Gas station without pumps

2010 June 29

Live-action Math

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 13:37
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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.


  1. Modeling problem solving this way is very important for students to see. Many of my physics students expect that they need to be able to see the complete path to the solution before they even put pencil to paper. Thinking aloud your process, including dead-ends, shows students what we expect when solving problems. Bravo!

    Comment by Frank Noschese — 2010 July 19 @ 07:50 | Reply

  2. […] of it in class sucked.  In my defense, I had only had four hours of sleep the night before, and live-action math requires more alertness than I had with so much sleep […]

    Pingback by Lagrangian Multipliers and HMMs « Gas station without pumps — 2010 November 26 @ 00:08 | Reply

  3. […] students give me problems from the homework that they wanted to see how to do, a process I called live-action math.  That approach required a thorough understanding of the material and a confidence that I could do […]

    Pingback by Showing is better than telling, but not by much | Gas station without pumps — 2013 April 14 @ 10:34 | Reply

  4. […] I do use “flipped learning” in my classes is in a more old-school way: I require students to read the textbook, and often even do homework before I lecture on the subject in class.  (See, for example, my early blog post on live-action math.) […]

    Pingback by Flipped Learning | Gas station without pumps — 2016 July 8 @ 23:39 | Reply

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