On Improvement

Our semester is rapidly winding up. I have about eight more course meetings to tell my students the things I want them to know before our Final Exams. Just as they are starting to reflect on the material we covered this semester, I am also reflecting on the things we covered this semester & all the things I want to do better next time.

Things I want to improve:

  • I need to break apart some of my “Calculus II” learning standards. I didn’t have a complete list at the start of this term, and I realize now I wish I had made them smaller than I did. (I had been afraid of having too many, so I overcompensated.)
  • I need to come up with a good “Missed Exam” policy. Since I switched to standards-based grading, I’ve focused on the current value of a student’s score. As such, some students have missed (skipped?) entire exams and have wanted to make up the exams on a later date. This has been extremely difficult on my side of things, since it usually means writing an entirely different test for them, grading it at a different time, etc. I am philosophically stuck with what to do. On the one hand, I want a policy that says “You must take the exam on the specified date, unless truly unforeseeable circumstances beyond your control occur.” On the other hand, if my idea is their grade ought to reflect their mastery of course material, and not “mastery of this topic with a deadline of Wednesday,” I am not sure how to implement such a policy.
  • I need to come up with a good “Schedule of Expectations.” Some students have been consistently behind the course, in terms of what problems they are able to solve. To help students in the future, I think it would be good to have some kind of date-to-learning-target function that tells them, “You should master this learning target before this date.”
  • I need to make grading quickly a bigger priority. I know I have gotten behind schedule on various assignments this semester. This is always an issue. Things pop up, kids get sick, cars need maintenance, and somehow “grading assignments by the next class period” is one of the first things I let go of when life gets hectic. I want to hold myself to a higher standard about returning work quickly.
  • I need to have on hand problems for re-assessment, so if a student wants to re-assess a particular topic I don’t have to think up new problems on the fly.
  • I’ve implemented something I’m calling “Madness Mondays” in Calculus II. I’ve been taking class time to talk about mathematical things that aren’t directly related to what we’re talking about in class. For example, today I spent a while talking about the Hilbert Hotel. I’ve really enjoyed this part of the week. I have been impressed by the curiosity of my students. I’ve also been really pleased about how great they are at asking interesting questions. I think that talking to them about this random assortment of topics has helped them get away from the idea that “the point of math class is to solve problems and get the right answer.” Instead, I hope they now see that one major point of math class is to get them to think about mathematical ideas, outside of the context of any particular homework problem. But what I want to do is formulate a complete list of topics for Madness Monday, from which I can pull ideas in subsequent semesters.
  • I want to learn ALL of my students’ names. I’ve always struggled with this. I made this a priority this semester, and I have learned a higher percentage of names this term than ever previously. But I’d really like to get better & learn all of their names.

The above isn’t a complete list. I always think of dozens of things I want to do better, so this is only a start.

The last thing I want to do better is I need to be less hard on myself. I think I am probably my worst critic. Often times I walk out of class kicking myself for messing up a problem, or for not explaining something the best way, or for not spending enough time on this or that, or … At the end of the day (semester?), I wish I could give myself a break. My goal should be gradual improvement over time, not 100% perfection in every class on every day in every semester and with every student.

5 thoughts on “On Improvement

  1. I struggle with the missed exam issue as well, and I’ve been extraordinarily lucky that I’ve had to deal with it as few times as I have. It is hard to write new exams that are basically the same difficulty and content as the original exams and make time to grade them. This also one of the big things that I worry about when I think about switching to SBG. I don’t want to be constantly grading and writing new problems for assessment. I find that really difficult and time-consuming, and it takes away from doing other things for the class.

    I don’t think it would be beyond the pale to require mastery of certain standards by a certain date, or to require that students at least assess those standards on the date of the exam. But it’s hard to write that requirement into the syllabus in a way that does not feel punitive. “If you fail to take an exam, you can’t get a 5 (or whatever) on the standards that were assessed on the exam.” I don’t think that’s unreasonable, but it sounds like punishment.

