April 25, 2013, 2:39 pm

By Robert Talbert

The semester just ended, and I’m now in full retrospect mode. This semester I was fortunate to have only one prep — two sections of Linear Algebra. Linear algebra, for me, is the cornerstone of a modern mathematics education precisely because its concepts and its mechanics lie at the heart of so much real-world stuff — from web search algorithms to scheduling problems to computer graphics and many other areas. And yet, in a typical one-semester course on linear algebra you only get to touch on a handful of applications, and those tend to be sort of domesticated. A few years ago, I decided I wanted students to explore more than just the stock examples in the textbook, and I wanted them to do so in an authentic way that reflects real-world mathematical practice.

About that time, Derek Bruff published this blog post about his use of Application Projects, and I gleefully…

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February 14, 2013, 7:45 am

By Robert Talbert

One of the projects I was taking on with my teaching this semester was a revamped linear algebra course built around peer instruction and the use of Learning Catalytics, a web-based classroom response platform. I probably owe you a quick update now that it’s nearly mid-semester (what?).

Linear algebra is a strange course in some ways. There are a lot of mechanical skills one has to learn, like multiplying matrices and performing the Row Reduction Algorithm. If you come into linear algebra straight out of calculus with a purely instrumental viewpoint on mathematics, you will almost certainly think that these mechanical skills are the point of linear algebra. But you’d be wrong! It’s the *conceptual* content of the subject that really matters. Like I tell my students, you can answer almost any question in linear algebra by forming a matrix and getting it to reduced row echelon form….

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December 18, 2012, 4:17 pm

By Robert Talbert

I’m excited and happy to be teaching linear algebra again next semester. Linear algebra has it all — there’s computation that you can do by hand if you like that sort of thing, but also a strong incentive to use computers regularly and prominently. (How big is an incidence matrix that represents, say, Facebook?) There’s theory that motivates the computation. There’s computation that uncovers the theory. There’s something for everybody, and in the words of one of my colleagues, if you don’t like linear algebra then you probably shouldn’t study math at all.

Linear algebra is also an excellent place to use Peer Instruction, possibly moreso than any other sophomore-level mathematics course. Linear algebra is loaded with big ideas that all connect around a central question (whether or not a matrix is invertible). The computation is not the hard part of linear algebra — it…

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May 9, 2011, 7:43 am

By Robert Talbert

Image via Wikipedia

A while back I wondered out loud whether it was possible to implement the inverted or “flipped” classroom in a targeted way. Can you invert the classroom for some portions of a course and keep it “normal” for others? Or does inverting the classroom have to be all-or-nothing if it is to work at all? After reading the comments on that piece, I began to think that the targeted approach could work if you handled it right. So I gave it a shot in my linear algebra class (that is coming to a close this week).

The grades in the class come primarily from in-class assessments and take-home assessments. The former are like regular tests and the latter are more like take-home tests with limited collaboration. We had online homework through WeBWorK but otherwise I assigned practice exercises from the book but …

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April 1, 2011, 5:20 am

By Robert Talbert

February 15, 2011, 11:42 am

By Robert Talbert

In my Linear Algebra class we use a lot of MATLAB — including on our timed tests and all throughout our class meetings. I want to stress to students that using professional-grade technological tools is an essential part of learning a subject whose real-life applications closely involve the use of those tools. However, there are a few essential calculations in linear algebra, the understanding of which benefits from doing by hand. One of those calculations is row-reduction. Nobody does this by hand; but doing it by hand is useful for understanding elementary row operations and for getting a feel for the numerical processes that are going on under the hood. And it helps with understanding later concepts, notably that of the LU factorization of a matrix.

I have students take a mastery exam where they have to reduce a 3×5 or 4×6 matrix to reduced echelon form by hand. They are not…

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January 11, 2011, 10:14 pm

By Robert Talbert

Image via Wikipedia

This week I’ve been immersed in the inverted classroom idea. First, I gave this talk about an inverted linear algebra classroom at the Joint Meetings in New Orleans and had a number of really good conversations afterwards about it. Then, this really nice writeup of an interview I gave for MIT News came out, highlighting the relationship between my MATLAB course and the MIT OpenCourseware Project. And this week, I’ve been planning out the second iteration of that MATLAB course that’s starting in a few weeks, hopefully with the benefit of a year’s worth of experience and reflection on using the inverted classroom to teach technical computing to novices.

One thing that I didn’t talk much about at the Joint Meetings or in the MIT interview was perhaps the most prominent thing about using the inverted …

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January 4, 2011, 8:41 pm

By Robert Talbert

Happy New Year, everyone. The blogging was light due to a nice holiday break with the family. Now we’re all back home… and I’m taking off again. This time, I’m headed to the Joint Mathematics Meetings in New Orleans from January 5 through January 8. I tend to do more with my Twitter account during conferences than I do with the blog, but hopefully I can give you some reporting along with some of the processing I usually do following good conference talks (and even some of the bad ones).

I’m giving two talks while in New Orleans:

- On Thursday at 3:55, I’m speaking on “A Brief Fly-Through of Cryptology for First-Semester Students using Active Learning and Common Technology” in the MAA Session on Cryptology for Undergraduates. That’s in the Great Ballroom E, 5th Floor Sheraton in case you’re there and want to come. This talk is about a 5-day minicourse I do as a guest lecturer in our…

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December 21, 2010, 4:41 pm

By Robert Talbert

Fall Semester 2010 is in the books, and I’m heading into an extended holiday break with the family. Rather than not blog at all for the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting (possibly auto-posting) some short items that take a look back at the semester just ended — it was a very eventful one from a teaching standpoint — and a look ahead and what’s coming up in 2011.

I’ll start with the look head to January 2011. We have a January term at my school, and thanks to my membership on the Promotion and Tenure Committee — which does all its review work during January — I’ve been exempt from teaching during Winter Term since 2006 when I was elected to the committee. This year I am on a subcommittee with only three files to review, so I have a relatively luxurious amount of time before Spring semester gets cranked up in February. A time, that is, which is immediately gobbled up by the…

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May 23, 2010, 2:02 pm

By Robert Talbert

Image via Wikipedia

The very last topic in the linear algebra class this semester (just concluded) unexpectedly gave me a chance to test-drive the inverted classroom model in a mathematics course, with pretty interesting results. The topic was least squares solutions and applications to linear models. I like to introduce this topic without lecture, since it’s really just an application of what they’ve learned about inner products and orthogonality. Two days are set aside for this topic. In the first day, I gave this group activity:

[scribd id=31814651 key=key-u9ax6c6fhdh5684hkle mode=list]

The intent was to get this activity done in about 35 minutes and then talk about the normal equations — a much faster way of finding the least-squares solution than what this activity entails — afterwards. Then I meant …

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