My new favorite latex package

As I was reworking materials for the beginning of the semester (specifically, my Review of Prerequisite Material) and I thought to myself that there had to be a better way to arrange these problems on the page the way I wanted. So I asked on tex.stackexchange (which is full of very pleasant, very helpful people), and got an answer, which I was able to improve on a little to get the new template that I will be using any time I need to create a handout that consists of a bunch of questions/exercises.

\setlength{\spacing}{1in plus 1fil}
counter-format = tsk. ,
item-indent = 2em ,
label-width = 2 em,
resume = true,
after-item-skip = \spacing,
after-skip = \spacing
\setlength{\spacing}{#1 plus 1fil}
\settasks{after-item-skip = \spacing,after-skip=\spacing}

This is going to make it a lot easier for me to get things to look like I wanted them to.  Tables never really lined up right if the cells had text of different heights.  And plus, using tables is just a pain.  If you’re interested, here’s how my Pre-Cal Review of Prerequisite Knowledge looks now.  (ShareLaTeX doesn’t have the exsheets package yet, so if you really want to see it, you’ll have to download it and compile it yourself.  I put in a request, though!)


The blog project is on again!

Last year, I had a (mostly) optional project where I asked my applied calculus students to blog.  It had some very interesting results, and some students wrote some really interesting posts, but it was too unstructured for it to be beneficial the majority of students.  When I went to the Technology Integration Workshop a couple weeks ago, they helped me figure out how to add structure to the project.

At the time, I didn’t have a schedule yet, but all of the sections of the course I was designing it for were assigned to other faculty members.  At first (before the workshop), I was really disappointed about having to wait to do the project I was re-designing, but during the workshop I realized I had a lot of work to do, and maybe having a few months to do things slowly was not a bad idea.   I planned on asking if I could teach one section of Calculus I for Life Sciences in the Spring semester.  (Spring is usually significantly less crazy than Fall, and they will grant a request like that if they can.)  But then the schedule got rearranged, and I ended up with two sections of the course.

I decided very definitively last time around that there was no way that I could assess the writing of 90 students, do everything else that is required to teach mathematics well, and maintain my sanity, so only one section will be doing the blog project. Which is the perfect opportunity to evaluate whether writing about math really does help their conceptual understanding.  I’m still looking for the best way to do that.

Last time, I told students they had to post twice a week, and they could post anything related to math or learning math, although I wanted them to focus on the material we are learning in class.  That will still be the case,  but I am defining several types of posts that they can write, and I may require that at least one of certain kinds is required.  So many students had trouble just getting started last time.  The type of post that I got help with in the workshop is one I’m calling an “exercise report”.  This is basically making up a problem similar to a homework exercise and writing about the strategy (and why that particular strategy was chosen) and showing how to solve the problem.   I am still more interested in seeing students reflections on the concepts of calculus then their exercise reports, but I think that having a nice well-defined type of post with examples and a rubric will give students with less confidence an entry point.  And writing mathematically is definitely one of the standards I want to assess my students on.

I’m planning on writing up rubrics and examples for “application reports” as well, but that probably won’t happen before the semester begins.  The other types of posts will just get descriptions for now.

Background thoughts

I teach math at Texas State University.  My official title is “Lecturer” which is an adjunct position.  I do have to say that the math department at least pays its adjuncts fairly livable salaries (although it’s not great by any stretch of the imagination), and we are all guaranteed a full load, which is more than my colleagues in most other departments can say.

I got my MS in Math from Texas State in 2007.   I also got married right at the same time.  I was offered the lecturer job, and originally planned to teach for one year while I figured out which PhD program (in math ed) I wanted to apply to.  At that time, my husband was getting several calls from headhunters every week, so we felt confident in our ability to move anywhere in the country.  But then 2008 came, and the economy broke, and we couldn’t really justify moving and leaving his really excellent job just then.  And now it’s 2013, and we have a baby (a delightful one!) and I’m starting to think about my career in a wistful kind of way.

I have some serious frustrations with my current working situation.  Class sizes and lack of advance notice of what classes I’ll be teaching are the main problems.  Of course, since I only have a master’s degree, I’m very limited as to where I can teach in higher ed, and those problems will probably exist anyplace that would hire me without a doctorate.  And so I’m seriously considering several questions:

  1. Do I want to continue teaching in higher ed?
  2. Do I want to put in the time and energy for a PhD?  The money?
  3. Do I want to to do research? What kind and how much?
  4. What is my ideal working environment?  What would it take to get that?

I’m gearing up for the semester now, but these thoughts have been bouncing around my head all summer.  For most of the summer (and previously in the spring), I’ve been shifting around on the pessimistic end of the scale on how I feel about the future of higher education in this county (de-funding, hyper-focus on job preparation, framing education as simply the acquisition of facts), but the technology integration workshop I attended really put me in a more optimistic place.

More on that later…

So far this summer…

This summer has not been what I had planned.  Well, part of it has– I’ve been spending lots of time with my baby, which has been wonderful, but that has really been the only thing that has happened the way I expected.

