Daniel Bergman, Department of Mathematics

In January 2020, I attended my first Joint Mathematics Meetings, the single biggest math conference in the world. The conference lasted five full days and took place in the spacious Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver. I was there to speak on joint work researching a new method for teaching introductory linear algebra.

The Lead-Up

My talk was scheduled for Friday afternoon and the conference started on a Tuesday. I split my time between talks in my discipline and pedagogical topics. There was a great diversity of topics available, and I did my best to take advantage. There is amazing work being done on all fronts of mathematical pedagogy from community outreach to course design to active learning.

The topic that I gravitated to the most was that of a Lead TA. Some campuses called this a TA Coach, but the idea was the same: a TA whose main responsibility is to be a resource to other TAs in the department, particularly newer TAs. I prefer the designation Lead TA because it reaffirms that the holder of the position is still a TA.

At the time, I was in my second week of serving as our math department’s very first Lead TA and eager to learn whatever others had been learning in the implementation of the position. I found the community that had formed around this issue very open and forthcoming with both challenges and successes in their development of the position and its roles.

UC Denver, in particular, had some ideas that would easily translate to UCI’s math department. They found that organizing a weeklong workshop to collaboratively create active learning tasks for their classes helped expand the breadth of the activities they could offer, allowing TAs to use the tasks best suited to their teaching style. Some of these activities relied on manipulatives that TAs would not have readily available, e.g. pipe cleaners, geometric shapes, and flash cards. To overcome this, they used cabinet space to create a repository for these materials and implemented a checkout system for TAs to easily try these other techniques out. If it weren’t for the pandemic, we would have worked to put such a collection together at UCI.

The Talk

I had the good fortune to collaborate on my research and presentation with a highly respected member of the community, Dr. Alessandra Pantano. Brainstorming the talk with her helped bring in to focus the important aspects of what we had done and observed in our study. By the time of the talk, I felt as prepared as I have ever felt.

Our research focused on the effect of active learning discussion sections on students’ conceptual understanding of linear algebra. We especially emphasized reflection and collaboration to help drive the connections between the problems they solved and the concepts they learned. We found that our active learning interventions (in the form of collaborative worksheets) produced favorable outcomes compared to other students when comparing results on concept questions on weekly quizzes.

Moreover, we found that disparities in course grades between certain groups were diminished in our courses. This gap was most pronounced when comparing male and female course grades, which agrees with previous literature indicating that female students benefit more from active learning, but not at the expense of male students. Given that we have historically seen male students receive higher course grades in this subject at UCI, we understood this to be an important result of our study.

During the talk the audience was engaged and asked good questions afterwards. I usually want to repress memories of giving research talks, but this one I was proud of. I attribute this to the sense of community I had felt from the teaching-focused groups and also to working with Alessandra.

The Aftermath

Having given the talk right before our world changed, there were no opportunities to follow up on the study. Instead, we have been working on writing up our results to submit to an education journal. Most excitingly, I have received correspondence from attendees of our talk and even requests to use our materials! Hopefully, we can continue building on the instructional tools we produced in this project and broaden our network of collaborators.

Ashley Hooper edited this post on August 17th, 2020.