Blog Project: 2013

So I’m doing the blog project in one section of Calculus for Life Science I, and so far, the students seems to really be embracing it.

I had five students transfer into the class after they heard that there was going to be a huge project worth 50% of the course grade, and that exams were going to be worth a total of 35%.  I spoke to each of them, and made sure they were aware that this didn’t mean the class would be easier, and they would probably have to do more work rather than less.  They still joined our class.  (We also had two students who transferred out, one because he didn’t have the prerequisite).

So I have a lovely class of 17 students, most of whom seem enthusiastic about the blogging project, and at least for now, none of whom are resisting the idea of this nontraditional math assessment.

The blog project will be graded three times, at week 5, week 10, and week 15. I’m calling these “checkpoints” for lack of a better name. For the first checkpoint, students have to schedule a meeting with me to go over their blog. They have to have six posts by then, and they’ll have until the Monday of week 6 to make changes to improve their grade. So next week, I’ve got a bunch of student meetings to look forward to.

The grading scheme for this class is:
Blog Project Checkpoint 1   10%
Blog Project Checkpoint 2   15%
Blog Project Checkpoint 3   25%
Daily Grade Average     15%
Exam Average     25%
Final Exam     10%

One of the things that surprised me with the first time I did the blog project was how much students objected to getting letter grades for the project.  So numerical grades it is.  Not that I feel obligated to give them everything they prefer, but when I’m asking them to come this far out of their comfort zone, I can keep the superficials familiar.

Problem proposals are hard to write.

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday writing a proposal to participate in a two-week Technology Integration Workshop given by my university.  The idea is, you pick an issue you want to work on, and they coach you on instructional design, provide mini workshops on specific technologies, and mentor you through your project design.

I wrote my proposal on wanting a more robust and authentic assessment tool, and briefly mentioned my previous incarnation of the blog project.  They wanted the proposal to be written on a problem, not a potential solution, which makes sense– they don’t want you to come into the workshop committed to doing one specific thing, because deciding on solutions is part of it–but that made it very hard to write. I had already planned on revamping my blog project for the fall semester, and it would be great to get some help and feedback doing that, but if the workshop takes me in a different direction, that would be great too.  (And bonus: there’s a stipend for completing the workshop, which would even leave me a little something after childcare!)

Fingers crossed-- wish me luck!

Fingers crossed by Terriko, via Flickr

I really hope my proposal gets accepted, but I wasn’t really satisfied with what I submitted.  Some of that may be my usual battle with toxic perfectionism, but really it felt super-weird to write a proposal of a problem.  I could have detailed all of the things that I wanted to correct about how the blog project went the first time– there’s tons of stuff I could have written about that.  But I felt like that would paint me as not being open to other solutions to my dissatisfaction with traditional assessments, and I definitely want to keep an open mind about that.

Keeping fingers crossed!

(Oh, and how awesome is it that Texas State not only holds these workshops, but gives a stipend for participating in it?  I love it here.  Now, if only the math department could get it’s scheduling act together, it would be the perfect place to work.)

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”?

Why I want my students to blog

I posted the other day about one of my plans for the spring semester, and Christopher (quite rightly) pointed out that I needed to articulate why I wanted to have my students create public blogs.  And so, since right now I desperately need a break from the grading of projects and writing of final exams, here is a first stream-of-consciousness-style post of why I want to have my students blog publicly.

First off, I want students to write.  I want students to write about math, and I want students to write about learning.  Writing about something forces you to clarify your thoughts, helps you strengthen what you know, and realize what you don’t know. Writing also provides an avenue for exploring the metacognitive skills and building the critical thinking skills that I want my students to have.

Of course writing doesn’t necessarily mean blogging.  Deciding to make the writing public has a whole other slew of motivating factors.  For one thing it’s more “real”.  I really do think that that authenticity is important.  So much of what students have been asked to do– so much of what I have assigned myself in the past– is either monotonous skill practice, or just feels superficial or fake.  If I’m going to make a writing assignment of explaining a particular idea to a hypothetical student, then if I’m the only one reading it, it’s artificial and the main thing most students will think while writing is “Is this what she wants?” whereas if the assignment is going to be public, my gut feeling is that more students will think in terms of “Is this a clear explanation?” and “Would this actually help someone understand?”

