Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pilot Recap, Week 16: Lessons Learned (Part 2)

Last week, I blogged about the lessons we learned on a large scale items (pedagogy, role of technology, metacognition, etc.).  Today I'll add to our lessons learned but this time in terms of the course and structure.

We surveyed our students continually throughout the semester and also had informal check-ins with them to find out what was working and what wasn't.  That helped us tweak as we went and also maker bigger improvements for next semester.  During those surveys and chats, we started to inquire about what they could have done to make the experience better.  Yes, we realize that we had a huge impact on the success of the course since it's brand new.  But students are a part of this learning equation too.  What they said was interesting.

1.  MyMathLab homework matters and helps to develop skills but the paper homework matters more.  Many of our students wanted to gloss over it because we didn't collect and grade each problem for correctness.  This was the place where went "old school" and used the approach used by many countries who are successful with math eduction.  That is, give students fewer but more involved and more meaningful problems and assign all of them.  Some paper homework assignments may have only had 5 problems but they were 5 tough problems that would take some time to make sense of.  And that sense-making process is where the learning happens.

2.  Never, ever skip class.  We had an attendance policy but it needs changing.  Still, it did help to get students to class.  But they found that they had to be there regardless of a policy or not.  In a course like this, you can't just "get notes and do the homework."  Much of the learning experience involved the students.  In a typical lecture, the instruction happens through the instructor.  But much of our instruction happened when students were working hard problems and talking to us and each other about them.  Yes, we had notes and reference content on paper but nothing was boiled down to "here's a skill, here's 6 examples of it, and now there's 30 problems with multiple variations."  What happened in class just couldn't be recreated outside of it.  I don't think it necessarily can in a traditional course either.  But that fact was glaring in this course.

3.  Apathy will kill your grade.  If they didn't care enough to show up, get help when things got tough, or even try the homework, they were sunk and quickly at that.  Again, this is not all that different from any other math class.  But where I see that most often is in my college level classes because the content is new and harder.  In developmental classes, they've seen the content before.  So they can ride on their memories from high school, help from their friends, MML, etc.  We did topics that their friends had never seen either so they really needed to work on the content and get help ASAP. 

4.  Work more hours than you think you need to.  We told them the college rule of 2 hours of work per week outside of class for every one hour in class.  But they ignored us and tried to get by with less.  And when we asked them if the time spent studying mattered, it was an unequivocal yes.  They wished they had spent much more time each week.

Basically, the premise of this course is to take care of all their developmental math in one semester.  Well, there is no free lunch in life.  If you're going to do a year's worth of content in one semester, you're going to have to work at it.  And no amount of us nagging or reminders about the obvious rewards (much less time and money in developmental math) mattered.  In the end, it comes down to them.  We had a lot of students who were successful in the course.  And we had a fair number who withdrew or failed. 

5.  Points, even extra credit, were not strong motivators.  This was such a disappointment to us.  All our 'tricks' learned from years of teaching just did not work.  We offered bonus points for various things and opportunities for extra credit with some special assignments.  We had a points structure with lots of points for all the various things we did beyond tests.  And in the end, few got any bonus points.  They just didn't care enough to do what was needed to get them.  I hated to see that but that again shows where they're just not quite college ready yet.  We wanted them to learn the value of attending, working hard, and aiming higher.  And some just wouldn't do those things.  You can lead a horse to water...

Still, better learned now than in a college level class.  That's the point of developmental courses:  develop the content and student success skills to be successful in college.  It's not just about math.  So we're trying a new points structure in the spring based on a friend's approach with course contracts and a gaming principle.  George Woodbury has been trying and refining his use of these approaches for a while.  With his ideas and knowledge of our students and this course, we've developed a new structure that encourages work.  Because honestly, that's what we needed them to do more than anything.  It also is built on the concept of learning the material eventually.  Yes, students need to pass each test but they also need to eventually make sense of the material by the end of the semester.  We tried to encourage that this semester by letting them do test corrections on their exams and offering bonus points towards their final exam.  Again, not that many actually did this.  Frustrating but a recurring theme to this semester.

All of these lessons were hard but necessary if these students are going on to a college level course next semester.  I don't hold my students' hands in my college level courses and neither do my colleagues.  I hate to see a student not get these lessons until it's too late, but I can't make the learning happen for them.  We learned a lot this semester, good and bad, and so did they.

We've got finals this week and then it's on to planning for next semester.  I'm encouraged about it.  One, because I'm an eternal optimist and two, because of what our students said on Friday of last week.  "This is a great course."  "Definitely keep offering it.  We learned so much."  "We really learned how to apply math."  I know we're on to something good.

My blogs will continue with updates about materials and the course so please keep checking back.  The first pilot is complete but the process to make this course come to life is not.

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