on Achievements). You can find more information about NAU’s attendance policy on the Academic Policies page.

Presentations and Participation

Throughout the semester, class time will be devoted to students presenting problems to the rest of the class. In addition, we will occasionally make use of in-class activities whose purpose is to either reinforce/synthesize previously introduced concepts or to introduce new concepts via student-driven inquiry. If necessary, these activities will be explicitly graded.

I expect each student to participate and engage in class discussion. Moreover, I will occasionally ask for volunteers (or call on students) to present problems at the board. No one should have anxiety about being able to present a perfect solution to a problem. In fact, we can gain so much more from the discussion surrounding a slightly flawed solution. However, you should not volunteer to present a problem that you have not spent time thinking about. Your overall participation includes your willingness to present, engagement in and out of class, and consistent attendance record. Your grade for this category will be worth 8% of your overall grade and will be based on Achievements (see below).


This semester I’ve decided to “gamify” good student behavior. Here is the gist. I’ve generated a list of items that I deem good student behavior. Every time you achieve one of the items on the list, you earn some points. The more points you earn, the higher your Presentation and Participation grade (worth 8% of your overall grade in the course). So, how do you earn achievement points? Here’s a list.

Points Description
5 Stop by my office sometime during the first two weeks of classes. This is a one time offer and stopping by to just say hello is fine.
2 Stop by my office hours to get help. This goes into effect after the first visit and you can earn points for this up to 4 times.
1 Attend class, arrive on time, and stay the whole class meeting.
1/2 Attend class but arrive late.
1/2 Attend class but leave early.
2 Attend a review session offered by our Peer TA. You can earn points for this multiple times.
4 Stop by the Math Achievement Program to get help. This is a one time offer and you must get a “prescription” form from me in advance for a tutor to sign.
2 Find a typo anywhere on the course webpage, homework, exam, etc. These points are first come, first earned, but there is no limit to the number of times you can earn points for this.
5 Volunteer to present a problem to the class on presentation days.
3 Agree to present a problem to the class on presentation days after I’ve called on you.
2 Earn a non-secret Achievement in WeBWork. You can see list of possible non-secret Achievements by clicking on the appropriate link in the sidebar after logging in to WeBWorK.
3 Earn a secret Achievement in WeBWork. These shall remain a mystery.
2 Post a useful resource such as a video or link to a math-related website on our course forum.
2 Post a relevant question on our course forum.
2 Post a useful response to a question on the course forum that does not just give an answer away.
5 Earn at least an 8/10 on your highest score for a Gateway Quiz.

Important: Any time I feel you are taking advantage of the spirit of this, I reserve the right to take away an achievement point.

To calculate your grade for the Presentation and Participation category, I will divide your Achievement points by the maximum number of Achievement points earned by a student and then convert to a percent.

Feedback is extremely welcome. I’ll let y’all know how it goes.

Edit: One thing that I forgot to add is that I have a Peer TA for 10 hours per week. She attends class and has access to the course forum, etc. So, I’ll let her do most of the point tracking. Otherwise, I’d have trouble with the bookkeeping. Also, I decided to use the highest number of Achievement points earned by a student to calculate a percentage for each student. In the comments below, Strider suggested that I use the average of the top 3 instead. I like this idea, but I think I’ll use the top 5.