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Mason professor inspires math teachers to engage students with creative online instruction

March 31, 2020   /   by Anna Stolley Persky

Mason professor Theresa Wills has been assisting math teachers in finding ways to engage students online. Photo provided.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced educators to suddenly move their teaching from the physical classroom to an online setting. For some professors and elementary, middle and high school teachers, the shift has been relatively seamless. Perhaps they had already been teaching in the virtual world or had enough training to make for an easy transition.

For many professors and teachers, however, switching to a virtual classroom is a new and daunting experience. But help is available.

Theresa Wills, an assistant professor in George Mason University’s College of Education and Human Development, is reaching out to teachers to offer her expertise in virtual education. In the past few weeks, Wills, who teaches in the Mathematics Education Leadership program, has been conducting dozens of webinars focused on helping instructors move their education online.

“Teachers want to know how to set up a classroom so that students can interact with the instructor and the material, as well as do their work to solve problems together,” Wills said. “When I do my webinars, I try to give teachers ideas, little kernels of knowledge, based on my experience in facilitating student engagement.”

Wills has taught math in both the primary education and college settings. In addition, her focus at Mason has been on the Mathematics Education Leadership program, which is designed for teachers who want to become math specialists or coaches in middle and elementary schools. Through years of teaching Mason’s math and leadership classes online, Wills has been able to hone her virtual instruction skills. When Wills teaches, she generally uses Blackboard Collaborate, along with Google Slides.

“There is tremendous opportunity in teaching online,” Wills said. “It can be collaborative, engaging and interactive. It can also be a way for students to have greater access to content. There are all kinds of strategies for fostering student involvement, so they feel they have a voice in how they are being taught and what they are learning.”

As the coronavirus pandemic closed schools, Wills urgently set up webinars, some for general education and some specifically focused on math instructors. She offered her help via connections with local school districts, professional groups and Mason friends, along with using social media to get the word out. Wills has conducted webinars for professors and teachers throughout the country, along with more selective webinars for local school teachers. Wills said she has helped teachers from Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties, to name a few.

Wills “is having such a big impact on redefining and reimaging what we can do with online education,” said Kathleen Matson, a Mason adjunct education professor who also supervises primary school math coaches. “She inspires teachers to look at online education as a completely different platform with exciting possibilities. She gets teachers to rethink how to engage in math education, motivate their students and help them learn.”

In her webinars, Wills suggests using Google slides because students can type on them and use them to collaborate. She also recommends dividing students into smaller groups to work together on problems. Teachers who have participated in her webinars have written to Wills to thank her for her suggestions.

“When you teach, especially online, you want to avoid being a talking head,” said Elham Kazemi, a mathematics professor at University of Washington. “[Wills] shared a number of highly interactive strategies that allow students to make their thinking visible to each other and to the instructor.”

Wills says she plans to continue conducting webinars for math teachers and professors as they transition online.

“As long as there continues to be a demand, I’ll keep doing this,” Wills said. “I want to support teachers.”

For more information about Wills' online seminars, visit here.