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Jun 06, 2014 12:56 PM EDT

Interactive Teaching Methods May Help Students Master Calculus


Interactive teaching methods could improve students' ability to grasp calculus, according to new research.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia in Canada found that the key to helping students learn complicated math is to understand how to apply it to new ideas and make learning more interactive.

The new study suggests that pre-class assignments, small group discussions and quizzes improve students' ability to grasp tricky first-year calculus concepts.

"With the right support, you don't need a great deal of instructional experience to introduce the techniques," Warren Code, lead author of the study and UBC mathematician and educational strategist, said in a statement.

Based on their findings, students taught in such active-engagement classes were 10 percent more likely to understand key concepts on subsequent quizzes. Researchers said this was true even when compared to students in classes already incorporating modest levels of clicker use and interactive discussion. They were also better able to apply their knowledge to new ideas.

They study was part of the university's ongoing efforts to improve undergraduate teaching and learning. Code and his colleagues selected two especially difficult topics covered in large first-year calculus classes, and designed week-long 'teaching interventions' to more actively engage students. They then measured the impact on student comprehension of the tricky topics using quizzes and mid-term exams.

The study compared the performance of two sections, a total of 350 students. The demographics, attitudes and math background of both sections were similar. Each student was only exposed to enhanced active teaching methods for one of the two topics.

"You can't replicate perfect lab conditions in the classroom," Code said. "But we designed the observations so students acted as their own control, and each section outperformed the other on the topic for which it received the intervention. So to the degree possible, we're comparing apples to apples."

The findings were recently published in The International Journal on Mathematics Education.

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