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What makes Robin Pemantle’s bag of tricks for teaching math so great?

It’s here, and he even calls it a “bag of tricks”!

Robin’s suggestions are similar to what Deb and I recommend, but Robin’s article is a crisp 25 pages and is purely focused on general advice for getting things to go well in the classroom, whereas we spend most of our book on specific activities related to statistics. Robin’s article would fit in well as a chapter in our book. Considered in that context, I’d say it’s better than the corresponding material in our book (in the second edition, this is Chapter 12, “How to do it”).

I prefer Robin’s article to our chapter because Robin’s article is more focused on what the teacher should do to maintain 100% student involvement during the entire class period.

Here are the sections of the article:

Typical classroom mechanics
Highly recommended procedures
Class composition and small group dynamics
Doing the rounds
Help we’re stuck
Getting groups to work together
Free riders
Staying on task
Students who are behind
Students who are ahead
Managing Socratic discussion
Dead ends
How to listen
Asking the right questions
Order versus chaos
A vision
The bell

He uses examples from mathematics rather than statistics examples, but the general principles should be clear to all.

The actual teaching strategy that Pemantle suggests is very close to what I do in class, which is no surprise: I suppose we’ve both seen the same literature on the importance of active learning, and I suppose we’ve both had frustrating experiences with students not learning in passive, lecture-style classes. What I particularly like about Robin’s document is that he gives advice to handle various important situations; see list above.

I’m not sure when Robin’s document was written. I recommend that Robin take a couple days and do the following steps:

1. Go through it and see if any of the advice has changed. Rewrite where necessary. Or, maybe better: Add a new section at the end, “What have I learned since 1997?” [or whatever year it was that this document was prepared].

2. Remove section 4.3 which is specific to the institution where this material was first used. You’re sitting on dynamite, a wonderful article that can benefit thousands of teachers and students if it’s disseminated widely. In the intro you can say that this article derived from notes for a certain course, that’s enough.

3. Reformat it single-spaced and not using the ugly Latex defaults. Here’s an example using my currently-preferred template. You’ll have your own preferences; my point here is just that you might as well have a document that is more compact and readable.

4. Put the table of documents in the pdf document and also add some references at the end. You want a self-contained article that people can point to and pass around. It’s also fine to have an html page; two formats can reach more audiences.

5. Post it on arxiv, and if you happen to have a friend with a statistics blog, get him to post something on all this.


  1. Andrew,

    Thank you.

    Fantastic that you are addressing this topic b/c I have expressed my frustration with the pedagogy of a 1st year statistics course. I’ll probably take a week to absorb what is posted here b/c I am not a statistician by trade.

  2. Damon Verial says:

    Wish I had this when I was teaching. Then again, graduate students aren’t given much freedom in course/lecture design even when we are placed alone in front of 50+ students to teach in our professor’s place three times per week. I have great respect for teaching professors, but once at such a high level it’s easy to be blind to the needs of low/intermediate level learners; thus, this bag of tricks, in spite of their potential, will likely go unused.

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