Thursday, September 20, 2012

Are we there yet? Almost!

This week was the end of the first unit of MLCS for the semester and with that came the grading of their open-ended project and their first test.  And to say the least, I am thrilled with the progression of this course and what we're seeing.  Here's what's happening:

1.  Because the text is such good shape and the goals of the course are clear, students never really had an adjustment period where we had to hope they'd buy in.  They just quickly learned how we run this course and adapted without an issue.  That is a major change from last year where students took about 2 weeks each semester to accept how the course would operate.

2.  Along with that, we are seeing terrific things with the projects and tests.  The level of quality is much higher than what we got from students last year.  We're not necessarily attributing that to the level of students (although it's possible), because they are similar to our classes from the spring.  What is different is the cohesiveness of the content and clarity of the goals and expectations.  Basically, we get what we're trying to do and we can articulate that well.  Consequently, students better understand what we want from them and can provide it.  As Heather put it well, we're more confident and students sense that.

But there's something I noticed this week that I had never thought of before.  We know the goal of a course like MLCS is college readiness.  It's not about solving equations or graphing lines (even though we do that too).  It's about maturity in terms of college and mathematics.  To get there, we push students and ask more of them than they're used to.  At first, it's intimidating because the open-ended projects are not simplistic.  The tests aren't easy either.  Most math students at community colleges do not take tests that are half word problems.  But students rise to these challenges and really gain something in the process of that struggle.

It's like my 8 year old and how he reads.  He's a terrific reader but he didn't get that way by reading 2nd or 3rd grade books.  He got that way by first reading a lot but also by always pushing into new and harder books.  The same principle applies with developmental students and the traditional developmental sequence.  If we want them to be college ready, how can we expect that to happen if they're just redoing what they did in high school?  Pushing them beyond the familiar and comfortable exercises new parts of their brains and helps them make gains where we need them.  It makes sense.  You build strength by lifting heavier weights than are initially comfortable and adapting to the challenges they pose.  Mental muscle works the same way.

3.  We are starting to figure out better ways to elicit the behaviors we want from students in the course.  Attendance policies matter and grading MML homework helps too.  But we need students really working with paper homework to solidify concepts and get to the point of being able to use the ideas learned.  However, the idea of grading their homework each day is not appealing to me or Heather.  So we've added longer quizzes given twice each unit that cover the paper homework in addition to MML quizzes that cover skills.  Still, some students won't do the work.  So we're now randomly collecting pages from their binders to give them that little extra push to do their homework.  It should help some, although there will still be some students who are not motivated by measures like these.

Another related change I've made this semester is what I call an "intervention."  We are a quarter of the way through the course.  If students are going to pass and aren't currently, they have to make major changes now.  Usually I either do a pep talk or a gripe session when I give back tests if they're not that good.  This time the tests were good (I graded my first perfect MLCS test!) but there were still some D's and F's.  To address the specific issues with those students, I wrote a letter to students and stapled it to the back of their test for privacy.  It outlined what they need to do to pass the course.  I also showed them the timeline to finish their college level math course if they pass this class as opposed to the timeline if they need to repeat MLCS or change to beginning algebra.  The difference is more than a year of their lives.  That fact alone seemed to get the attention of several students.  I'm hoping this intervention strategy will prove successful.  We'll see...

Are we there yet?  Meaning, is the course perfect?  No, but most courses aren't.  The book is still being tweaked and the MML course is still a work in progress.  But the growth and improvement we are seeing is not a fluke; it's real and consistent amongst all our sections.  That is reason to celebrate.

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