    Something I have considered doing (again, in non-SBG classes) is have a policy that a student’s grade will not be lower than their grade on the final. I think this is a sensible policy, but I have not officially implemented it because I think if students knew about it they would skip more homework and study less for earlier exams and not be able to make it up at the end of the semester. (Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever had a student who did better on the final than their class average. If I did, I would probably raise their grade in the course even though it’s not officially my policy.) I don’t know if a similar idea would work in an SBG class: if they fail to assess the standard on prior tests, they can’t come in and assess it any old time they want, but they can do it on the final.

    • I agree with many of your points!

      – I don’t know how to avoid being punitive & avoid having this “make up the exam later” issue. Meanwhile, I think their overall success would be higher if I did have at least some firm deadlines. But I don’t know how to implement those deadlines. Writing and re-grading all these “missed exams” has been a nightmare for me; but maybe this is unavoidable? Or avoidable iff I have a “your grade will suffer!!!” clause?

      – In general, the re-assessments haven’t been nearly as bad, because I don’t really worry about the overall difficulty being exactly the same between problems or between students, the way you normally worry about this on an exam. If a problem is slightly easier or slightly more difficult, then that’s okay. Maybe I will ask them two easier problems instead of one very difficult problem, or something like that. I also really like the re-assessments because it gives us the opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation. I can more easily figure out, “What idea is this student missing?” and try to help shed light on that idea on a more individual basis.

      – I agree about the final exam grading experience. Some of my colleagues have policies like the one you mention (“Your course grade will be course average, or final exam average, whichever is higher”). Others have a “Missed Exam” policy that allows for the final exam score to replace a missed exam score. (This is what I have usually done in my own courses, just to avoid the multiple versions of an exam problem.) But as you mention, in general, students do not do better on the final exam. So them using this policy really does hurt their grade. Furthermore, I’ve found that students are more likely to skip tests because they think “I’ll just make a 98% on the final exam and so it won’t matter”. In reality, the process of studying for & taking the test seriously helps their learning. Skipping these things seems to hurt their learning. [Isn’t this part of why we give exams?]

      – Something I have thought about is having an “Entry Ticket” requirement. For instance, suppose a student wants to re-assess a Quotient Rule problem. Usually this means they have struggled with this idea. To show they’ve worked on it, and have gotten a little more understanding, before re-attempting the assessment they should bring five solved Quotient Rule problems. (If they haven’t successfully done five problems, then they can come to office hours & get extra help first.) This would also cut down on people re-assessing; not doing well; trying again; not doing well; lather, rinse, repeat. Perhaps some kind of “Make Up Exam” entry ticket idea would work? Where part of their Entry Ticket is having attended & attempted the original exam, as much as they could? (At least this would stop students who would rather be studying for their Chemistry test, or would rather have Tuesday off to go to the beach, etc. What to do about actual, documented illnesses, or proverbial dead grandmothers, is another issue.)

  2. Hi,

    I think that you should post a “before and after” set of standards once you figure out how you would like to do Calc II next time.

    A quick plug for “Accumulation Grading,” which is the name I came up with my version of SBG (http://symmetricblog.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/sbg-reflections/): making up quizzes is not an issue, since they just need to demonstrate repeated mastery at _some point_ over the course of the semester. So if you aren’t married to your version of SBG, consider mine (it even comes with its own set of difficulties in implementation!).

  3. Hi Kate,

    I love your blog. The Madness Mondays is a great idea. I do something similar called Fun Fridays. I try to pick a problem, topic, or puzzle to discuss with the class. Sometimes it is (peripherally) related to our current topic and sometimes it is completely unrelated. Good resources that I have found are Professor Stewarts Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities and Professor Stewarts Hoard of Mathematical Treasures.

    Good Luck!


    • Thanks, Scott! I appreciate it. I’ll have to check out those resources soon. Are you in working in LeConte this summer? If so, please give Michael my warm regards.

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