Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Fostering Student Engagement through Enhanced Classroom Practices

By guest writers April Strom Scottsdale Community College and James Álvarez University of Texas at Arlington

This is the third and final installment of Teaching Tidbits highlighting the new Instructional Practices Guide (IP Guide) from the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). This evidence-based guide is a complement to the Curriculum Guide published in 2015. The guide provides significant resources for faculty focused on teaching mathematics using ideas grounded in research. Many thanks to April  Strom and James Álvarez , lead writers for the Classroom Practices section, for providing this post.

Have you wondered how to increase student engagement in your courses or searched for ideas to help curious colleagues enhance their classroom practices? Well, the Mathematical Association of America’s Instructional Practices Guide (MAA IP Guide) may be an answer for you! The MAA IP Guide is purposefully written for all college and university mathematics faculty and graduate students who wish to enhance their instructional practices. A valuable feature of the MAA IP Guide is that it doesn't need to be read from cover to cover. Rather readers can begin, depending on their interests, with any chapter. The MAA IP Guide contains 4 main chapters: Classroom Practices, Assessment, Design Practices, and Cross-cutting Themes (such as Technology and Equity). In this post, we take a deeper dive into the Classroom Practices chapter of the MAA IP Guide, which can be downloaded in full for free here.

The Classroom Practices chapter is partitioned into two primary sections: (1) fostering student engagement and (2) selecting appropriate mathematical tasks. Moreover, the chapter is designed such that quick-to-implement instructional practices are presented upfront in the chapter followed by ideas that require more preparation to fully implement. The message is clear: we want to embrace, encourage, and support active learning strategies in the teaching and learning of collegiate mathematics!

Fostering Student Engagement: Classroom practices aimed to foster student engagement can build from the research-based idea that students learn best when they are engaged in their learning (e.g., Freeman, et al., 2014). Consistent use of active learning strategies in the classroom also provide a pathway for more equitable learning outcomes for students with demographic characteristics who have been historically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields (e.g., Laursen, Hassi, Kogan, & Weston, 2014). In this section we illustrate what it means to be actively engaged in learning and offer suggestions to foster student engagement.

To foster student engagement, the MAA IP Guide promotes the notion of building a classroom community from the first day of class. Community and sense of belonging are more likely to flourish in classrooms where the instructor incorporates student-centered learning approaches (c.f. Slavin, 1996; Rendon, 1994). Thus, establishing norms for active engagement or taking steps to increase a student’s sense of belonging to the classroom community also impacts the quality of student engagement in the classroom. We begin by providing suggestions on how to build a classroom community and then describe quick-to-implement strategies (e.g., wait time after questioning and one-minute papers), followed by more elaborate strategies that may require more preparation (e.g., collaborative learning strategies, flipped classroom, just-in-time teaching).

Of course, fostering student engagement through active learning strategies requires thoughtful consideration of the mathematical tasks that will support the work you want to accomplish with your students. In the next section, we focus on part 2 of the MAA IP Guide:

Selecting Appropriate Mathematical Tasks: Stein, Grover, and Henningsen (1996) define a mathematical task as a set of problems or a single complex problem that focuses student attention on a particular mathematical idea. Selecting appropriate mathematical tasks is critical for fostering student engagement because the tasks chosen provide the conduit for meaningful discussion and mathematical reasoning. But, how does an instructor know when a mathematical task is appropriate? There does not appear to be one single idea of what constitutes appropriateness in the research literature or in practice. Rather, appropriateness appears to be determined from a linear combination of a number of factors. The successful selection of an appropriate mathematical task seems to involve two related ideas:

  1. The intrinsic appropriateness of the task, by which we mean the aspects of the task itself that lend itself to effective learning; and
  2. The extrinsic appropriateness of the task, by which we mean external factors involving the learning environment that affect how well students will learn from the task.

In this section we elaborate on group-worthy tasks, which provide opportunities for students to develop deeper mathematical meaning for ideas, model and apply their knowledge to new situations, make connections across representations and ideas, and engage in higher-level reasoning where students discuss assumptions, general reasoning strategies, and conclusions. Group-worthy tasks can be characterized in terms of the cognitive demand required and they are often considered as high-level cognitive demand (see Stein et al. (1996) for a discussion on low-level and high-level cognitive demand).

When implementing active learning strategies in the classroom, it is important to keep in mind the notion of communication: reading, writing, presenting, and visualizing of mathematics. The MAA IP Guide leverages the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice, specifically the idea of SMP3: constructs viable arguments and critiques the reasoning of others, where students are expected to justify their thinking publicly through verbal and written mathematics. Students construct viable arguments as they engage in mathematical problem solving tasks by articulating their reasoning as they demonstrate their solution to the problem. These arguments can be made for solutions to abstract problems and proofs as well as for mathematical modeling and other problems with real world connections. Students should come to interpret the word “viable” as “possible” so that during presentations students recognize that they are considering a possible solution which requires analysis in order to determine its mathematical worthiness.

Impact on Teaching Evaluations
Whenever new teaching strategies are implemented in the classroom, faculty take a risk that student feedback surveys of their teaching may not accurately reflect the positive changes made or the deep learning achieved. Although the use of student feedback surveys as the only tool for evaluating teaching is highly problematic, in such cases it is important that faculty communicate their efforts. Documenting significant efforts to implement new strategies and collecting evidence of positive change can support this communication. Some possible ways to do this include:

  1. Keep notes; use them to write a brief summary of the changes made and the rationale for the changes to be shared with administrators or tenure and promotion committees.
  2. Document positive student feedback and comments, especially regarding their learning experience.
  3. Put negative comments into perspective. For example, if students make negative comments about working on open-ended problems, provide a rationale and explanation for the implementation of these types of tasks.
  4. Save examples of student work that represent the quality of the mathematical work and learning taking place and include or explain this in the summary of changes to the course delivery.

Although negative student feedback surveys of teaching may be discouraging, it is important to put the survey feedback into context and to remember that implementing new strategies and techniques takes practice (i.e., don’t give up after the first time you try it). Students also need time and practice to acclimate to new ways of learning, so having several courses that require active engagement may also affect the way they react to active engagement in your course. Bringing these issues to the attention of the person or committee that evaluates your teaching and collecting evidence of your efforts to supplement student feedback surveys may help mitigate possible apprehension in trying new strategies to encourage active engagement in the classroom.

To learn more about Classroom Practice, download the MAA IP Guide and use it as a resource to increase student engagement. And don’t forget to share broadly with others!  

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(23), 8410-8415.

Laursen, S. L., Hassi, M. L., Kogan, M., & Weston, T. J. (2014). Benefits for women and men of inquiry-based learning in college mathematics: A multi-institution study. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 45(4), 406-418.

Rendon, L. I. (1994). Validating culturally diverse students toward a new model of learning and student development. Innovative Higher Education, 19(1), 33.

Slavin, R. W. (1996). Research on cooperative learning and achievement: What we know, what we need to know. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 21, 43-69.

Stein, M. K., Grover, B. W., & Henningsen, M. (1996). Building student capacity for mathematical thinking and reasoning: An analysis of mathematical tasks used in reform classrooms. American Educational Research Journal, 33(2), 455-488.

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