Blog Project Progress

So it’s been a week and a half, and I am so psyched about how the blog project is going.  I’ve got students who are really reaching out of their comfort zones already.  I’ve got other students who have told me that they love the idea of writing in math, even if they’re not quite sure how it will go yet, because it gives them the opportunity to bring their strengths into the subject that has not traditionally been their strongest.  I also have some students who are still baffled by the idea of writing about math, and some that I’m not sure whether they’re trying to get by with minimum effort, or if they’re in the baffled camp as well.  Or possibly it’s that they’re testing the waters slowly.

At the beginning of both classes, we had a little chat about how pleased I was overall, how I saw some students were still struggling with the idea of the project, what “substance” is, how substance can be length or depth, but the goal is to build towards depth.  I reminded them that their actual grade will come from their “portfolio post” (as I’ve taken to calling it) and so as the semester progresses, they should be building content that is worth linking back to in that post.  They also finally got me to commit to a definition of substantive, at least as far as purely-length substance goes.  I qualified it emphatically beforehand, reminding them that the goal was substance of thought, and that you could have a good substantive thought in very few words.  But if they really have no idea what to write about and decided to type up an excerpt from the textbook, then one or two sentences isn’t enough to qualify as substance (where it might be if they had crafted those sentences themselves).  If it’s going to try to qualify as substance purely on terms of length, it should be at least 500 words.  Some students looked relieved by this.  Some students looked shocked by it.  I’m still not sure it was the right thing to do, but I do think that I successfully made the point that going for length alone is not the ideal, and that a substantive post of original thought could be much, much shorter than that.

They asked good questions, mostly about what was appropriate to write about.  One student said she was fascinated by Fibonacci spirals, and thought they were really cool, and asked if it was okay to write a post on that.  I said sure.  As long as what you’re writing about is related to math, learning, or learning math, it’s appropriate for the blog.  I told them that they do need to have posts where they are engaging with the material of the course, but this project is designed to be loose and open-ended and give them room to play around with stuff that interests them.

I set up an aggregator blog that pulls in the feeds of all of the individual student blogs (I got the idea from the open course DS106 and it’s awesome!), so if you’d like to see what’s going on, feel free to take a look.  I’ve been referring to it as the Meta-Blog, but several of the students have started calling it the Mega-Blog, so I may adopt that.

Right now, you’ll see a lot of posts on limits and continuity.  They’re required to have at least two posts a week, one of which must be substantive.  I’ve encouraged them to use their non-substantive post to share useful resources or just have fun.  So you’ll see some silliness, some links, some community building, and a whole lot of trying to wrap their head around the wacky idea of limits.  I’m loving just about all of it.

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Blog Launch

I started writing this post last weekend, and then managed to delete it.  And then I didn’t have the energy to retype it.

The blogging idea went over well with the students for the most part.  My visions of students reacting in anger to being asked to write did not come true (not that I really expected them to– it was just part of my general new-semester, new-project anxiety).  There were reactions of apprehension and some confusion.  A lot of the initial apprehension was relieved when I told them that we would have blog set-up workshops, where I would walk them through setting it up and then teach them the basics of LaTeX, as implemented by WordPress (which is fortunately significantly easier than learning true LaTeX, but challenging enough in it’s own right.).

The workshops went really well.  There’s a computer room that I was able to reserve (although we did end up having one in a lab, when there was a miscommunication about the room reservation).  The workshops with 12 to 15 students in them were best– enough so that they could help each other, and not so many that it was hard for me to get around to them all to help debug their LaTeX expressions.  There was one workshop that was way too crowded, and two that had fewer than five people.  We had seven workshops total.  I could have gotten away with fewer probably, but I am generally opposed to requiring students to attend events outside of scheduled class times, so I did what I could to lessen that burden.

At the end of each workshop, I answered any questions they had, and often they asked about what I expected them to write about, and especially what I meant by “substantive”.  In a few cases, I could tell that they were less than thrilled with the vagueness of my answers.  So I acknowledged that it would be clearer if we defined substantive as “at least 500 words”, but that wouldn’t be an honest assessment of substance.  When they said, “I’m trying to figure out what you want,”  I tried to keep bringing it back to the purpose statement– this is a vehicle for building certain skills.  They’re still nervous about how they’ll be graded, and I’m going to keep trying to get them to focus on building their skills.

