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Bolles brings active learning to mathematics education

Heather Bolles works with a group of students.

Heather Bolles engages students in math classrooms with active learning methods.

Bolles, a senior lecturer in the Department of Mathematics, received the LAS Award for Outstanding Teaching by a Lecturer this fall.

Bolles has been teaching at Iowa State University since 2001, and has been part of the Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Mathematical Education (CEUME) for the last five years. As assistant director, Bolles has worked with Elgin Johnston, a professor of mathematics and director of the Center, on incorporating Team-Based Learning into math classrooms.

Team-Based Learning is active learning, said Bolles, that utilizes the good parts of working in groups while removing the negative parts as much as possible and building accountability.

Team-Based Learning requires students to prepare for class sessions in advance and all team-based work is completed in class. Students prepare for a session and then take an online quiz over the content prior to coming to class. In class students take the quiz again with their team, discussing the reasons behind their solutions. In following sessions the teams work on projects prompting deeper discussions of the concepts with their teammates.

“Communication is part of how you learn,” Bolles said. “By explaining it, you understand it more, and the recipient has another perspective on it.”

Bolles said that math in particular is traditionally taught in a very formulaic way. Students are familiar with being told what to do and how to do it, and then doing the same on the homework. But in this traditional model students often follow along in class without enough understanding to repeat it on their own. Bolles aims to change that with Team-Based Learning methods.

“We’re trying to put that struggle in class where there are people there to help them, so that when they go to do their homework later, it’s less stressful,” Bolles said.

Bolles has already seen increased engagement from the students, including a 90% attendance rate, as opposed to the year before implementing Team-Based Learning when she saw attendance drop to around 60%.

“It’s fun to engage with the students in a way that they’re asking good questions, trying to make sense of it,” Bolles said. “It’s a very dynamic and lively setting.”

Bolles also said Team-Based Learning aims to improve transfer knowledge, better preparing students to use calculus in their science and engineering courses.