Thursday, November 9, 2017

AMATYC 2017 Presentation

Heather and I spoke at this year's AMATYC conference on teaching Math Lit online. I'm in my second semester of teaching it and have seen huge improvement in student and my satisfaction with the course. We're both experiences online teachers and have taught Math Lit face to face for 7 years, so it was important to us to take this pathways course to more course delivery models. Here are the slides.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Teaching Math Lit online: Part 2

Earlier this year, I wrote about teaching the content in an online Math Lit course. In this post, I'll talk about homework, focus problems, tests, communication, making the content cohesive, challenges, and some thoughts about going forward with this course.


I had students do all of their homework in MML and not part in MML and part in the book the way I do with the face-to-face version of the course. I did this for simplicity and so that I could see all of their homework without needing more pages to be scanned and emailed to me. They could get feedback on all their homework problems immediately as well.

MML has plenty of skill-type problems to learn the skills. It also has the textbook homework's Skills problems (#1 and 2 of each book homework assignment). In the book, those are done to see if students can do a few of the skill-type problems without help aids. So in MML, those two problems don't have help aids. In the second edition of Math Lit, there were book Concepts and Applications problems added to MML for each section. Not all of those book problems are in MML yet. If there was a particular problem I really wanted students to do that wasn't in MML, I would make it into a custom question and hand grade them.

Students did the homework and scores were very good. Having frequent deadlines got students to work on the content each day. However, they didn't have as challenging homework as the
F2F students because they didn't have as many book homework problems. I figure that the online students had more of a challenge learning the content, giving them plenty of problem solving practice. In the end, I felt it evened out.

Focus Problems

I created a video to introduce the cycle and focus problem. It also included tips on the focus problem and information on how I wanted them to work on the problem with their groups. We used the groups feature of Canvas. Students could choose their own groups of 3 to 4 students. Each group had its own discussion board and way of talking to each other that only they and I could see (not the rest of the class). I encouraged them to use Collaborate (within Canvas) or Google Hangouts to meet synchronously at least once during the cycle. Within Canvas, I posted information every week about a work session they should do on the problem with their group. In class, I have multiple work sessions and have students try to make progress on the focus problem. I tried to do the same online but posting instructions relies on the students to read them and do those parts on their own.

Solving these problems in groups on top of all the other work they had became to be too much. Students didn't use the discussion boards as much as I hoped and most didn't use an online means of meeting. However, some did meet physically to work, which is just as good. The same F2F problems of someone slacking and groups waiting too long to start still occurred. One positive is that students got to know each other much more so through this part of the course than any other.


The course's assessments included focus problems (one per cycle - group grade), daily MML homework, discussions for the Explores, book pages to submit to show how they're working on the content, quizzes in MML, and tests in MML.

In MML, I provided them a practice test and the real test (which was taken proctored to ensure test integrity). The test included a skill problem and concepts & applications problem from each section of the cycle we covered. There was also a free response custom question on the focus problem to promote individual accountability. Tests were online so students could review their results easily. I added partial credit to their problems when possible since there wasn't a lot of partial credit in MML.

The outcome is that the tests may have been somewhat easier than a paper test my F2F students took. Although the tests were a little easier, other parts of the course were much more challenging than the F2F version. Again, in the end, I figured it evened out.


There was a tremendous amount of communication. I emailed and posted announcements almost daily to keep them on track and aware of what they should be doing. I also made short videos to explain how to do some tough Explores or challenging problems. There were videos to close the focus problems too so that students could have a debriefing experience like the F2F class has.

Making the content cohesive

Making a cohesive experience was a big challenge. I made videos to open each cycle to explain how the content they were going to learn fit together. I also regularly posted information explaining what the goal of content was that they were working on. In the future, I think having a short video for every section covered would help me make the points I need to so that they see how things fit together. 


There were a lot of challenges, many of which I've mentioned. The biggest is that the course had a lot going on, a lot to do, and a lot to keep track of. Keeping things manageable for students was a constant challenge. As I mentioned, some things were easier in the online version than the F2F version while others were harder. I figure it balances out. The offerings don't have to be identical, but I feel they should be equivalent.

I lost a few students to withdrawals sooner than I do in the F2F version but once we got to our core group (which was most of the students who started), they all stayed till the end. And almost all of them passed. 

Going forward

I have lists of changes to make to simplify and streamline the course for me and students. One big suggestion I received was to have a synchronous session once a week, perhaps on each Monday night. There are online platforms that allow you to put students in online rooms where they can talk live to each other and the instructor can monitor the groups (just like in a F2F class). Sessions can count for attendance or participation points. If I use this approach, I'll have students do the Explores in the synchronous session and I'll talk about the goals of the week's content to make it more cohesive. I could also show how to do some troublesome problems. I think this step alone would make the course much better for everyone.

