Sunday, March 27, 2022

What students take from our classes

Just reading a piece of science on the web (background microwave radiation) and then happened to glance at the comments section and was struck at how random the comments often appear to be. Leaving out the obvious spam ("Hi, I have a large collection of meteorites I'd like to sell") there are those who debate the implications of the finding (fine!) and then there are those who just go off on wild tangents -- "well, that proves there is/isn't a god", that "it explains why it rains so much", or "is the Earth conscious"?

And it occurred to me that the comment section of online columns, news reports etc., give me a bit of insight into what my students are actually thinking as I lecture -- that what I think I'm talking about and what is actually going through their brains at any given moment are probably largely unrelated. That while I'm lecturing, what they are taking in as initial input is then filtered through a kind of free association with the stuff already in there, and what they consequently take away from my lectures probably has very little overlap with the objectives listed on my lesson plan. Given what I see on their exam answers, I've always known that what I said and what they recall may not correspond all that well, but I've never really been able to open their heads and see the squirrel's nest of random associations that leads them from what I said to what they got. Unmoderated comment sections give us a Kind of view inside what the average citizen is thinking...well, I use the term 'thinking' somewhat loosely.

One thing that might help: actually telling our students what the lesson objective is for today. A lot of teachers seem to feel this should be "teacher-only" secret information. Which is bizarre. As my mentor used to regularly say to me, students can hit any target they're shown and that holds still for them. If their is a point to today's class, probably best to tell them that at the outset, but certainly by the conclusion of the class.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Exam security

This is funny, but also not. At a certain university (NOT the one I taught at) the IT department invested a quarter of a million dollars on a new security system, touted as unbreakable. The instructor in an advanced graduate course in the computer science department made that week's assignment to break the security system, thinking it would be humbling for the students to encounter at least one assignment that was not doable. My friend, a computer genuis, broke in to the supposedly secure system in about an hour, and posted his "how to get around security" assignment on the [open] class website, as per the assignment directions. By the end of the evening, every computer geek on campus (and beyond) had a copy, and the new security system was thus rendered useless. My friend was summoned before the Dean, but simply brought a copy of the assignment, complete with directions to load the completed solution on the open class site, and was pretty much off the hook (though he had to listen to a long lecture on 'judgement' and 'taking initiative against security breaches rather than creating them" and so on). What happened to the prof, I was never told. The morals here are: (1) don't be a wisenhimmer and assign criminal acts to your students, even if you think it impossible or that they will get that it's a joke assignment, (2) don't assume your students aren't way smarter than you are and can't do something just because you can't.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The difference between teaching reading and teaching writing

"Give someone a book, and they’ll read for a day. Teach someone how to write a book, and they’ll experience a lifetime of paralyzing self-doubt."

—Lauren DeStefano

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Providing feedback on Student Writing

Here is an excellent essay on editing student writing by Ilana Reimer from Editors Canada:

That article also linked to this other excellent article on teaching writing

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Homework and Worksheets

This Foxtrot cartoon strip has been circulating on the internet these days and raises the question of the relevance of completing homework or in-class worksheets.

Adults may recall that when math homework was being assigned in the 1950s,60s,70s instructors often said, "Do questions 1, 4, 7 and 9" There were two reasons for this. First, those were the questions that had the correct answers in the back of the textbook--the answers to 2,3,5,6 and 8 were wrong. There was a famous study of math textbooks that found that something like 38% of the answers in textbooks were wrong, because *sloppy*. Wrong answers in textbooks drove students insane, of course, as they worked and reworked questions trying to figure out why their (correct) answer didn't correspond with the (incorrect) answer on the answer key. On the whole, textbooks are held to a higher standard these days (in math, anyway) so that's less likely the reason your instructor is skipping questions now.

Which bring us to the second reason: worksheets and textbooks have more questions than necessary to demonstrate a student's knowledge. Pratice makes perfect (okay, makes satisfactory) but some students need more practice than others. Even great students are going to blow the occasional question through some silly mistake or through misunderstanding the concept. Consequently, they need a second or third practice question to see if they have the concept or can avoid careless mistakes this time. Weaker students may need to work through half a dozen examples before feeling confident they have it. So I don't have a problem with worksheets/homework that provides a lot of examples, or with teachers who chose questions 1 and 4 to start with, because 1 tests a different concept than 4, so teacher needs to see both of those, but not necessarily 2 and 3 if 1 was done correctly.

But that does bring us to the question raised by the above meme: if a student has demonstrated his proficiency with a sufficient sample, should we be wasting the student's time by penalizing not completing every question. Obviously they can't stop half-way through the sheet because later questions may get harder, and we need to see if the student is up for the more challenging examples; or later questions may test quite different concepts. But young Mr. Fox has it right when he did a representative sample of questions from which it would be reasonable to coonclude he had mastered the skill being tested. Too often teachers confuse means and goals, enforcing completeness rather than trying to identify if the student has particular skills and knowledge. The purpose of any assessment is to find out what students know and can do, so that the teacher can (a) reteach missed concepts and (b) know whether it is possible to move on to the next learning objective. Too often, however, worksheets and homework become about which students can tolerate tedium, are the most compliant, and who never question whether directions make sense.

I like to think most teachers are interested in teaching concepts and skills, not subservience to authority figures. Yet I regularly encounter instructors who say things like, "This student is one of my best, they know the material backwards and forwards, but I can only give them 50% because they never complete their work." No, that's not a bad student, it's bad assessment. If your sense is the student knows their stuff, and (if one took the time to actually look at their worksheets/homework rather than just run over it with an answer key to document whether they are covering all the necessary concepts and difficulty levels, then assigning them a lower grade is simply inaccurate. If you're going to use worksheets/practice homework, get it right.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Question writing

I appreciate when instructors attempt to relate their abstract course content to real-world situations. Math teachers who just come in and cover the board with numbers—without any explanation of when one might need to deploy that equation—do a disservice to math instruction. You have to teach Z-scores in the context of when you'd need to use Z-scores, or whatever.

But by the same token, you need to have some passing familiarity with your real-world example. "If a train leaves Pittsburgh at 4PM going 100mph..." was fine when most people traveled by train; now, not so relatable. And if you going to use, "If a plane leaves Pittsburgh" you'd better include, "not counting the time spent clearing security or the delay for the flight crew showing up" as part of the problem.