What Made This Semester Awesome

This semester had, hands-down, the best set of students I’ve ever had. Every semester I do a post-mortem of what worked and what didn’t and how consistent those things have been over the years. Though, mostly irrelevant to this article, but to give a frame of reference, this semester I taught a once-a-week low-level, introductory math survey course. We spent a few weeks on Set Theory, Logic, Consumer Finance, and Graph Theory. The purpose of the course is to dabble on some math topics that may not be seen in standard curriculum. As ridiculous as it sounds, Set Theory and Logic do not get much treatment in high school nor in college. I wish these two topics were part of standard curriculum. A lot of students if they’ve been able to survive the Algebra gauntlet meet their fate in Calculus because they just don’t understand how mathematical theorems “work”. Understanding “if \(p\), then \(q\)” from a logical standpoint can help to avoid some of the “common” mistakes with remembering and understanding theorems. But I digress.

Here’s some more background information.

The course syllabus, grading policies, and content are mostly predetermined by the department. Where I have choice is how to teach the material and what I want to do about attendance and timeliness of submission of projects and quizzes. Fortunately, the department does not require that homework be graded, but the instructor always has the option to have graded homework. I never take this option.

As for turning in pieces of paper to me, my only requirement is that everything be turned no later than one week before the last exam. This allows students to work at their own pace and manage their life schedules. A lot of my students work full time and / or help support their family. So imposing course pace-based deadlines is unnecessarily stressful. The exams are the only assessment that are on pace — well, maybe the quizzes too, but not for turning things in. One of the drawbacks with the ‘turn it in whenever’ policy is that students tend to turn in paper all at the end of the semester. But I don’t care, since it’s their time management decision. It creates a little bit of an end-of-the-semester paperwork headache for me, but I’m ok with it. By and large, those who turn in quizzes and projects at the end of the semester have tended not to do well on exams.

The course has four projects, four quizzes, and four exams, all mandatory. Now, the truth is, I only really care about the exams and this is one of those classes where averaging the exam results actually is an okay way to give student grades. The projects are good, but really, they are just more involved homework — I do like the projects, they’re just not my style. Some folks in the department recommend a weekly graded quiz to “keep students on task”. I, however, don’t care for this and give comprehensive quizzes as exam review. If a student is unable to answer questions on the quiz, then they’ve got some things to worry about on the exam. The exam is the doozy though. It accounts for 65% of the student’s grade.

And so every semester, in the first lecture, I stress the importance of regular study, I stress the importance of time management, and so forth. I also emphasize that there is no extra credit given that homework is ungraded, quizzes are practically take home and / or group work, and projects and quizzes can be turned in whenever they are ready to turn them in. And every semester, right up to the end there are unending requests for extensions and extra credit.

But, what made this semester awesome?

First, there was a general absence of extra credit requests. The semester sure began with those questions, but this semester I made sure to explicitly squash that. That meant the point grubbing wasn’t going to exist, which perhaps induced the rest of the behavior.

Next, every lecture had 95% to 100% attendance. I can’t tell you how amazing that was. Anyone who was absent had told why they would be absent in advance! Also, everyone was on time!

Amazingly, I did not have an end of the semester assignment barrage. Half the students turned in their work as the course moved on. The other half were just a few weeks behind the pace, which is completely ok.

Students did their homework regularly. Every lecture I had questions about the homework. The homework was ungraded and uncollected, though they were allowed to submit it for feedback.

As for the projects, there was a little whining about having to type it up and all but one student typed up their work. And they did it well. Maybe they got outside help, I don’t know, but the work was clean, well-written, thorough, and of generally high quality for the expectations of the class. (I had made it clear that just because this is a math class, doesn’t mean that communication and presentation aren’t important. I also made it a point to remind the class that we’re in 2015 and that hand-written work is not how we submit our final product these days.)

Because of the general activeness of the class, I actually got to lecture for half the class period and then we got to work on problems and application for the other half of the period. What’s usually been the case is that lecture would have to move much more slowly because basic concepts and mechanics weren’t being reinforced at home. But not so this semester.

During lecture and problem time, practically everyone was engaged and participated. When someone didn’t understand something, they said so. Once a few students started doing this, the rest of the class joined in. This is an instructor’s dream! What was especially amazing about problem time was that those students who wanted to work in groups did so and they actually worked rather than gripe or just sit there with a bovine expression on their face. Some students were comfortable working on their own and so they did. Those students tended to not need any help. The solitary students who did need help were also vocal when they didn’t understand something and they didn’t hesitate to ask someone near them.

Finally, the best thing: students had no hesitation in taking a stab at answering a question I may have posed. Most of the answers were wrong (but, hey, there’s no such thing as a wrong answer in math), but we didn’t care. We analyzed the answers and figured out what made them wrong (or more consistently, in what context that answer was right). We then also tried to understand why the correct answer was the correct one and so forth.

To be fair, I do generally have high attendance and reasonably good class participation. But it’s the other stuff, the out-of-class stuff, the stuff that really is on the student to decide if they want to invest their time, that was hugely different this semester. Every semester there are the students who are diligent and there those who are not. This time around, I could safely say that everyone really put forth their best effort. And I can’t ask for anything more.

I don’t know what I did this semester that was materially different than other semesters, but what a treat this class was. I know that this semester I drummed home the importance of regular, at-home practice as well as the importance of time management. There were also a few moments in the first few lectures, where I had to stop lecture and just put to rest the worry about points and extra credit. Other than those two tweaks, I didn’t really do anything differently from previous semesters. I’ll try this again next semester — squash the extra credit conversation early (in the past, I was resigned to it and would decline the request when asked), weekly reminders about projects and quizzes and the importance of time management, and a continuous effort for getting students to speak (truth be told, I am good about this, but the difference this semester was that I made a heavy emphasis early on and was able to get a critical mass of students to participate, once that happened, the whole class was in. In the past, I’ve kept a steady emphasis throughout the semester.)

Thanks for reading and do share your story of your best semester / set of students!


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