Which brings me to another reason I want them to create public blogs.  I firmly believe that every person has a responsibility to contribute to their culture. I don’t know if that sounds heavy-handed or not, but it’s a strong belief I have, and I could go on about that a bit (and might in a future post), but here I’ll just say that this is a value that I want to share with my students.  I want them to grow to see themselves as creators, rather than just consumers, and to recognize that they have something to give, and that the giving helps them grow and learn.  (And now I’m being both heavy-handed and cheesy.)

Another goal I have is for the students to get more comfortable with technology.  So often, people assume that the current generation was raised with technology, and comes to college tech-savvy, but that’s not really been my experience.  There are some that are, but so many more that aren’t.  And that misperception also assumes that all of my students are 19 years old, which is far from the case.  But even the traditional-aged college students aren’t usually great about dealing with technology.  They’re on facebook, and they play video games, but they’re not comfortable tinkering.  I’m not sure exactly what it is — a lack of courage? — but I want to encourage them to tinker.

I also want my students to have a little fun with it.  A few years ago, I had a student that made up a quotient rule dance.  Making up something like that, and posting a video would be great.

Funnily enough, when I think of what I’d ideally like to see in student blogs, I think of some of the quilting blogs I follow (for those unaware, there’s quite a large crafting blogosphere).  The posts of my favorite ones are fairly focused on the subject matter of quilting, but there are all different kinds of posts– there are posts that show off finished projects, posts that describe frustrations in mastering a technique, posts that talk about fabric choices, posts that have detailed photo- and/or video-tutorials, and maybe even a post that’s just a cute picture of a cat sleeping on the current work-in-progress.

I would want student blogs to focus on learning math.  Posts about learning would be great: describing trying out different study strategies, evaluating how well they worked.  Posts about math: summarizing concepts; creating graphical organizers to connect concepts; creating tutorials; finding existing tutorials on the internet and possibly reviewing them.  I also plan to encourage posts on technology.  There are tons of math tools out there.  Students could review one, or write a tutorial on how to use a particular tool to achieve some particular goal.

That’s an initial brain dump, anyway.  Now I really do have to go write some exams– I promised myself I would get two of them done this weekend so that I could focus on meeting with students next week.  I look forward to hearing any initial reactions, and I’ll be posting refinements soon.

Planning next semester

So I finally got a tentative schedule for next semester, two sections of Calculus I for Life Science, and one section of Precalculus.

The idea of teaching pre-cal makes me a little nervous.  I’ve only taught it once before.  The teaching of it went fine, but the class comes with a TA.  Last time, I was totally unprepared for how much work was required to supervise a TA.

But I am glad about the Cal I for Life Science.  It is the perfect class for my spring experiment.

I’m going to have the students create public blogs.

Writing about math.  It’s going to meet with some student resistance initially, I know that.  I’m considering making it an opt-in thing: at the beginning of the semester, students get to choose whether or not they want to participate.  If they do, then a different grading scheme will apply to them.  To encourage buy-in, I’d let students know that they could move to the traditional grading scheme at any point in the semester if they choose to.  (But not the reverse– you can’t start your blog mid-April and have it count.)

At first I was thinking about making a rubric and having certain types of posts worth certain amounts of points, but on reflection, that’s just about the opposite of what I want to go for.  So now I’m thinking grading it more as a portfolio.  I’ve been looking at some resources on portfolio grading.  Most of them are intended for English Composition courses, which is helpful, but I’d be grateful for any pointers to other resources, particularly content-focused ones.

I’ll post more about it as I continue to process my ideas.  For now, I have to get back to grading, so I can finish this semester up.  (Is it terrible that I’d much rather plan than grade?)