Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pilot Recap Week 5: Striking a balance

I'm writing early this week because I'll be leaving soon to present at Pearson's Course Redesign conference in Orlando, Florida.  Instead of giving our students the day off on Friday, we've provided them with the classroom and time to complete their second open-ended problem.  I can't take credit for that idea; it's all Heather's.  We're not at the point where we can have subs yet, so that solution makes use of the time and teaches students a valuable lesson in time management.  Beyond content, one of our primary goals in the course is to help students understand what college level expectations and work look like.  The better we do at that, the better prepared they are in the spring when they head to a college level math class.

Now back to this week.

There has been a prevailing theme for a few lessons now:  our balance is off.  We see how much students enjoy being given challenging but accessible problems to solve with their groups.  But we have to have some mini-lectures to teach new skills.  We started the course with more of a block approach:  they work together for a period of time, then we work as a class for a little while, then they go back to their group to apply knowledge.  Now we're doing more back and forth (whole class/small group) after every few problems and it's just not as effective.  They get antsy to keep working together and I feel like we're drawing things out too much, interrupting the flow.  Luckily, my co-author is the queen of logistics and efficiency.  She can easily see how to regroup certain problems and streamline others to make the class time better.  It's funny that neither of us noticed this when we were writing but that's what the classroom does:  it shines a spotlight on all the weaknesses of any print materials.  We joked that if this were a traditional class with someone else's book, we'd be saying, "What were they thinking?  Good bones but needs some reorganization."  Unfortunately, those people are us.  Hindsight's 20/20 for sure.

Are they learning?  Absolutely.  I'm continually amazed and pleased with what they can do with the challenges we present.  The rigor is there but the packaging is different.  We just feel that the pace of the class is dragging some which causes another problem:  overconfidence.  When students feel that everything is simple and/or they've seen any of the content in previous classes, they will jump to the conclusion of knowing it all.  When we challenge them with extensions, connections, and explanations, they sometimes swing to other extreme of frustration.  That comes from being overconfident and not listening as closely to the somewhat familiar content (even with a new twist of going deeper and focusing on understanding).  We've been working on that for a little while and already see improvement.  Again, it's an issue of balance.  We have to have enough challenging problems to lure them into wanting to know more, but not get so challenging that they give up.  We're diligently working on productive struggle and persistence.

I'm pleased that both sets of students are real troopers.  They do what we ask and stay positive in the process.  They realize that the course is a work in process and for that I'm grateful.

Really, this course is like writing a proof in graduate school.  You're posed with a problem that looks insurmountable at the beginning.  You try this and that and slowly see you might be getting somewhere.  Add some time, sweat, perseverance, lots of erasing and rewriting, and before long, you can see the finish line and a path to reach it.  I'm seeing a way to the finish line and I like what I see.

On to Florida.  Let's redesign!

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