FSU Mathematics Professor Awarded USM Elkins Funds to Train Colleagues in the Active Learning Approach to Teaching

Sep 11, 2018 12:40 PM

Dunmyre Develops Learning Assistant Program to Boost Student Success in Mathematics and Beyond

Dr. Justin Dunmyre’s passion is to help students succeed at learning, and he wants to train and support his colleagues in methods to help their students succeed, too. It is that passion that earned Dunmyre the prestigious Wilson H. Elkins Professorship, an endowed professorship from the University System of Maryland.

“Many students come into my class, and they are used to having instructors talk at them for 50 minutes, but in here, we’re asking them to learn to solve problems on their own. That can be scary,” said Dunmyre, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics at Frostburg State University. Using an inquiry-based approach to teaching, students become active participants in their learning, focusing more on developing skills rather than transmitting information, he said. It requires that students DO something rather than just take notes, explore rather than memorize.

“For many of the engineering classes that I was in, I wanted to just listen to a lecture, be told how to do the math, memorize a pattern and push out the correct result. I didn’t think I needed to actually learn,” said Reagan Joy, one of Dunmyre’s learning assistants. “But since starting in the College Algebra classroom, that’s not who I am anymore. As students became more intent on trial and error, I began doing the same.”

In Dunmyre’s case, he organizes classes in two ways – group and whole class discussions.

“When students are in groups, they generate and build reasoning. That’s where they work through problems and ask questions. It’s guided reinvention of math concepts,” Dunmyre said. Once students have worked through problems, they come together as a whole class to talk about what they discovered and then relate that to the standard math language they will hear in the outside world, he said.

To implement such an intense method of teaching, Dunmyre developed the Learning Assistant Program (LAP). Dunmyre was inspired to launch LAP after attending a workshop hosted by the University System of Maryland and conducted by members of the Learning Assistant Alliance.

Learning assistants are student employees available in each class, as well as Sundays through Thursdays in the tutoring lab. They answer questions and help students who might be stuck on some aspect of their problem solving.

“Students will ask questions of the learning assistants more readily than they will ask a professor. [Learning assistants] are an extra set of eyes and ears so that we can meaningfully engage every group,” Dunmyre said. Perhaps more importantly, Dunmyre recognizes that students aren’t used to this approach and can be uncertain at first. “Learning assistants can tell students, ‘Look, I’ve been there, and I was skeptical, too, but it really works.’”

Because LAP has achieved such great results, other Frostburg faculty, including those from other departments, want to learn how to implement the methods in their classrooms as well.

Training and support would have required a course fee, but through the support of the Wilson H. Elkins Professorship, that is no longer necessary. Dunmyre received $14,000 to train interested faculty in the inquiry-based approach to teaching, as well as carefully choose and train exceptional learning assistants to support those faculty.

“We can’t ask students to pay tuition, textbook costs and a course fee to cover all this. We have to keep costs low for students, so we had to find a way to pay our learning assistants, as well as incentivize faculty to completely redesign their classes over their summer,” said Dunmyre about the significance of the Elkins Professorship. In addition, Dunmyre and his colleagues will use open education resources to eliminate the need for a textbook, further reducing the cost to students.

The Wilson H. Elkins Professorships support professors and researchers who demonstrate exemplary ability to inspire students and whose professional work and scholarly endeavors make a positive impact beyond USM.

Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit www.frostburg.edu or facebook.com/frostburgstateuniversity. Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.