Nick: Syllabus and Assessment

A few years ago, my wife and I were tired of saying the same things to the kids about how to behave at the dinner table. Our kids love be involved in setting things up (rules, fencing, Legos, …), so we sat down as a family and wrote out the rules for eating at the table. I think we came up with about six or seven rules on our first attempt and posted our page of rules prominently in the dining room. After about a week, we had already added enough other rules to necessitate a second sheet of paper. Sometime later when we had a few other families over for lunch one weekend, a couple of the other parents really enjoyed reading our rules and laughing that we had to write things like “Toes do not go in drinks.” This was a phrase that I would have never thought I would have to say, much less write down as a rule of the house, but parenting (like teaching) will make you say and do funny things. Once our rules of eating required a fifth page, we knew something had to change. We can’t possibly write down a rule for every scenario that will come up since that seems to only embolden the kids to find new and interesting ways of acting at the table.

Eventually, a few things changed about how we ate as a family. As our kids got a little bigger, we noticed that they could sit (as much as kids are able to sit at the table at all) in the adult chairs, so we got rid of the booster seats and other kid stuff in the dining room. At about the same time, we redid the counters in the kitchen which included having counter top seating on one end of the kitchen. We still eat in the dining room a good bit and the kids adjusted to their new seating as well as our new philosophy of “empathy” and “sanity” at the table. The counter top seating is preferred by the kids now though, and my wife and I like it because we can sit with them or continue with other kitchen duties while they continue to eat for what seems like an extra hour. One of the byproducts of the counter top seating is that our kids really know how much work goes into their meals. They have always helped a bit in the kitchen but I feel like they appreciate how much work goes into even a snack. As such, they willingly participate more in the food preparation and cleanup.

This is a very good metaphor for what transformation occurred in me over the past several weeks of writing syllabi and assessments for my fall classes. For the past five years or so, I have used a pretty boring but standard syllabus and course policy sheet for all of my classes. While I have included some explanations for how the class will be run, I don’t think I had tried to build a cohesive and convincing explanation for what the class was really about. Instead, I listed a bunch of stuff that students needed to know (or I was required to put in the syllabus).

In parallel to my student buy-in plan, I started looking at the many example syllabi and assessment methods that were shared at the IBL Workshop this summer. It was really nice to see these examples but the biggest challenge was picking my favorite parts or ideas from these examples and incorporating them into a cohesive class that I thought I could pull off. One idea that I flirted with was a standards based assessment similar to what TJ Hitchman does with his undergraduate linear algebra class. I figured out that I am just not ready to implement something like this yet, but I would be interested in building something like this as an explicit statement of what I will try to assess.

A summary of revamping of how I write writing syllabi was less emphasis on stating facts in bulleted lists and more showing students what is going on in the class, out of class, and what is going on in the bigger picture.

A couple of syllabi ideas that I really liked were:

  • The idea of citing what my institution defines a credit hour as and how that relates to at least two hours (per credit hour) of work outside the regular meeting times per week (from Christine von Renesse). I liked this idea because it seems to normalize how much work we expect students to do outside of class time.
  • I included the following quote on all my syllabi just before the section where I write about what IBL means to me and why we would be doing it:

The best way to learn is to do; the worst way to teach is to talk.

-Paul Halmos

I think this quote sets the right tone for why the class is the way it is.

  • Explain how each of the assessment idea aligns with the goals of the class. I guess I just assumed students knew instructors did something like this, but writing these things out explicitly was a very informative experience for me.
  • An entire paragraph (or two) on the rules for collaboration in each class. I modeled a lot of what I wrote based on ideas from Carol Shumacher’s examples. This is something that I always talk about in class but I really like the idea of putting some writing behind it as well.
  • In my lower level class syllabus, I included a couple of complementary student responses from end of course evaluations. The ones I picked used my name but throughout all the student’s writing, the only thing I did was assign groups. In other words, all the good things the student’s mentioned were the active learning they did.

One aspect of assessment that I am still looking for are good mechanisms to alert students to what they don’t know (but think they do). I feel like some students are oblivious to being told this in the same way that children can be oblivious to being told how to behave while eating.

Let me know if you have any ideas or questions in the comments. I’m always available at longne at sfasu dot edu.


Nick: Student Buy-in Plan

Getting students on board with the mechanics of IBL and establishing a good culture of learning in the classroom are two of the most important things that we do that students see. Most of the other checklist items are things that we as teachers do and spend a lot of time and effort on, but the students don’t see us doing these activities and do not usually notice or remark on the results (especially if they are done well). You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, so setting the stage for the course is very important.

The student buy-in plan was one of those tasks I wasn’t sure what I would be doing past the first day activity when I started IBL in my summer classes. Things moved so fast in the summer session that I ended up doing a few pep talks throughout the semester to remind students that getting stuck was okay and that working through some of their frustration with not immediately knowing what to do is a very valuable skill. I saw amazing changes in some students but a couple of students in each of the classes didn’t end up changing what they were doing and were surprised when they got the same results as when they went through the motions of math class. This reminds me of how I feel as I grade exams. I don’t notice all the student work that is good and correct but rather I seem to fixate on all the things that some students didn’t understand. In the end, the exam results often turn out great, but there is a lot of frustration over what is happening with a small part of the class. That small part gets most of the thought about what more I can do rather than celebrating the good things that have already happened in the class.

When I was getting ready for my fall classes and thinking about these checklist ideas, it made so much more sense that the student buy-in plan was really about aligning all of the decisions for the materials and mechanics of the class in such a way that students understand what is expected of them, why this is expected, and what you will be doing to help them succeed. The student buy-in plan is not a few activities to get or keep students motivated but rather a framework for everyone (instructor and students) to stay focused on the things that matter (big ideas of learning). This alignment of activities in class will come up more future posts I’m sure.

