Teaching College Algebra Online, Second Phase of Reflection: Learning Activities

The course I designed was broken into 22 learning modules.  This was not a self-paced class, so everyone had to complete the modules on the same schedule.  Each learning module had a required reading, one or more videos, a learning activity, and a homework assignment.  The required readings were short–usually something I had typed up, although for a couple of them I directed students to an online resource, or made some part of the textbook section required reading (every learning module had the relevant section of the textbook as an optional reading).  I’ll talk about the videos in detail in another post.

The learning activities are what I want to focus on today.

For many students, College Algebra is the only math course they have to take, primarily to fulfill their core requirement.  From our undergraduate catalog, page 45:


In order to acquire the fundamental skills and cultural background that are the marks of an educated person, all students at Texas State complete a program of general education core curriculum courses, which serves as the common foundation for all majors and accounts for about 38 percent of the approximately 120 semester credit hours required for a bachelor’s degree.

At the end of the bachelor’s program, the student is prepared not only in a departmental field of study, but also in the general abilities of questioning, explaining, and learning that remain universally useful in a rapidly changing world. Texas State graduates have the raw materials to build solutions as they fulfill career and civic responsibilities.

So my College Algebra classes are designed with this in mind.  Learning rote procedures is of limited use in fulfilling civic responsibilities.  Developing mathematical habits of mind, on the other hand… but that’s a whole ‘nuther post….  (At the same time, College Algebra must prepare students to take future math classes, because it is a prerequisite for many of our classes.)

In my in-person classes, we have group activities and discussions where these skills are built.  Group activities in an online class seemed impractical and undesirable, so we had individual activities, that I was hoping students would discuss in the forums, but that never happened.  I need to figure out how to encourage that kind of participation.

In an in-person class, I can provide support by floating around and giving hints and encouragement where needed.  In online classes, students seem to be shy about asking for help, and I can’t hover and eavesdrop and offer help  (well, I guess I can offer help, I just haven’t figured out a way to do it that they are likely to take me up on).

In the online class, each learning activity had an assessment that was completed through our LMS assessments tool.

The learning activities I designed really came in two flavors: ones where the activity itself (well, the technology in the activity) gives students feedback on whether they are on the right track, and ones where the feedback only comes after I had a chance to review their responses in the assessment tool.

(And horrible confession:  I did not realize until week 12 of the semester that when I type comments into our LMS’s assessments tool, they are not shown to the students by default– you have to enable that option for each assessment.  So for most of the semester, students weren’t actually getting any feedback at all.  Gakk.  I feel so guilty for that.  And who in their right mind thought that was the appropriate default?!?)

The total lack of feedback was a major problem, and I really wish I had realized about that before.  Because as I rework the learning activities, it sure would be nice to have reliable information about the difference in learning activities that give feedback immediately versus in a few days’ time.  I think having immediate feedback is helpful, as long as it can be done without disrupting the point of the activity.  If it turns into a click-everywhere-until-the-bell-dings, it has lost most of the point.  Except… then the activities are assessed by asking students questions about the activity.  So maybe I need to worry less about that, and just make sure (a) the students are aware that these activities have a point, and (b) assessments are doing more than just checking that students are jumping through the hoops.

An example of an activity that gives immediate feedback can be found here.  Before doing the activity, students are supposed to have watched videos going over the set operations: union, intersection, complement, and set difference.  The videos go over the meaning of the operations, and some examples with some discrete sets and some intervals.  No mention is made of venn diagrams before the activity.

An example of an activity that does not give immediate feedback can be found here.  I think it’s basically a good activity, but with this one more than any other, I wish there was a way for students to have a discussion about the activity (preferably before they look at any other resources about function transformations, but I have to know my limits).  (And yes, I know introducing it as a\cdot f(x+w)+k is non-standard, but I’ve found that it makes the left-right shift more obvious than a\cdot f(x-h)+k, while allowing us to have a conversation afterwards about why x-h is more useful than x+w .)

I still have a lot to think about here.


4 thoughts on “Teaching College Algebra Online, Second Phase of Reflection: Learning Activities

  1. Christopher says:

    OK. I couldn’t finish the post after the LMS thing. It made me too angry. Are you working with D2L?

    I’ll be back to finish this post up. I am intrigued. But seriously, get yourself a free-for-teacher Canvas account and never look back.

    • Ha, no, it’s a Sakai system. I’ll look into Canvas. Does it offer any kind of equation editor for students to use in discussion forums and other environments? I would so totally switch for that (and be able to justify it to my department!)

  2. Yes. Yes it does have an equation editor.

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