Using this approach, I would change the discussions to be on the Connects and not the Explores. Instead of fighting them on using the content of the section to solve the Explore problems, they could do that (which they're supposed to anyway) with the Connect problems. Also, I wouldn't do every Connect as a discussion. Just 1 or 2 a week would be enough.

If I don't use a synchronous session approach in the future, I'll make short videos for each section to build that cohesiveness in the content and guide them with the Explores. Again, they could do the Connects for the discussions.

The other main change I will make is to have them solve the focus problems on their own. It's so difficult doing those in groups in an online course on top of all the other components of the course. Doing them alone would ease a lot of stress on students. I might have an open discussion board where they could talk as a class on different points of the problem and get hints from each other.

Ultimately, it was a challenging but incredibly rewarding online class. I felt really connected to my students and they were connected to each other. That's something I rarely feel in an online algebra class. Yes, there are many tweaks to make but the main thing I learned is that the course can absolutely be offered successfully in an online environment.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Webinar recording now available

Recently I gave a webinar for Pearson about where we've come in the five years of teaching Math Lit. Please check out the recording if you'd like to see the webinar.

Math Lit and Pathways: 5 Years Later

After you enter some basic info, you'll have access to the recording.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Upcoming webinar: Pathways after 5 years

At the 2016 AMATYC conference, Heather and I gave a talk about where pathways and specifically the math lit course have gotten to in 5 years. We weren't able to get through all of our slides due to the discussion that occurred, which is a good problem to have. The attendees had lots of good questions and anecdotes to share. So if you attended our session and wanted to hear the rest of story or weren't able to attend and would like to see this talk, please go to this link to register for a webinar.

Webinar info:

Thursday February 23
2 - 3 pm CST

Math Lit & Pathways: 5 Years Later
Pathways courses in developmental math have evolved in the 5 years since their inception. In this webinar, lessons learned, problems, solutions, and data will be shared about Rock Valley College’s Math Lit course. Additionally, updates on how pathways are changing developmental math nationwide will be discussed. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Teaching a section of Math Lit: a video rundown

Since we're at the beginning of the semester, some instructors may be new to teaching a math literacy course. So I've made the following video walking through one specific section that I taught recently. There are tips throughout it. If you'd like to talk more about the video with questions or suggestions, please join the Math Lit instructor forum.

To enlarge the video, press Play and then click on the "full screen" icon in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.

Also, the next part in the series on teaching the course online is coming. I wanted to post this blog post before it because I thought it might be more timely and helpful.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Teaching Math Lit online: Part 1

As I start the new spring semester, I've been thinking about my fall semester in which I taught Math Lit online for the first time. I've taught online for years and I've taught Math Lit for years, but online Math Lit seemed like a daunting task. I had talked to some instructors around the country to get ideas, but it was really a step off a cliff. And unlike other online courses I've taught for the first time, I didn't get everything figured out before we started. It made for a lot of challenges until we got into a routine. This post is provided to prevent you from having to be a guinea pig and instead benefit from my mistakes.

My goals were to incorporate the special traits of the face-to-face experience but in an online environment. What I found was that every single thing I was used to doing face-to-face had to be adapted. This was by far the most challenging online course I've ever made or taught, but it was also the most rewarding one. I really knew all my students and they knew each other. I felt very connected to them and their work and the best news is that the pass rate was phenomenal at 83%.

In this series of posts I want to share what I tried, what worked, and what needs work. My method is by no means the only way to go about this type of offering. I welcome any suggestions and ideas. Please check out the Math Lit instructor forum and join it so that we can discuss this course offering more.

Let's look at each component of the course one at a time. In this post, I'll look at the aspects of a section (Explore, Discover, Connect, Reflect). In the next post, I'll talk about doing homework, using the focus problems, and some other miscellaneous issues.

1. Explore

Each section of Math Lit starts with an Explore that has a problem that students have to try without necessarily having very much machinery to do so. It motivates the content for the section and helps students improve their problem solving skills, especially because it's a problem and not an exercise.

In the classroom, I always have students get in groups, read the Explore, and then start working on it together. We discuss the results and how it will set a framework for what we're going to work on.

