Saturday, January 21, 2012

MLCS Round 2: Progress!

Note: The semester has started and so has blogging. I'm resuming my weekly blog updates and adding in other items as they occur.

Our second semester of Mathematical Literacy for College Students is underway and the differences are night and day. Heather and I have both been very pleasantly surprised at the attitudes, participation levels, and work ethics of our students. Being the lovers of math and statistics that we are, we want to know the source of the improvement. A lot can be attributed to it being the second time around and the improved confidence we're exhibiting. We know the goal of the course as well as each unit and can express that clearly. But we also know where they're going to struggle and have made very specific attempts to combat that.

First change: materials

The materials have come a long way, making the experience so much more enjoyable. We've applied our discovery about lesson framing to make each lesson have a flow that works well. No lesson starts in a way that students expect, which pulls them in, but they're well paced and developed so that students can progress with the content. We've yanked some lessons, written many new, reorganized all of them, and added many new features. The MyMathLab course has also improved in big ways. Overall, it's helped tremendously.

Second change: grading structure

We learned that the key component to this course upon which all success hinges is their willingness to put it in a lot of work with the various concepts and skills we're exploring. That's a new paradigm for students since they're used to "take notes, do 30 problems, test on ones similar." We don't operate under that model, so we've learned to show students how we will operate and build a grading scheme to elicit the behaviors we want. It's far too soon to see what will work and what will need tweaking, but I'm still optimistic. Students are already figuring out that the more work they do now, they less they'll need to do later. And since we have so few points in our course, every point counts.

Here's our scheme:

There are 10 points for each of the 4 units. That's it. Up to 4 points can be earned based on the test percentage (e.g., 85-100% on the test = 4 points). Up to 2 points are earned based on their MML average. Up to 2 points are earned based on their in-class work average. And the last 2 points are earned based on their group project grade. If they have perfect attendance, they earn 1 bonus point.

That's 40 points. The final exam is 100 points, making 140 for the course. They need 100 total points to get the lowest C. The premise is to reward work, to keep the points smaller so that each point is valued more, and to reward the idea of learning the content eventually. In real life, no one will ever ask you when you learned something, just have you learned it. So, we'll see. It may be a flop. If it is, we'll adjust and move forward. We built this approach using ideas from George Woodbury's use of gaming theory in the classroom.

Third change: the students

I've long enjoyed spring semesters more than fall semesters because you have students who usually have at least one semester of college under their belts. In the fall, we tend to get a lot of students who decide a few days before the semester starts that they want to go to college. That makes for a wide variety of preparation levels and commitment to education. We had a lot of great students in the fall who wanted to work hard and we had some who weren't ready yet to be in college. This time, we can already see in both sections that the majority of students are ready to go, happy to be in a class like this, and optimistic about trying something different. I'm sure we're selling it better and that helps. But it can't all just be us. We've been fortunate to get good classes already that want to work and learn. Will all of them be successful? Probably not. But I'm still incredibly hopeful that most will pass with a positive experience to boot.

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