February 11, 2014, 2:46 pm

By Robert Talbert

I am very excited to present this next installment in the 4+1 Interview series, this time featuring Prof. Eric Mazur of Harvard University. Prof. Mazur has been an innovator and driving force for positive change in STEM education for over 25 years, most notably as the inventor of peer instruction, which I’ve written about extensively here on the blog. His talk “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer” singlehandedly and radically changed my ideas about teaching when I first saw it six years ago. So it was great to sit down with Eric on Skype last week and talk about some questions I had for him about teaching and technology.

You can stream the audio from the interview below. Don’t miss:

- A quick side trip to see if peer instruction is used in K-6 classrooms.
- Thoughts about how Eric’s background as a kid in Montessori schools affected his thoughts about teaching later.
- What’s going…

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April 22, 2013, 9:29 am

By Robert Talbert

The Washington Post reports this morning (apologies if this is behind a paywall) about how some universities are (finally?) moving from in-class lecture as the basis for their “large lecture” courses to the flipped or inverted classroom. Says the article:

Colleges are absorbing lessons from the online education boom, including the growth of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. And some professors are “flipping” their classrooms to provide more content to students online and less through standard lectures.

William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said the system hopes the redesigned courses save money and boost performance.

“The passive, large lecture method of instruction is dead,” Kirwan said. “It’s just that some institutions don’t know it yet. We do.”

This is nice to hear, but watch out for that phrase, “saves money…

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March 8, 2013, 4:30 pm

By Robert Talbert

I’ve been talking a lot with my colleagues about their teaching practices, as part of the NSF grant I’m working on. The inverted classroom (I used to call it the flipped classroom, but I’m going back to “inverted”) has come up a lot as a teaching technique that people have heard a lot about but haven’t tried yet — or are wary of trying. I’ve been wondering about the language being used, namely: Is the inverted classroom really a “teaching technique” at all?

My answer used to be “yes”. When I first started using the inverted classroom idea, I would describe the inverted classroom as “a teaching technique” that involves reversing where information transmission and internalization take place. Later I moved to saying that the inverted classroom refers to “any teaching method” that implements this reversal. Today as I was thinking about this, I think a…

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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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November 7, 2012, 7:00 am

By Robert Talbert

I’m really excited to be working next semester as a co-PI on a National Science Foundation grant with my Grand Valley State colleagues Scott Grissom (Computer Science), Shaily Menon (Chemistry), and Shannon Biros (Chemistry). We’re going to be interviewing a large number of GVSU faculty to try to understand why some of us adopt research-based instructional methods like peer instruction and why others don’t.

As we were putting together the grant proposal earlier this year, one statistic really impressed the importance of this study on me. GVSU is a fairly big place – we have nearly 25,000 students on multiple campuses with both undergraduate and graduate degrees offered. I don’t know how many sections of courses we offer in a given semester, but it’s got to be in the thousands. We have over 40 sections currently running for just College Algebra! And yet: How many sections…

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June 29, 2012, 2:23 pm

By Robert Talbert

So, the six-week Calculus 2 class is over with — *that* didn’t take long — and there’s beginning to be enough distance between me and the course that I can begin to evaluate how it all went. Summer classes for me are a time when I like to experiment with things, and I wanted to comment on the outcomes of one experiment I tried this time, which is using a **bring-your-own-device** setup for clicker questions.

I’ve been using TurningPoint clickers ever since I started doing peer instruction, and I recommend these devices highly. They have a lot going for them in terms of classroom technology: They are small and unobtrusive, relatively cheap ($35), exceedingly simple to use, rely on no pre-existing infrastructure (for example, whether or not you have decent wifi in the room), and are nearly indestructible. They are about as simple, dependable, and inexpensive as a radio-operated garage door…

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May 8, 2012, 12:52 pm

By Robert Talbert

I blog a lot about peer instruction, but I think this screenshot from this morning’s Calculus 2 class is worth 1000 of my blog posts about just how effective a teaching technique PI can be. It’s from a question about average value of a function. Just before this question was a short lecture about average value in which I derived the formula and did an example with a graph of data (not as geometrically regular as the one you see below). I used Learning Catalytics to set up the question as Numerical, which means that student see the text and the picture on their devices along with a text box in which to enter what they think is the right answer. (I.e. it’s not multiple choice.) Here are the results of two rounds of voting (click to enlarge):

After the first round of voting, there were 12 different numerical answers for 23 students! (Some of these would be the same answer if students …

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May 4, 2012, 4:00 pm

By Robert Talbert

Sorry for the boring title and lack of catchy image, but since my first post about the upcoming six-week Calculus 2 course, I’ve expended all my creativity getting the course put together and getting ready for Monday. In the earlier post I laid down some design ground rules for the course. Here, I’m going to say a little more in detail about what we’ll be doing.

It’s especially important on a highly compressed schedule like ours to use the class meetings themselves to jumpstart the assimilation process and then train students on how to carry that process forward as they go to work on the day’s material in the afternoon and evening. This is always an important goal of class meetings in any course — I’d go as far as to say that this is why we have class meetings at all. But when you cram a 14-week course into 6 weeks, it doesn’t take long for one incorrectly-assimilated concept to…

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April 10, 2012, 8:00 am

By Robert Talbert

In peer instruction, students are given multiple choice questions to consider individually, followed by an individual vote on the question using a clicker. That’s followed up by a small group discussion which is followed by a re-vote. Typically the percentage of students getting the correct answer to the question jumps, often in my experience with nearly the entire class converging on the right answer following discussion. But does that jump happen because peer discussion helps students understand the material better, or because students with a weaker understanding are socially influenced by students with a stronger understanding?

This research paper has some data that suggest the former. The authors administered 16 different sets of PI questions to a large-lecture (n = 350) physics class. The questions were given in pairs of “isomorphic” questions, having different contexts and…

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