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.

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