Guest Contributor: Kimberly Benien, Wharton County Junior College (Richmond, TX).


Do you remember the first time you rode a bike? Did you read a book to learn how to balance on the bike? Did you watch someone else ride the bike?

One would never think that learning to ride a bike would begin by reading a book. Nor would one believe that they could learn to ride a bike by just watching someone. I remember my father instructing me, guiding me, and then running alongside, holding on to the back of the bike seat while I tried and tried again to balance on the bike and finally rode away. Learning to ride a bike took instruction, guidance, and practice. Why then do we believe our students will learn math by reading about it or by listening to us while we do it?

There is a kinesthetic measure to learning in everything we do. It’s the practice of being actively involved in the learning. I am reminded of a quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

What is active-learning and what does it look like? Active Learning involves your senses: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. It is everything that is opposite of passively sitting in a lecture.

Creating an active-learning environment in a F2F class focuses learning on the students through engagement, exploration, and experiences with the content. I establish small collaborative groups, provide an interactive tool, create an InClass assignment of five or six problems of varying degrees of difficulty, and use a simple method of assessment that allows me to move about the room turning a passive lecture into a dynamic exchange of experiences and knowledge in the social space of the classroom.

For example, when introducing derivatives in Calculus, I need to grab the attention of my students and answer that question, “when will I use this?” I play a YouTube video from Khan Academy that uses Usain Bolt’s Olympic record run to demonstrate the rate of change and then the instantaneous rate of change. We discuss when someone might want to determine speed at a specific time as opposed to over a range of time.

After a short demonstration and explanation of the derivative, we break into groups of three or four. I deploy the InClass assignment in Enhanced WebAssign with embedded media to be used for the engagement and exploration portion of our time. I project and animate an interactive, graphing demonstration, Tools for Enriching Calculus, while facilitating a discussion where I ask students to describe what they see. I encourage them to use their devices: tablets, laptops, or phones, to interact with the tool while posing critical-thinking questions using an interactive, student response system used to engage students and measure understanding. Students engage with each other and the technology to explore the abstract concept. They build their own experience and ultimately create for themselves a deeper understanding of what actually happens while graphing the derivative of a function. Students apply their new understanding to the problems of the InClass assignment.

While they work, I move from group to group using student progress in EWA and responses to critical-thinking questions, to assess understanding. One Calculus student, Mr. Prasla*, said InClass group time is “useful because it allowed us to help each other and learn new ways of solving the problems” (2014).

I use EWA because students receive immediate feedback on each answer confirming their understanding of the processes. If they get a problem wrong, they can access the dynamic eText, with embedded videos and tutorials as well as the question’s tools, “read its”, “watch its”, and “master its” to redirect them. I am available to address individual or group questions on the difficult problems; and when necessary, to demonstrate to the whole class.

Building student confidence in a system such as Enhanced WebAssign is imperative, because what students don’t trust, they won’t use. So, a positive student experience is extremely important to me. My students recognized that EWA and the “Answer Evaluator” graded their answers for equivalency without concern for how they chose to work the problem. Mr. Prasla stated, “With Enhanced WebAssign, there are so many ways you can put the answer in and still be right…It was cool how EWA could tell if the answer was right no matter how you did the work” (2014).

Beyond trust, students need to find the value in EWA. I believe that EWA is responsible for helping to create self-directed learners. It promotes a transference of learning by requiring students to apply intermediate understanding to more difficult problems. Mr. Ali*, a business major, articulated the value of EWA in his statement, “WebAssign really helped me have a better understanding of how to do a problem, so I could think through similar and harder problems” (2014). He accredits EWA for him “get the A because everything is in there” (Prasla, 2014).

Active-Learning in the online environment is equally important. I use EWA to create multiple types of assignments, each type with a specific purpose. I use assigned readings to get students into the eText and direct them to the embedded media available for content development. I use literacy and concept questions to encourage students to utilize the resources in the eText. Labs engage students in the content using the same interactives employed in my F2F class. These interactives have both audio and written explanations to guide the student in exploring the abstract concepts.

I create Show My Work questions requiring students to explain, compare and contrast, or describe some portion of a problem which includes communicating mathematically. Practice assignments provide additional problems that allow students more opportunity to practice applying what they have learned in the section. When students need help, they use the “Ask Your Teacher” link in the question, opening a discussion between us.

Student surveys are an important part of course creation for me. I use student feedback with my own reflection on a course to make changes where needed. When asked about using EWA, online student, H. Kesler*, stated, “It gives you so much…you can figure out the answer…use what you learned from that problem to work on a harder one…it really prepares you for the next step” (2014) . The Active-Learning approach has changed how I create, organize, and teach my classes. More importantly, Active-Learning has changed how my students learn math and transfer that learning to the next course.

Kimberly Benien is a mathematics instructor; course builder of all distance education courses, and coordinator of course management systems for the department at Wharton County Junior College. She received her B.A. in Educational Studies and in Mathematics and her M.A. in Mathematics Education from Western Governors University in Salt Lake City, Utah. Kimberly’s experience includes secondary mathematics, College Algebra, Trigonometry, Mathematics for Business & Social Sciences, Elementary Statistics, Precalculus, and Calculus. Kimberly also is an Enhanced WebAssign Technology Power User and works with a variety of instructors to integrate the digital product into their courses.
*Mr. Ali, Mr. Kesler, and Mr. Prasla were Calculus students in Spring 2014 and have participated in Student Success Stories compiled and written by Cengage Learning. Read the success stories about Mr. Ali, Mr. Kesler, and Mr. Prasla, and learn about the impact that Enhanced WebAssign had on their engagement and success. 

Do you use active learning strategies in your course? Share your ideas and experiences in the comments.