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Transformative Experiences through Inquiry-Based Learning Highlight Moore Conference

The 14th annual Legacy of R .L. Moore Conference brought more than 250 attendees to Washington, D.C. Most were university professors, some of whom have been using Moore’s teaching method for many years. All were treated to talks and panels on the Moore method and its variants, how to apply it in a mathematics classroom, and the results seen by both students and teachers.

The Moore method originated with mathematics professor Robert Lee Moore, who taught at the University of Texas from 1920 to 1969. His method was simple, but controversial: Let the students lead the class. Students worked on their own on proofs, without help from instructors, peers, or textbooks. They would then present their findings in class, where other students were allowed to ask questions but not to provide help or hints. Grades were based entirely on class presentations. The goal of the method was to start students thinking like independent mathematicians. The Moore method and its many variants can now all be grouped under the heading of inquiry-based learning (IBL).

Held June 2-4, this was the first R. L. Moore conference in which the MAA joined the Educational Advancement Foundation (EAF) as a co-sponsor. MAA President Paul Zorn opened the meeting on Thursday with a brief history of the relationship between the EAF and the MAA. On Friday, the MAA hosted a well-attended reception at its Carriage House Conference Center. In his career Moore guided 50 Ph.D. students, including six who became presidents of the MAA.

The highlight of the meeting was the presentation of the preliminary results of a three-year study on IBL as taught at four different universities. The study was conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder for the EAF and the IBL Mathematics Centers, and is awaiting peer review.

Sandra Laursen, lead researcher on the project, gave a quick introduction to the study on Thursday and a longer talk on its findings on Saturday. Laursen brought special attention to the surprising conclusion that IBL is especially beneficial to women and students who start out at lower academic levels. View the full report.

While nearly all of the conference attendees were IBL enthusiasts, there was still room for lively debate. Those who preferred the pure Moore method argued against promoting or allowing collaboration among their students, because weaker students can coast on the successes of better students. However, others reported positive results from limited collaboration, as long as groups were kept small and students’ abilities were well matched. The debate was not resolved at the conference, but the question was brought up and argued at almost every opportunity.

Many speakers mentioned the role of IBL in producing ’transformative experiences,â? and speakers such as William Mahavier (Lamar University), Stan Yoshinobu (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo), and Michael Starbird (University of Texas) provided eloquent testimony to support this contention. They agreed that IBL was an excellent tool for producing such transformative experiences for students in the classroom.

The ultimate goal for IBL instructors is to convince students that they are already true mathematicians, and to give them the opportunity for experiencing mathematics in a new way. Instead of following the instructor down well-trodden paths, students lead the class discussions at their own pace. The method forces students to struggle along on their own, then take all the credit for their own successes.

The real joy for many of those attending the conference was the opportunity to socialize with like-minded peers from around the world. Teachers exchanged advice and success stories, and experienced users offered tips and tricks to beginners. For more information on individual talks and panels, see the R. L. Moore Legacy website.—Mary Parker