The challenge was making these problems accessible to online developmental students, which I've found to be a set of students that tend to not interact as much in online math classes. They tend to keep to themselves. My solution was to use the Discussions feature of MyMathLab. It was great to have a use for a discussion that was not contrived, as they sometimes are in my other online math classes. Each Explore had its own discussion thread where students could work on the problem together until they reached an answer. Some instructors use wikis such as Google docs to do this and have students work in groups to add to the wiki with their work on the problem. I was struggling to keep my students in as few online platforms as possible, so I used the discussion feature. I used the "post first" feature so that one person didn't post the answer and everyone go, "yep, that's it" or "yep, that's what I got too." Students had to post a reply before they could see anyone else's response. I went through them and replied to each student on what they needed to adjust or try, sometimes suggesting they look at another student's response for ideas. After the due date, I posted a complete solution or referred them to look at a particular student's solution if it was correct and complete.

The problem was that it was basically an individual interaction between me and each student, not a group collaboration. What I'm going to try the next time I teach it online, this fall, is that students have to respond a certain number of times to each other. Keeping track of that and keeping it manageable is another challenge. Because it takes time to do these problems and get feedback to students and them work more on the problems, I made each week's Explores all due on Sunday nights. That gave them a week to work through them.

An additional problem we had is that students would wait until learning the content of the section to do the Explore. In that case, they would use what they had learned from the section, making each Explore basically like the Connect instead of its own exploration. I'm still pondering ways to improve that issue but give them enough time to finish them.

Since our course is large at 6 credits, we cover 4 to 5 sections each week. To make the workload more manageable, I made a few Explore discussions extra credit each cycle. This reduced the number of required weekly discussions to a more reasonable amount.

2. Discover

The main part of each section is the Discover in which skills and concepts are developed and practiced. In the classroom, I do some of the Discover as whole class and some in groups. While I wanted to students to work with each other to learn the content, it just wasn't feasible for time reasons. All these students were logging on at different times and trying to get the content done. There was no synchronous component to the course. Having to wait for other students to discuss each problem would take forever. We already had that challenge with the Explores.

So my solution was to have students work on the problems in the Discover on their own. I made a video showing them what I wanted them to do. They were supposed to open the ebook while they worked in the textbook. They were to read any exposition or examples, work any numbered problems, and watch any videos that accompanied the ebook. I tried to think what I would want if I was a student and one thing was the answers, to know that I was on the right track. So for each cycle, I made a document that had all the answers to the Discover problems that were numbered. They were supposed to work problems in the book and then check them, but I'm sure some students just worked backwards from the answers. Not ideal, but it's not something that can be controlled. Ultimately I concluded they were adults and would go through the learning process in a way that worked for them.

But, doing those pages in the book was essential. In some of my other online classes, students have seen the content and will just skim the book and do the homework. But this course is problem-based, not skill based, so the process of understanding the goals of the problems and sitting with them cannot be skipped. I kept telling students throughout the first week to do the book pages first, but they weren't. I received tons of questions on homework and there was confusion.

So my solution was to collect pages from each week of work. I thought this would be really time-consuming, but it was one of the best components of the course. It was so positive that I'd like to do it with other courses, online or face-to-face. I had to use our campus LMS, which is Canvas, to have the capability to easily grade their papers. Each Friday, I would post an assignment in Canvas with a list of 5 page numbers I had chosen from the sections they had worked on that week. They were to scan or take a picture of the pages with their phone and upload them as PDFs or JPGs. Canvas has a feature called SpeedGrader that allows me to click on their assignment and see each page they upload. I can comment on the page and explain how I got their score. I scored each page as 2 points (0 points for not turning it in, 1 point for doing anything on it, 2 points for doing everything on it as stated in the page's directions). To get full credit, they could not copy answers from the answer document. They had to show their own work.

I was able to grade their papers quickly and the benefits were immediate. They started doing the book pages as they went, which made the content make sense, and reduced the questions on homework considerably. I could get them some feedback without having to look through every page they did. It made me feel more connected to them and their progress. Everyone's frustration lifted.

3. Connect

In a classroom, I do the Connects like the Explores in groups. I give students time to work while I mill around giving hints and then we go over the answers. Having a whole other set of discussions for the Connects in addition to the Explores would have been too much. So I had students do these on their own after they did the Discover portion and provided them with answers to check (in the same document I mentioned above). It's not ideal, but it was the best I could come up with. Time was really something I was fighting all the time.

4. Reflect

I had students read the Reflect boxes on their own. Like in the face-to-face class, some students always read them and some never do. I tried to post comments on discussions and use announcements that regularly had information on why we were working on certain topics and how they fit together.

In the next post, I'll talk about homework, focus problems, tests, communication, making the content cohesive, and dealing with challenges.