And so now they’ve been blogging for a week.  I may try to write more today or tomorrow, but for now I think I’ll close by quoting Gardner Campbell:

I suppose if students are not a little confused about blogging at first, they’re not really on the road to grokking it.

I definitely have several students who a still a little confused, but I think I have a few that are starting to grok it.

The great blog experiment

I’ve got two sections of Calculus for Life Science I.  Ninety students total.  (There’s also a Pre-Cal with another 45 students in it.  I’m just glad they capped my classes at 45 instead of 48 like last semester.)  School starts today, but these classes are MWF and MW, so it will be tomorrow that I get to announce the big project.

I am worried that students who arrive for a math class with a traditional idea of what that entails will be hostile to the idea of being asked to write.  The blog is only required if they want an A, otherwise it’s optional.  But I’m bracing myself for cries of “Not fair!”  (Honestly, I’m hoping for 50% participation in the blog project.  90 blogs would be a lot of work, given the way that I want to do feedback on these.)

I’ve been going back and forth as to how much I should say for the instructions.  This is one of those things where I think saying too much is worse than saying too little, but then again I feel like the expectations I do have should be made clear to the students.

This is what I’m putting on the syllabus:

The purpose of this project is to provide a vehicle for students to build the following:
* critical thinking skills
* metacognitive skills
* communication skills
* technology skills
* creative engagement with the material (having fun with it)
* an adventurous “tinkering” outlook (trying things without being certain how they will work)
* a sense of contributing to a community of learners

Minimum Requirements:
At least two blog posts per week, one of which must be substantive. “Substantive” can refer to the length of the post, but ideally involves deeper thought or greater creativity.
If a period of eight days goes by without a post to your blog, you will need to meet with me if you wish to continue the project
You will post a reflection of the blog project and self-assessment of your blog between April 16 and April 18.  It should link back to earlier blog posts and relate those posts to the purposes of this assignment.  You should consider this as a type of portfolio, where you can describe your progress over the course of the semester and also showcase your best work.  This post is what I will focus on when grading your blog.

I keep changing it, but I think that’s more or less final as far as what goes on the syllabus.

There’s a bunch of other stuff that I’ve got written out.  I’m not sure how much of it I’m going to share with students, at least in writing.  It has help me clarify my thoughts though, and since there’s no harm in students stumbling on it (I don’t plan to keep this blog a secret from them, although I don’t expect that they’ll be that interested).

Most of this will probably just be said in class. Also, I plan to get a separate blog and post things for them to look at. Not so much to model, as to be part of the community that I’m trying to foster. Some of this might get posted there. Or maybe I’ll stick it all in a handout. I’m still not sure.

Expectations and Suggestions:

  • You should read and comment on your classmates’ blogs.  If one of their blog posts sparks an idea for a post of your own, link to their post when you write yours.  When you do that, a “pingback” shows up in the comments of their post automatically linking to your post.
  • You should similarly link to content that inspires you elsewhere on the internet.
  • You are encouraged to post more than the minimum amount, especially if you find it a useful way to work through your own thoughts on the material, or if you have something that you want to share.
  • Good grammar and spelling are aspects of good communication, but don’t let yourself get so hung up on small details that you’re afraid to express your ideas.  Informal language is fine in a blog.  The ideas you have are more important than your grammatical correctness.
  • You can edit a post after publishing to fix errors, but you should recognize that evolving ideas are both interesting to read, and provide proof of your building critical thinking skills.  I would prefer if you edit for small changes, and write new posts if your ideas about a topic change.  You should learn to recognize the difference between evolving thinking and errors that need correcting.

On grading:

A blog deserving of a grade of D will meet the minimum requirements.  Substance in the posts is more likely to be found in the quantity of words, rather than the quality of ideas.  A D-level blog shows competence in dealing with the technology of the blog itself (the ability to post content, embed images, and use simple latex commands for the display of math content), but there’s no demonstration of proficiency with technology other than that.  The mathematical content is dealt with at a very superficial level, showing little depth of understanding, and may contain errors that go uncorrected. Metacognition, if addressed at all, is dealt with at a superficial level as well.  Communication of ideas may be unclear, with little improvement over the course of the semester.  A blog that gives the impression that its author is simply going through the motions deserves a grade of D.

