Structured, Active, In-class Learning is changing the calculus on teaching

Mathematics professor Philip Gressman sees the comprehensive teaching approach as a way to engage students as a dynamic group, something STEM courses don’t often embrace.

The idea of the “flipped classroom”—in which lectures and presentations are delivered outside of class time and in-person learning features active student engagement—is becoming a familiar concept to many in education, but professor of mathematics Philip Gressman says that’s only one example of a more comprehensive teaching approach called SAIL.

Philip Gressman.
Professor of mathematics Philip Gressman. (Image: Brooke Sietinsons)

“Structured, Active, In-class Learning, or SAIL, is an acronym that’s unique to Penn,” explains Gressman. “It describes a whole host of ideas for how to run a classroom. The idea is that anything you’re doing that’s getting your students engaged, that’s having their thinking happen in that classroom—that’s SAIL,” he says.

In the humanities, students have long been accustomed to coming to class ready to discuss pre-assigned readings, but that’s not always the case in math and science classes. Gressman says, “STEM students are often treated by instructors like empty vessels—that the information should be poured into them, and what we’re trying to do is push back against that. So, I might say, ‘Please read this section, try these exercises, and then come to class and let’s do the next steps together.’”

Gressman uses the SAIL approach primarily in his Calculus I course, and he puts a heavy emphasis on group work. Students tackle exercises together, slowly building on the basics of a new concept. The aim is to capture that “aha” moment in real time, to be present with students when something clicks.

“Penn is a place where there are plenty of students who are very strong, and they can do well in any class without much help, but in a traditional calculus class, some students really struggled,” he says.

After switching to SAIL, Gressman says his grade distributions in Calculus I became much more compact, and the grades of students at the lower end jumped up. Overall averages were higher, too, suggesting that everyone benefits. Gressman says SAIL also helped him create a more inclusive environment that addresses persistent stereotypes about who is good at math and who is not.

This story is by Jane Carroll. Read more at OMNIA.