Vicki Sealey has been named the Russell and Ruth Bolton Eberly College Professor for her innovative linking of communications and active learning environments in the Department of Mathematics at West Virginia University.
The professorship provides resources for a faculty member who mentors students in communications skills, regardless of academic discipline.
Most people, Sealey said, don’t usually connect math and communications, but communicating properly is extremely important in mathematics. Unlike classes where you can debate an answer, math is always a matter of right or wrong and it’s important for students to learn how to effectively communicate their solutions to their peers, to teachers and to future employers and colleagues.
“If I can’t appropriately communicate to you the significance of the math, the accuracy of the math, then I’m really missing the mark on what’s important,” Sealey said. “I want not just the instructors to be able to communicate, but I want the students to gain that power as well.”
Eberly College of Arts and Sciences administrators were impressed by Sealey’s proposal to enhance communication skills in mathematics instruction. The college’s interim dean, Rudolph P. Almasy, worked with the Boltons to establish the award. He said he believes Sealey can make a difference and provide a model for others in the sciences that improves students’ speaking and writing skills.
Studies show that students retain more information and enjoy their classes more when they learn in an environment that incorporates active learning-teaching methods.
“A lot of the teaching that we see in math classes is primarily lecture,” Sealey said. “For this project, I’ll be working with a few graduate teaching assistants who are interested in learning more about teaching methods that are not just lecture-based, specifically ones where students will be actively communicating their ideas and explaining their work.
“That’s hard to do,” Sealey said. “I want to work with these graduate students so that they are equipped and prepared to be able to use these strategies in their classroom.”
Sealey will be selecting four graduate students to create a Professional Learning Community.
The graduate students will be teaching sections of a 100-level math class, where they will incorporate the PACT framework from the Eberly College’s SpeakWrite Initiative to help undergraduate students learn to communicate better in the classroom.
The PACT framework consists of four key components purpose, audience, conventions and trouble.
Sealey said that students often think that finding the answer is the ultimate goal, or “purpose,” in a math class, but it’s just as important for them to be able to justify their answer to a given “audience.” Sealey especially wants undergraduate students to focus on the “conventions” of math, since mathematics as a discipline has very precise notation and language that needs to be used in certain ways.
The project will have three phases:
The first phase will focus on learning the basics of classroom discourse and active learning. Graduate students will meet with Sealey weekly to learn about the PACT framework and ways to encourage class participation. They will also receive research literature and watch videos of Sealey’s classes to discuss ways to increase the students’ engagement in a classroom.
A portion of their meetings will focus on lesson planning, where the graduate students will look for ways to implement these teaching methods into their own classes.
During phase two students will continue to meet weekly, but will only meet with Sealey twice a month, allowing them to be in charge of the learning community.
“I want them to be able to make it their own,” Sealey said. “So, still having me accessible as needed, but really taking it on as their own and them leading it and them being in charge of developing their own lesson plans and activities that encourage active learning and communication.”
In this phase students will learn to mentor each other. Students will videotape their classes and share the videos with the rest of the learning community, where they will discuss the ways that the instructor used active learning and communication, and identify where participation could have been increased.
Phase three will take place during the spring semester. During this phase students will reflect on their teachings from the previous semester and continue to find ways to incorporate active learning and student communication into their classrooms on a regular basis.
This phase is not yet fully developed, as Sealey plans to tailor the program to the needs of the students.
Funding for the project will be used to give stipends to the participating graduate students as an incentive for the extra work that they will have to do.
The project is guaranteed to last for one year, but can last up to three years if funding continues. Sealey said she hopes to continue the project again next year with new students.
“A lot of this project is really my passion to take these research ideas that we know to be effective and help teachers, specifically graduate students, to be able to implement these research-based practices,” Sealey said.
The Russell and Ruth Bolton Eberly Professorship was established in 2007 by alumni Russell and Ruth Bolton to provide resources for outstanding teaching. Russell Bolton was a 1949 graduate of the WVU College of Law. Ruth Bolton is a 1943 graduate of WVU with a degree in communication studies. She is a resident of Palm Desert, Calif. Over the years, they have made numerous contributions to the University in support of academics, athletics and special projects.