Early Semester Concern: Classroom Culture

Tomorrow will be the fifth meeting for each of my classes. At this point in the semester my only concern is setting up the right classroom culture.

Classroom Culture for IBL Courses

Inquiry-based learning environments can be wonderful because they are active, challenging places to spend time. The goal is to have students on the case at every moment. This means that they will be focused on what they don’t understand and why, and actively trying to shorten the list of things they don’t, yet, get.

Some fraction of the students relish this. They come to you brimming with a cautious confidence, a willingness to get involved, and some measure of ability to reflect on their own learning. These students make going to class easy. I suspect that such students will succeed no matter what kind of course they find themselves in.

But, at least where I work, most students are not in such a wonderful place for mathematics when I meet them. This fruitful attitude has to be demonstrated, encouraged, and sometimes preached. No matter how hard you sell this emotionally open way of working, it has no chance if you don’t set up the right atmosphere. Your classroom has to be a safe and supportive place before many students will take a risk in front of their peers.

All of this goes down in the first three weeks of class. It seems that after that the basic classroom culture is set and you have to live with it for the rest of the term. So I work very hard in the first few meetings to bend things in the right direction.

Today I find myself reflecting on my “culture setting progress” for my three courses. I have about four meetings left before my window starts to narrow.

Differential Geometry

I think this is not going to be a problem. I have four graduate students, two seniors, and two juniors. I worry most about the juniors, but they have each had two previous classes with me. Things are going to be fine, I’ll just keep an eye out for them.

Math in Decision Making

We had a stellar first meeting. Our conversation was fun and engaging. The students started figuring stuff out, and the brave souls who were my first presenters handled themselves well. At the end of the day I thought I might have already sealed the deal on a good class culture.

At the next meeting, I had seven new students. Apparently a colleagues class was under-enrolled, so it got cancelled and most of the affected students switched to my section. Seven out of thirty is a rather large portion, so we have to start over. Things are going slowly now, but I have lots of hope. The typical student in this course is “mathematically bruised,” so I am treading pretty carefully. Time will tell.

Euclidean Geometry

This is going pretty well. I have taught this class so many times that I can almost do it with my eyes closed. The thing to watch out for this term is that the class is larger than usual (25 students). I have to work a little harder to get everyone involved.

One Other Thing

It is time I learned all of my students’ names. I am really terrible at this in general, so tomorrow I will resort to taking photos of my students and making a seating chart that matches the photos. Then I will make myself a screensaver out of all the pictures with names written under all of the smiling faces. A few days of studying and quizzes usually gets me most of the way there.

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