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College of Science and Mathematics

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Cal Poly Program Could Help Reduce Math Anxiety, Close Gender Gap with NSF Funding

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Thanks to a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Cal Poly’s Academy of Inquiry Based Learning will lead an effort to increase active learning in college math classes across the nation, with research support from the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Evaluation and Ethnography Research unit.

Active learning — also known as inquiry-based learning (IBL) — has been shown to reduce math anxiety and close the gender achievement gap in math classes. 

IBL is a student-centered approach that is significantly different from traditional lecture-based math classes. Students are given problems and tasks that lead them through an exploration of mathematical strategies and skills. With instructor guidance, students form their own understanding of mathematical concepts rather than focusing on finding answers. The system allows students to learn from their failures and recognize trial and error as an integral part of the learning process.

Stan Yoshinobu, Mathematics Professor
Stan Yoshinobu

“You need to actively engage students so that they construct their own understanding and ask their own questions, so they become better thinkers,” said Stan Yoshinobu, director of Cal Poly’s Academy for Inquiry Based Learning and one of the project’s leaders. “This approach is confirmed by brain research about how people learn.”

Research has shown that IBL reduces math anxiety by focusing on the process of doing mathematics rather than just memorization. This benefits all student populations, including women and minority groups. IBL also mitigates the gender gap currently found in math and science classes. In IBL courses, men and women earn similar grades and continue taking math courses at the same rate.

“We can start addressing some serious social issues by changing how we teach,” Yoshinobu said. “We can make a practical impact.”

Because IBL is so different, professors who want to use it in their class need training. “When you teach through inquiry, you have to adapt to your students in real time and help them get over their obstacles,” Yoshinobu said.

Currently, there is a shortage of trainers, and a limited number of faculty members nationwide have access to IBL workshops each year. This grant aims to triple the number of workshop leaders and add variety to the types of workshops that can be offered to better meet the needs of math instructors.

“As math professors, we can do our regular job in a different way and make a difference in students’ lives. The purpose of this project is to increase the number of people doing that,” Yoshinobu said.

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