Nick: Preparing for the Fall Semester


Nick Long is an associate professor at Stephen F. Austin State University.

When a bank robber was asked by a reporter why he robbed banks, he replied “That’s where the money is.” It wouldn’t make sense to try to harvest wheat from a forest, so why would I ask my students to do work that isn’t suited to them getting what they need. When considering different activities for my fall courses, I tried to ask myself , “Is this where the learning/growth/effective feedback is?”

This fall I am teaching several sections of a freshman level trigonometry and multi-variable calculus. I haven’t taught either class in a while, so it was nice to look at them through the IBL lens. One of the new (to me) things I will be doing is using a traditional textbook. Last year, I wrote my own notes for my classes, which was a great way to show students just what they needed, exactly when they needed it. I couldn’t be happier about how that went from my end. That isn’t to say that significant changes don’t still need to be made, but I really enjoyed the experience of making the course and materials purpose-built.

One of my meta-goals for the fall semester is to help my students become better readers of mathematical content, their traditional texts in particular. In this vein, I am trying to require the first exposure to new material to be through reading appropriate passages in the textbook. The way I am I am measuring/incentivizing this is different for each of my courses. In my trig classes, I have been writing short reading quizzes and reading guides to be completed a couple hours before class. An example of the kind of question I am using is:

“Write a sentence to explain what the mnemonic “All Students Take Calculus” helps describe.”

The final question on every reading quiz is:

“What question do you have after reading these sections?”

The reason I ask this last question is also the reason that I have these done a couple hours before class, namely that I will read and grade these quizzes right before class so that I can address some of the ideas that students did not understand from the reading. I am cautiously optimistic that this reading quiz idea will also supplement some the the student buy-in work that I am doing to combat the feeling that students are supposed to teach themselves. I’m hoping that I can convince and show students that with a little pre-class work and reading, I will be able to more appropriately introduce new ideas in class. I picked up these ideas and many more from a session on encouraging teaching innovation in early career faculty at Mathfest (run by David Failing and Susan Crook).

In my multivariable calculus class, we start each class meeting with student presentations on some of the problems we worked on previously. As the transition to the new material, I have been asking students to summarize in a couple of sentences what the big ideas are from the reading I assigned. Since this class is much smaller (11 students) and some of the students have had courses from me before, we are able to have a short low-pressure discussion of the concepts before we start working on new problems.

One thing that I have continually struggled with is writing problems that have the appropriate balance of conceptual versus computational versus discovery. The habit of writing exercises similar to what you would see in a textbook is so ingrained that I find myself writing doing just that unless have some explicit reminder of what the problem is really supposed to help the students see. That explicit goal, not just some implicit idea that I am modeling, has made the biggest difference in how much I am able to reframe the efforts that I am putting into my teaching.

Another slight change in my student buy-in plan has been in my explanation to students about why they have what seems to be three or four different kinds of work. For instance, I am using WebWork to allow students practice with computational problems, and I have been very conscious to remind students that the feedback they need on these kind of problems is best  given immediately by a system like WebWork. I am also quick to mention that this kind of work is best done after the conceptual work on these topics is completed. The best way to get good feedback on the conceptual work is to see how convincing your work is. I explain to my students that the best forum to get this kind of feedback is to have students present and discuss their work in class. In other words, the venue for the work should be selected based on what kind of feedback they need. I think convincing students about how important these ideas are will need to be something that happens with regular reminders through the semester.

We have had a few new writers on the blog and we will have a few more coming on board soon, so check back for more posts over the next few weeks. As always, I welcome your feedback and ideas in the comment section or by email at longne at sfasu dot edu.


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