Semester Wrap-up

Hood College’s annual Geome-tree, made during math tea. Clearly superior to the neighboring department’s Chemis-tree.

As you can probably tell by my posting rate, it’s been a bit of a rough semester. I had more students and classes than I’ve had in awhile, and under somewhat different circumstances. Committee work really started ramping up. My research suffered. Eventually it got to the point where I felt like I just had to hang on and keep my head above water until the end. Which, barring some final exam grading, this is. Thank goodness.

I’ll start with the teaching highlights: my linear algebra class went quite well. I can’t say enough good things about the Inquiry-Oriented Linear Algebra curriculum I used, which I wrote about earlier this year. The students loved it, and came away with a much better intuitive understanding of the essential concepts of linear algebra than either of the two times I’ve taught this course previously. The materials for eigenvalues and eigenvectors are particularly interesting, and much richer than the purely computational approach I learned as an undergraduate. I didn’t get through quite as much as I did last fall, but I know I pushed that class way too fast and lost a few by the wayside in my relentless drive towards singular value decomposition.

I also tried out another idea: I gave a third of my final as an oral exam. Our linear algebra course does not have a proofs class as a prerequisite. A lot of CS and economics majors take it, who just aren’t as accustomed to rigor as the math majors. But I still wanted them to demonstrate a solid handle on the concepts, even if formal proof sometimes escaped them. A big part of the IOLA curriculum involved small group work and explaining that work to the rest of the class, so I wanted to evaluate them at that level.

The oral exams were fabulous. I asked them to walk me through how a few parts of the invertible matrix theorem fit together in my office. I let them bring a sheet of notes if they wanted it, and I scored each part according to a loose rubric I’d cobbled together from others I found online. I liked how I could prompt students a little if they got stuck and get a very good sense of how much they really knew, unlike a paper exam where they might have given up partway through. I will definitely be doing this again.

My stats classes were more of a struggle. I’d taught similar courses at other institutions before, but this was my first class at Hood at the 100 level, and I never really got a good sense of whether I was meeting my students where they were or not. There was such an incredible spread of skills and experience in the class that I always felt like I was boring half of them and terrifying the rest.

They eventually got close to where I wanted them to be, but it took a long, long time. I think part of the reason for the struggle was the classroom setup: I’ve never figured out how to do group work well in a computer lab. The lab was fabulous for doing computations, and infinitely preferable to the graphing-calculator-based way I’ve sometimes had to teach before, but facilitating real group work and class discussion in a lab is just not something I’ve cracked yet.

Spring should bring a much lighter load, but this semester, like a lot of 2016, is something I’m just glad to have behind me.

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