A blog deserving of a grade of A will show repeated evidence of excellence.  Note that this doesn’t mean that there aren’t also weak posts– in fact the presence of weak posts may mean that the student is willing to take risks, which is a very good thing–  but the student makes an effort to address these weaknesses through comments or future posts.

I’ve only written summaries for A and D.  B and C are somewhere in between.  Blogs will get letter grades, since I don’t really see the point in trying to distinguish an 83 from an 84.  Which then raises the question:  how do you combine a letter grade and a bunch of numerical grades to get a letter grade for the course?  So I came up with this, which gives the minimum numerical grade needed:

To get a grade of:

Blog Grade A

Blog Grade B

Blog Grade C

Blog Grade D

No Blog

A

83

89

B

70

74

78

80

80

C

55

62

65

70

70

D

38

42

46

55

60

Which I think is the most useful way to express the grading scheme, but you can also express it this way:

Numerical Grade

Blog Grade A

Blog Grade B

Blog Grade C

Blog Grade D

No Blog

89-100

A

A

B

B

B

83-88

A

B

B

B

B

80-82

B

B

B

B

B

76-79

B

B

B

C

C

73-75

B

B

C

C

C

70-72

B

C

C

C

C

65-69

C

C

C

D

D

62-64

C

C

D

D

D

60-61

C

D

D

D

D

55-69

C

D

D

D

F

46-54

D

D

D

F

F

42-45

D

D

F

F

F

38-41

D

F

F

F

F

0-37

F

F

F

F

F

Does the second table help at all?  I’m thinking of not including it, but my husband says he thinks the first table is confusing.  I’m planning on asking the student workers in the math office for their feedback today.

I’m both excited and nervous about this.  Well, I’m always nervous for the first day of school.  Doing something new just amplifies that a bit.

Grading Philosophy

I’ve decided to put my grading philosophy on my pseudo-syllabus.  Many students come in with strange ideas of what grades are/ought to be, that I’ve decided to be very explicit about what they are in my class.

Grading Philosophy

A grade is a way of classifying a students performance in the class.

D : The student has a minimally acceptable level of understanding and skill

C : The student demonstrates mastery of the majority of skills and at least superficial understanding of all concepts

B :  The student demonstrates mastery of all skills and solid understanding of concepts

A : The student demonstrates excellence

Excellence goes beyond mastery.  Not only has the student mastered the skills from our curriculum, they understand the concepts at a deep enough level that they have the ability to apply their knowledge in a new and different context.  They can make connections between elements of the material being studied.  I want to emphasize that making connections for yourself is very different from recalling connections that have been pointed out to you.  One is a symptom of A-level work, the other is something that can be found in C-level work.

The important thing to recognize here is that an true evaluation of this can only come toward the end of the semester.  Grades given during the semester should be approached from the point of view of feedback.  Feedback should not be confused with praise or blame.  I give feedback to make you aware of the current quality of your work, so that you can adjust your performance.  I am always happy to meet with you individually and help you come up with strategies to improve your mathematical performance.

Later on in the syllabus I talk about the actual grading policies that mean that your course grade can recover from a bad exam (and this semester I’m going to point out from the beginning that quiz grades are weighted so small that they should be viewed as opportunities for getting feedback, rather than a time to worry about points.  Now when we go over all that, I have this to point them back to.

Also, I think I’ve decided the word of the semester is “Feedback”.  More on that later.

No more syllabus!

Well, not really.  I’m required to have a syllabus of course.  Many of my colleagues don’t print out the syllabus anymore– they just post it on TRACS (our implementation of the Sakai CMS).  I’ve always thought that was strange– I liked the framework that a document can give to the “what should you expect from this class” discussion.  But last semester I realized that my six-page syllabus is mostly stuff that I’m required to put there by other people (namely, the math department, the university, and — maddeningly — the state legislature).

So this semester, the syllabus will be that document that everyone else gets to contribute to.  I’m going to write a separate (shorter) document to frame that conversation.  It will probably be pretty close to what I would write as a syllabus if no one else could force their words on there.  There will be a little overlap with the actual syllabus, but that’s okay.  I’ll include a line on the syllabus saying that all policies on the other document will be enforced, and I’ll put them both on TRACS, but only the syllabus needs to go on the HB 2504 site.

Now, what to call it?  “Course Expectations”?