|Photo: Jeffrey R. Young|
|Photo: Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock|
He sees that few of the students in the course have bothered to do the interactive exercises they were assigned for homework.
He doesn’t sweat it, though, since he has a plan to get everyone back on track. In fact, he predicted that the changes he’s experimenting with this semester might be jarring to students accustomed to lecture classes. His course expects a “new workflow,” he explains, since it uses adaptive courseware software, as well as a flipped classroom model where lectures are replaced with the interactive material.
What the students don’t know is that the course is part of an ambitious experiment that includes community colleges, Maryland’s flagship university, the nonprofit education consultancy Ithaka S+R, and a group called Transforming Post-Secondary Education in Mathematics, or TPSE Math. The mission? To explore how adaptive software can help change teaching styles, impact completion rates, and create a new model for synchronizing the curriculum between two and four-year colleges. The students also don’t know that they are using a tool that suffered disruptive technical errors when it was first tried last year.
Spieler emotes a playful and easy-going manner as he divides the students into pairs for an in-class project. He jokes that he usually uses an app on his smartphone to randomly assign groups, since all human decisions involve bias. But he forgot his phone in his office, so he asks each student to pick a number between one and ten, and then he pairs them based on the numbers. His strategy is that, with any luck, at least one of the students in each group will have enough prior knowledge of statistics to do the in-class project even if no one in the group did the required homework.
The class takes place in a computer classroom, and he has given the class a spreadsheet with data from a restaurant where the owner kept track data from receipts involving three servers over the course of two weeks. Variables tracked included the amount of the total bill, the amount of the tip given the number of people in each party, and a few other details. Spieler asks each group to come up with three questions they might answer with the data set, relying on only one variable.
The professor only “lectures” occasionally—for just a few minutes at a time—to define terms that students seem fuzzy on or to quickly show how to make charts on the statistics tool they’re using. Mostly he’s asking questions and listening to reports from each group.
“I think we waste a lot of class time talking at people,” he says of the traditional lecture model. “We make the mistake of thinking that what we say is what they learn,” he adds. “I’m looking for different ways of making them engage with things in class.”