Saturday, March 3, 2012

MLCS Course Development and Training

Non-STEM courses like Quantway, Statway/Statpath, and MLCS are taking flight across the country and with that comes a lot of questions.  Because we've been working on a course and implementation for over a year, we've learned some things to help make it work.  Here are some tips for course development:

1.  Identify your goal.

We wanted appropriate preparation for the student heading to liberal arts math or statistics.  Sometimes the goal is acceleration.  While that wasn't our first goal per se, we are certainly happy for that to be a by-product of the course. 

Knowing your goals defines your next step.

2.  Determine the course content.

Look forward to where students will go and see what they need when they get there.  For us, that was statistics, liberal arts math, or intermediate algebra.  While we have many intermediate algebra topics in our course, they are covered in a conceptual, applied way that uses modeling.  So yes, we look at rational functions but no, we don't add rational expressions.  If a student will eventually take college algebra or precalculus, they'll need those algebraic manipulation skills.  We wanted them to be able to go into an intermediate algebra (IA) course without issue.  Our IA course has factoring in it, as most do.  So we were comfortable with exposing students to the concept of factoring in the MLCS course and doing one very useful type:  GCF.  Again, they can get the rest of the factoring techniques in an IA course.

Using IA as our bridge forced us to add in a few more objectives on polynomials.  It was funny; at first we didn't like that because it felt contrived.  It seemed like we were only adding them for a next course that many wouldn't take and therefore felt disconnected from the content.  But as we taught the course in the fall, there were times where polynomials came up and I needed to be able to say "degree" or "binomial" and students know what I mean.  They were necessary topics to our end goal.  That was great!  So we embedded them in the second unit of our course to ensure students have that basis for later material.  It also further prepares them for the bridge course.  In so doing, we solved two problems.

How much content you have affects the next step.

3.  Determine the number of credit hours.

It was very important to us that this course not be like all the other developmental math courses we teach:  rushed.  This learner needs time to discuss and think and learn.  We need that time too and we wanted it in the classroom with them.  Plus, our state has a lot of requirements to make this course something that can be articulated.  Add that up and we have 6 credit hours.  It's unlikely that schools outside of Illinois will need anywhere near that many.  The mode for this course as it's being developed around the country is 4 credits. 

Also consider if you want a lab hour embedded within the credit hours or in addition to them.  We use MyMathLab and have considered having an hour with students in a lab while they're working on skills.  We haven't needed to go to that yet but it's something to think about.  Doing this is kind of a hybrid of a self-paced emporium model and a pathways model.

4.  Write a course outline.

Now comes the fun part:  goals and objectives.  State succinctly but clearly the course description, goals, objectives, and content.  Here is our course outline that went to the college curriculum committee if you'd like to see an example.  You can download it as a Word document so that it's editable. 

5.  Choose materials.

In our course outline, you'll read that we have a MLCS course packet and MyMathLab.  The course packet is the book that we're writing for this course that isn't yet in print.  If you're interested in seeing a unit, please email me.  I can request a copy be sent to you from the publisher, Pearson.  It is available for testing this fall if you want to pilot MLCS and will be officially in print in summer 2013.

We started writing because we wanted materials to match the content and goals of this course.  Because this course is new, they did not exist.  You can piecemeal books together but it will be awkward for the teacher and student.  You can also write lessons, but that is a time-consuming undertaking.  Open source materials will be available eventually but that content doesn't cover all the objectives in our course or state.  Plus, we wanted MML.  It was an important requirement with any materials we used.  Lastly, we wanted materials that addressed every possible need for any instructor.  So we have written and designed many tools for instructors in the book.

6.  Plan the execution of the course.

This is the step where you think about how many sections you will offer, when they'll be offered, who will teach them, and how they'll be taught.  If possible, plan schedules so that teachers can get to each other's classes and observe occasionally.  Heather and I did this throughout the fall semester and it was invaluable.  It has improved the materials greatly and educated us on ways to make the class experience even better.  You see things in the back of the room that aren't obvious from the front.  So consider this step.

If this step isn't possible (or even if it is), plan how the instructors teaching the course can converse after lessons to debrief and improve them.  We meet after our classes and talk.  If you can't do that, set up a discussion board.  But this step is so important that it shouldn't be skipped over.  This is not an algebra course.  It's new for everyone.  Having the security of people to talk to helps everyone entering into the course for the first time.  And it helps the course get better and better over time.  This technique is like a Japanese lesson study.  Not identical, but it emulates their philosophy of teaching a lesson and refining it with other instructors over time. 

7.  Training

You may want training before you begin your pilot to understand better what a class feels like, how to make groups function well, what kinds of pitfalls there are to be aware of, etc.  I've been helping schools who are developing the course and will continue to do so.  Experiencing a lesson is so important so that you can see what the classroom will feel like and what you need to prepare for.  I can say without question that teaching in this way has made it very hard to go back to my 100% lecture, traditional courses.  Students are engaged and discussions are rich.  I truly enjoy what we do in the classroom in a way I never have.  And I've always loved teaching so that's saying something.  Yes, it's an adjustment but one that's made quickly for everyone. 

I'm also thinking about creating a training workshop that would allow several schools to come to one location so that I can work with them.  If this is of interest to you, please email me.  If there is sufficient interest, I can try to work out the logistics of making it happen.

My main goal with this post is to let you know you're not alone.  I've been working with schools on various redesign initiatives for years.  I will continue to do that with this course as well.  Having someone to ask questions of and bounce ideas with really helps everyone involved have more confidence in the process.

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