This blog post is part of an essay I wrote back on 2004. This section describes “live-action math”.
Except for a few particularly complex topics in my graduate bioinformatics course, I do derivations and examples on-the-fly—I refer to this approach as “live-action math”. I believe that the students benefit from seeing problem-solving techniques being used on problems, rather than just seeing canned solutions, and I can usually avoid running down too many blind alleys.
Live-action math is very demanding, as I need to simultaneously solve a tricky math problem (students always ask about the hardest problems), present general problem-solving methods, and make sure I cover the important concepts for the week. I can’t do live-action math at 8 in the morning, so class scheduling is important for me.
In one freshman course (Applied Discrete Math), I experimented with having my lectures entirely driven by student questions about the examples or exercises in their textbook. The first two times I tried this, it was not very successful—I covered all the material, but many freshmen were upset by the lack of organization and offended that I expected them to read the book and try the problems before coming to class. In fact, some were so pointed in their criticism of this approach to teaching that I was once denied a promotion based on their teaching evaluations. Nevertheless, I tried the approach once again, this time in a self-selected “honors” version of the class. Although the students were not significantly different from the regular section of the class (based on their test scores on a common final exam), they seemed to enjoy the different teaching style, and I got good ratings that quarter.