Published: Feb. 6, 2018 By

Such learning helps students develop math skills, reasoning and ability to communicate mathematical reasoning to others, mathematician says

The University of Colorado Boulder has been chosen by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) to help lead the SEMINAL project—a study funded by the National Science Foundation researching how to best incorporate “active learning” into math classrooms.

The SEMINAL award, or Student Engagement in Mathematics through an Institutional Network for Active Learning, is part of a national push to promote active learning—students learning via meaningful activities versus lectures—in undergraduate math education for students working toward a degree in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.


Robert Tubbs

The APLU says it chose CU Boulder because of its past success using active learning in math instruction.

“CU professors have been using active learning techniques in their classes for many years—at least since 1993,” says Robert Tubbs, associate professor of math at CU Boulder.

He adds that the math department began adding active learning in calculus a decade ago by allowing students to work in groups on worksheets.

Other examples of active learning at CU Boulder involve students’ gathering in groups to sort and categorize cards with graphs on them; align math “dominoes” so that a question on one domino matches the answer on the next; and arrange “sentence cards” into the correct order to form a valid math argument.

“We now use active learning several days a week, not only in precalculus and calculus sequence, but also other introductory math courses,” Tubbs says.

He says active learning is “central to what we hope to achieve for our students—developing their math skills, their reasoning and their ability to communicate mathematical ideas and reasoning to others. It also makes the classroom a more equitable place by encouraging all students to become engaged with math.”

Eric Stade, a colleague of Tubbs and professor of math at CU Boulder, agrees and says both he and Tubbs believe in active learning for math because they have seen its benefits first hand, but they also know studies have shown it works.

One such study, which was the largest study of undergraduate STEM education literature to date—a meta-analysis of 225 studies—found that students using active learning methods had higher course grades by half a letter grade, and students in classes with traditional lectures were 1.5 times more likely to fail.

“We strongly believe that it better prepares students for the work they will do after their college careers as well,” Stade says.

Through the award, CU and the APLU will research how best to encourage active learning at nine U.S. universities and then develop models that all universities can adopt.

Howard Gobstein, APLU’s executive vice president and one of the principal investigators, says many introductory math courses are “the biggest hurdle” for students beginning their STEM course work. He adds there is “a persistent shortage” of skilled workers in STEM fields and that SEMINAL is “a tremendous opportunity to broaden participation.” 

Gobstein says there’s evidence that active learning is more effective than traditional methods. “We’re thrilled to scale an approach that we know works to help more students realize their dreams in the STEM fields,” he said.