Extreme Apprenticeship

Since 2011 we have been using the Extreme Apprenticeship method in teaching first year mathematics in the University of Helsinki. The core idea of Extreme Apprenticeship is to support students in becoming experts in their field by having them participate in activities that resemble those of professionals. The main method of teaching is one-on-one instruction, and the students are encouraged to work collaboratively. During the past few years, Extreme Apprenticeship has changed the way the teaching staff and students in our department view learning and teaching.

Extreme Apprenticeship promotes active engagement of the students. Each week, the students start studying a new topic by solving problems given by the teacher. They get as much help as they need from the teaching assistants.

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The teaching assistants do not give answers but guide the students towards solution. They help the students in reading course literature and gaining studying skills. The teaching assistants are undergraduate or graduate students who undergo a training that lasts throughout the semester. Training is important, as teaching in a new way can be very challenging.

The physical learning environment we have created in the middle of our department is an important part of the Extreme Apprenticeship method. It encourages the students to collaborate with each other and interact with the teaching assistants.

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The students hand in their solutions so that the teaching assistants can read them and give feedback. Emphasis is on learning how to write mathematics, which is very difficult for most students. If the solution is not good enough, the student has an opportunity to improve it. The feedback is two-directional: by reading the students’ answers, the teachers get to know what kind of problems the students have and can react accordingly when planning the tasks and lectures.

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After the students have worked on the course assignments, there are lectures. The students have already familiarised themselves with the topic of the lectures by doing the tasks. This is a simple and effective way of making the students prepare for the lectures. The lectures are not for delivering content or going through details. Instead, it is possible to discuss the meaning and consequences of definitions and to address misconceptions. The students do not need to just sit and listen, but they get to work in pairs, discuss with each other and vote on questions posed by the lecturer.

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After the lectures, students are given more challenging tasks concerning the topics that have been discussed in the lectures. At the same time, studying a new topic starts with relatively easy tasks.

Compared to traditional teaching, Extreme Apprenticeship has increased student engagement and effort. It has enabled moving from rote learning towards conceptual understanding. Even though the students have to work hard, the feedback from them has been overwhelmingly positive. All in all, the method has had a considerable impact on the atmosphere of our department. The corridors and classrooms are filled with students who solve problems together and talk about maths with excitement and enthusiasm.

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Read more:

Rämö, J., Oinonen, L., & Vikberg, T. (2015, February). Extreme Appreticeship – Emphasising conceptual understanding in undergraduate mathematics. Paper presented at the 9th Congress of European research of mathematics education, Prague, Czech Republic.

Rämö, J. & Vikberg, T. (2014). Extreme Apprenticeship – Engaging undergraduate students on a mathematics course. In Proceedings of the Frontiers in Mathematics and Science Education Research Conference 1-3 May 2014, Famagusta, North Cyprus (pp. 26-33).

Hautala, T., Romu, T., Rämö, J. & Vikberg, T. (2012). Extreme apprenticeship method in teaching university-level mathematics. In Proceedings of the 12th International Congress on Mathematical Education, ICME.

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  1. Conceptual skills are emphasided in the XA method. It’s tempting to ask how these skills transfer to practice. Do we know that experts retrieve mental models or concepts when they are solving problems? So in order to become an expert one has learn the ’big picture’?

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