Happy winter break! I’m spending mine in Wyoming and Colorado, cross-country skiing, doing crossword puzzles, eating, and hanging out with my parents’ dogs, then heading up to Seattle to blog for the AMS at the Joint Math Meetings. I am also devoting some time to reflecting (grading + fretting = reflecting?) on last semester and getting ready (syllabus + fretting = ready?) for next semester. I tried a lot of things in my work last year, with various degrees of success. Some things were hard but worth it, others were hard and didn’t work out at all. However, it seems like a good moment to share a few easy things that worked as intended.

- I changed classrooms. In the fall I taught two sections of Biocalculus, with a total of about 60 students, mostly freshmen. We cover discrete dynamical systems, modeling, and most of the material from a standard Calc I course, plus more differential equations. I really like these students and the course. Many of the students are math anxious but willing to work hard. I taught the same course last year and struggled a bit—partly because it was my first semester teaching in a new setting, and some of the material was entirely new to me (Cobwebbing? Wha?). This year I came in determined to do better. Success! So many things were so much better! Obviously I had more experience teaching this particular material. However, changing classrooms made a huge difference. Last semester we met in a large lecture hall with three times as many seats as we needed. The room was built only for lecturing and nothing else worked easily in that space. This semester, we had a normal classroom with tables. Just a normal classroom, and wow, what a difference it made in allowing students to work together and speak up in class. Last semester the students were at a great distance from me and from each other. The room was intimidating and encouraged passivity. The rows of desks didn’t allow students to move around and talk to each other. I couldn’t walk through the rows and talk to individual students.The students were fighting against the room in trying to collaborate at a great distance from each other. I found myself constantly asking them to move to the front, which sometimes set up an adversarial relationship. I couldn’t figure out why everything was so hard. Until this year, when I tried the same class in different classroom. Mind blowing.

- I booked a room for Math Tea. Physical environment in my department became an obsession for me this fall. If the design of my classroom made this much difference, what about the department as a whole? My colleagues are really cool people. But it’s taking me a long time to figure out just how cool they are, mostly because there is very little common space where I can get to know them. Not to mention the students—how can we provide a community for our students if there is no place to meet them? This isn’t easy to solve–there just doesn’t seem to be much extra space to go around. However, we can start with a tea before colloquium! This was an easy thing to create. I just booked the classroom for the talk a half hour early and sent out announcements to students and faculty. This worked pretty well! Lots of students attended the talk and chatted with faculty. The faculty members talked to each other and the speaker. Great! These two teas were the longest I had talked to several of my colleagues all semester. This was just the first step; I am still plotting to somehow get a common room or lounge. However, it was both easy and awesome to get people together for half an hour every few weeks.

- I had my students do public art. Basically, I gave them some colored chalk and a list of problems. Their assignment was to make one of the problems and its solution into public art and email me a picture. That’s all. It was only worth a few points but it gave the boring derivative rules part of class just a little bit of spice. I got some nice pictures, it took no extra class time, and the students had fun with it. Easy!

- I didn’t curve an exam. Some of my students did fairly badly on their first Biocalculus exam. I didn’t want to curve the exam, so I gave them the option of replacing the first exam score with their score on the same material on the final. Instead of being annoyed that we were having a cumulative final, they were so happy! Some students gained a lot on the final, but only by learning the material they had missed. The others lost nothing. It took me no extra time, aside from adding up the score on the first part of the exam. It was easy to incorporate this into the final grade calculation by using an IF statement in Excel (by far the least difficult part of a painful 20 hour end of semester grading jag).

After the grading was done and the last grades entered, I danced around a little bit and headed out for more easy and awesome things—eating cookies and watching hockey. Mmmm, winter break.

Nice blog post!

I have a question on the not-curving exam part. Can you elaborate a bit more on how you make final exam and replace the score? Do you give them exactly same questions? I also assume that the number of questions between the first exam and the same portion in the final exam were different, so I am wondering how you weighted them.

Thanks,

Demian

Thanks, Demian! I wrote a cumulative final exam that was pretty long (they had 2.5 hours to take it, compared to the usual 1.25 hour class period). The first part of the final was over the same material as the first exam, though I told them that the questions would be different. I did reuse one question from the first exam on the final with only a small change. The first part of the final was about 2/3 as long as the original first exam. The first part of the final was 40 points, so I just took their percentage out of 40 and compared it to their percentage score on the original exam. I used the higher percentage as their first exam score. Excel has a function IF() that lets you compare the two scores with a truth value and then keep the higher one, so I didn’t have to do anything manually. I guess the MAX() function would do it too…

I liked the changing classrooms part (if you have a medium size class) and the math art part. However, not curving and providing the option of replacing the first score with the final score might not always work. The problem could be if you have to report a midterm grade and students use this grade to decide whether to stay or to drop out of the class. For students that take a longer time to grasp the material the first grade might be a false negative of their overall performance.

Yes, the midterm grades didn’t reflect the possibility of replacing the score. I told the students I would figure out their midterm grades using the original score, and they could make their own estimates of whether or not this was accurate. Nobody dropped the class, so this wasn’t a problem in this case, but it could have been the opposite–a few people overestimated how well they would do on the final and ended up with lower grades than they wanted.