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End of Semester Report

The semester ended last Friday with exams. I am through with classes for another year.

It wasn’t my best semester.

My Theory of Computation class went off pretty well. It was a smaller than usual group, which allowed for a great deal of interaction. I lectured for the most part (as usual), but there was a lot of give and take. We got through Turing Machines, which I usually am not able to do in a semester (I spent much less time on the Pumping Lemma, which always trips up the students). A majority of the students did just fine in the class.

But Math 101 was a different story. I know that I promised to do a play by play during the semester, but it just went so badly that I couldn’t bear to even write about it.

I think my problems were

  • I wasn’t as prepared to teach the content as I should have been

I did OK, but there were too many just-in-time lectures, and I don’t think I was as engaging as I could have been. I also think that two 75 minute sessions a week is not optimal for this course (thought that’s really an excuse - several colleagues taught a Tuesday/Thursday schedule, and I’m sure they did just fine).

  • I wasn’t prepared for the amount of hand-holding necessary in a freshman math course

A disturbing number of students were incapable of reading the simplest of instructions. I asked them to do these aesthetic critiques of their homework, but I realize now that many of them have never engaged in reflection of their work. I should have given them decent examples.

Many of them were similarly handicapped in understanding how to do their stats project, in which they were supposed to compare and contrast a New England Journal of Medicine report on a medical study and a major newspaper’s (New York Times or Wall Street Journal) description of that same study.

I couldn’t get them to use WebCT with any frequency, and they often missed announcements or assignments (”Didn’t you check your WebCT mail?” “No, I haven’t been on WebCT for days.”). I told them often to check WebCT daily, but it seemed to have little effect.

And, most of them seemed to think that “due date” means “do date.”

  • I made mistakes in the types of assessments I used

The students are supposed to do an analytical study, and the Stats project mentioned above has been used for several semesters in Math 101 courses. In retrospect, I think I should have put more time into something more straightforward for them.

The term project was a disaster. The mistake there was that I gave them too much leeway. They had the choice of a creative project or a problem solving project:

For a creative project you may choose one of the following: visual arts, musical arts, theatrical arts, or creative writing. Please note that this project is not meant to be a “book report” type of assignment. I know the facts of what you have been studying. I am much more interested in your reactions to the material and how you can represent the ideas in a creative way. If you wish to use a medium not listed above, you should discuss it with me first.

For the problem solving project you should choose a problem whose solution interests you. Choosing something arising from courses in your major is a good idea.

Of course, on the class day before a project proposal was due, they were all panicking that they had no idea what I was looking for. In the end, I relented and added the option of doing a biography on a famous mathematician. About a third of the class went with that option.

The term project and the stats project suffered from the same drawback - the writing on both was often so substandard that it became more of an English assignment than a math assignment.

And I got so concerned about their finishing their term projects that I didn’t assign homework near the end of thec course. The projects consumed entirely too much of the course, and I helped them to narrow their focus in that direction.

I do think they learned some interesting math. We covered probability and statistics, number theory, and just a bit of a “numbers in real life” chapter (computing compound interest, etc.).

I haven’t looked at the student evaluations yet, but I’m not expecting the highest of marks.
Needless to say, I haven’t asked for another Math 101 in the fall. In fact, my fall is going to be a real change of pace, as I’ve been hinting at for some time now, but I’m still not ready to give you the details (I’m sorry, but I’d like things to b a bit more on solid ground before I make major announcements).

I still have one more “teaching task” in May, which I’ll try to blog about later this week.

6 Responses to “End of Semester Report”

  1. Robert Says:

    I think that these liberal arts math classes are a long way from being perfected by anybody outside the best-of-the-best liberal arts colleges. For the rest of us, we have students who perhaps have good intentions (or at least the absence of bad intentions) when it comes to being in college, but apart from that, their high schools and their youth culture have failed to prepare them to think, or to want to think, with any effectiveness. And yet this goal — effective thinking — is often at the top of the syllabus in liberal arts math classes (and is even the subtitle of one of the famous textbooks).

    I just try to remind myself of two things: (1) freshman classes are as much about teaching character, responsibility, and accountability as they are about teaching effective thinking or critical reflection or whathaveyou, so the lessons of the “do date” phenomenon are worth something; and (2) teaching these kinds of classes is truly countercultural, and we are changing the culture one student at a time, one class at a time. I remember your one post about the student who really got fired up about something he learned in your class; that makes it worth it.

  2. A disappointed professor Says:

    Boy, I’d love to read the last half of this entry….but I don’t read Greek (or Russian, or whatever the hell language the last half of the post is written in, not to mention the entire comment above this one).

  3. A disappointed professor Says:

    Actually, I guess it’s Greek…and my first comment showed up in Greek, too.

    Of course, I’m sure that you people will have your xian persecution complexes set in, and one of you will probably spin this into some kind of attack on xians. *rolls eyes*

  4. David Says:

    I must be missing the joke.

  5. David Says:

    OK. I see what the problem was. In Internet Explorer, half the post ended up using the symbol font, so it indeed looked like Greek (an artifact of a bad cut-and-paste, I’m afraid).

    The error didn’t show up in Firefox, which is why I (and Robert, I guess) missed it.

    I’m still missing the “attack on xians” reference. Have I exhibited this sort of sensitivity in the past? You might want for me to actually engage my persecution complex before rolling your eyes, DP.

  6. Robert Says:

    Hm. I was using Camino (Firefox clone for Mac) and didn’t get any Greek. I wish I could blog in Greek! Oh well.

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