1st Day Activities: Setting the Stage or Starting the Conversation

In my 100 level geometry course, before passing out anything like notes or syllabus, I had the students count off by 10 and all of the ones, twos, etc get together. I really liked this method of assigning groups since groups of students that sat next to each other were mixed up into separate groups. Then I put up the following information:

Get in your assigned group, answer the following questions individually then introduce yourself to the other group members so that they will be able to introduce you to the rest of the class. Make sure to talk about at least the first two questions as a group.

  1. Name:
  2. Spirit Animal:
  3. I learn best when…
  4. Why are you in college?

This is a modified version of a first day activity that Todd Grundmeier showed at the IBL Workshop. After about ten minutes of talking in the small groups, I have each group stand up and introduce other group members as well as talk about their spirit animals. I use this as an opportunity to just sit in the middle of the room. This activity has worked very well in this class each time I use it. I really like the spirit animal question since it tends to be very disarming for the students and reveals a lot about their personalities. I never knew so many people identified with sloths… My spirit animal this semester was a mountain goat and I’m sure the students weren’t expecting me to say that. We discuss the last two questions as a class on a volunteer basis. The responses are pretty dry at first but they get so much better after students see that honest responses are really valued by everyone. The realization of a supportive setting is so valuable for setting up our first mathematical activities because it does not come from anything I am saying but rather what the students are saying.

In my junior level linear algebra class, I tried a modified version of Dana Ernst’s Setting the Stage activity.

While I think we had a good discussion of what learning and an education really is, a few difficulties came up based on the first day activities. I had several students in the class that did not show up for the first day of class. When one of them came by my office the next day, I found it very difficult to explain what we did in class and the philosophy of what we will be doing. The extra time I put into the syllabus and introduction to the notes/problems (more on this later) helped in that I could ask the student to read this stuff and then refine the explanation based on any questions that the student had.

The other thing that came up was a couple of students were really off task during the first day activity. I was somewhat concerned when these students didn’t seem to notice (or care) that what they were doing was distracting others and taking a lot away from the conversation that the class was having. Even after some guidance from me about focusing on what we were supposed to be doing, they didn’t seem to get what was happening. I am struggling with how much direct guidance to give these student especially based on all of our discussion about the value of figuring out things yourself. Another one of the ironies of my implementation of IBL so far.

As always, let me know if you have any ideas in the comment section or by email at longne at sfasu dot edu.


The Checklist – Setting Up Your IBL Course

The ChecklistIn the latter half of the IBL Workshop at Cal Poly, the organizers guided each participant toward having a few takeaways from that week’s work. Stan simply referred to this as “The Checklist” (pictured) and Liza, Nick and myself think this will be a good theme for our next series of posts. As you can see, the topics are some that we have touched on in our introductions (Nick referred to writing some of his own materials, Liza to assessment techniques), but these are some of the issues a novice IBL-er must contend with as they set up their first courses. I’ll split my own posts as one for each of these topics, though others may divide up the checklist differently. Look for the series to continue over the next few weeks.

I said once before that IBL is a community, and this blog is to be an extension of that community into the virtual space. As with any of our posts, I hope to see others chime in below in the comments section. Do you have an idea for a new post? A response to one of the ideas broached? An experience to share? Please do!

Liza: Evaluating Presentations

It is twelve days into the semester and I feel that I have reached a important milestone… every student in my IBL classes have completed their first presentation! Even though I have small classes (n = 2, 8, 12, and 22, but the 22 is a Algebra class, so the presentations are pretty quick), I consider this a milestone, because (to be completely honest) I was initially quite worried that certain students would not muster up the courage to present in front of me and their peers. I have worked hard to establish a culture where making mistakes is okay and even decided to allow students to revisit presentations within one week of their initial attempt without any penalty. However, as I began observing and interacting with my students, I noticed that I had a few shy students who lacked confidence in each class. I did have to use the “volun-told” method with the last 2-3 students, but after being told that it was their turn to present, they did not resist presenting. I believe that seeing that some of their peers’ presentations were not flawless from the gate, but they still ended up clearly solving and explaining the problem, helped minimize the fears that the shyer less confident students felt about presenting. I also think that the day one buy-in activities (that I described in my “Power of Student Presentations” post) have contributed to a classroom culture where it is okay to make mistakes and students feel safe sharing.

Each time that a student presents I ask all of their peers to write down a rating of the presentation as well as some feedback. In our rating system a 3 represents a presentation that is accurate and well explained, a 2 signifies a presentation that is partially incorrect or partially confusing, and a 1 is given if the presentation is unclear or inaccurate. I also ask students to write down at least one meaningful piece of feedback (to avoid feedback such as “good job”). Thus far, I have been typing up the peer evaluations and my evaluation and returning it to the presenter at the beginning of the next class meeting. I also have been maintaining an excel document based on the format that Dr. Stan Yoshinobu shared with us after the 2015 IBL Workshop.

In typing up students’ ratings and feedback I am noticing that most students are rating their peers’ presentations as a 3 and very few are providing any meaningful feedback. I am concerned about the lack of discrimination in the evaluations. Two of my classes are for students majoring in Elementary Education and one is for students majoring in Secondary Mathematics Education, so I feel that the presentations have two important purposes. For one, I feel that they are a vehicle for improving the students’ understanding of the math concepts. Secondly, I feel that they will help students improve their ability to effectively explain the math concepts. Given the critical importance of presentations, I want students to take the rating and feedback system seriously. Going forward, I have decided to provide students with the following rubric:

rubric for presentations-

I think that using this rubric will ensure that the presenters obtain worthwhile feedback and it will eliminate the need for me to type up all of the evaluations. Overall, round one went very well and I am confident that round two will be even more successful!