First, I had to have my gallbladder out, so I had a planned surgery.  Then, it turned out that I should have had it out earlier, because I had a gallstone in my bile duct, so I had a second surgery on the next day.  I took it easy for a week or so, and then was planning on starting work on the materials for my online classes in the fall, when I realized that they never actually made it onto the schedule for students to register for.  I may have spent some time just being frustrated and angry about that.  I have no idea if the math department intends to support freshman-level online courses in the future.  Oh well.

Then I spent a little bit of time just being a mommy, which was fun but I realized quickly that I am a better mom if I get to spend some part of my week doing some kind of intellectual work.  So I decided to pick up an old programming project again.  There’s an open-source python library called sympy that is basically a computer algebra system.  It’s fabulous, and I use it as the basis for a practice problem/test generator that I wrote, among other things, but it does have one hinky bit.  It automatically distributes constants.  You can see what I mean if you go to SymPy Live and see the difference when you enter x*(x+y) versus 3*(x+y).  This frankly is annoying.  There are  workarounds: you can enter Mul(3,x+y,evaluate=False), but I find that really tedious, and if you enter Mul(3,x+y,evaluate=False) + x, you get 4x + 3y.  When you’re creating learning materials, you just need 3(x+y)+x to show up as 3(x+y)+x.  The team that works on it acknowledges that it’s a problem, but it was a decision that was made back at the beginning of the project, and everything depends on it.  It’s actually easy to change this behavior– you can just delete a couple dozen lines of code.  But changing this behavior breaks lots of other stuff.  Like, LOTS of stuff.  315 tests break.  And so I have taken on the project of actually fixing this.  There are a bunch of different modules, including ones for combinatorics, geometry, matrices, and quantum physics.  So this is kind of a big project, that requires me to refresh my skills in a wide variety of topics.  The sad thing is that I worked on this two years ago, and got it down to less than 50 tests failing.  But even though it was partly broken, it worked for everything that I would ever use it for, so I just used my crippled version.  Part of the reason I didn’t go back and ask the main devs for help was that the master branch was under rapid development, so by the time I got to this point, master had changed significantly, and I really didn’t have the energy at that point in the semester for rebasing.

But this software has been so incredibly useful (even in its broken state) that I would really like to contribute back to it.  So this time, when I reach the limits of what I can do, I’m going to ask for help.

Next week, I’m starting that workshop on effective technology integration for teaching.  That should be interesting.  Yeah, I really shouldn’t leave things as drafts for so long.  The two-week workshop is halfway over, but probably deserves its own post.  Or posts.  Let’s see how much time I have to write.

Teaching College Algebra Online: Student Characteristics

At the beginning of the semester, I asked students in my online class to introduce themselves in the forums.  One tiny thing that I’m very glad I did was ask students to mention in their introduction why they were taking this course online.  When I designed the course, I expected it to be full of nontraditional students, people with families and full-time jobs.  I did have some of those, but not nearly as many as I expected.  I’ve pulled the following from the students’ introductions:

I decided to take this class online because I need another mathematics credit to switch from a BA to a BS degree, and with 16 credit hours no other classes seemed to fit into my schedule!

I’m taking it online because I’m taking a lot of hours as well!

I’m a Math Major, Senior, taking this class as an elective and as a refresher since I want to teach high school.

I am also a Senior and taking this class as an elective.

I’m a 3rd year PR person and currently working with a band out of Austin. online courses are much easier to accomplish while on the road!

I am taking this class online because I live in San Antonio and this will save me a lot of time and fuel.

I also live in San Antonio and need the flexibility. I commute two days a week for other classes, so this online course saves me from sitting in a classroom!

The reason I am taking this class online is because I do not live in San Marcos anymore. But math is extremely difficult for me so I hope taking it online isn’t too hard.

I’m taking this semester from home and will be returning to the San Marcos campus in the fall. Since I live in The Woodlands, online was kind of the only option 🙂

I live in Austin and work part-time waiting tables, so I decided it would be easier (time-wise) for me to take this class online. So far I really enjoy having the free time, not being in the classroom, that it makes doing the homework not as arduous. I also like watching the lectures online because they go slower and break it down by the sections. Hopefully the lectures continue to be this thorough.

I decided to take this course online because the class wouldn’t fit into my schedule and thought it would be a good way to save gas if i took it online!

I’m taking 16 hours this semester to get into the program next fall, which is why I decided to take this class online. I like the flexibility because I also work and have a puppy.

I am taking this class online because I’m taking a lot of in class hours and it’s easier for me to study math on my own.

I commute from Round Rock on MWF if anyone might want to pitch in for gas Id be happy to pick them up..Carpooling is cool.

I decided to take this course online because I feel that I learn better when teaching myself compared with sitting in a traditional classroom.

I would definitely agree on the choice for taking online classes. I would rather take online classes than take traditional classes, especially since most classes are a good 45 minute driver w/o traffic from where I live. I also like being able to have some flexibility since I work a full time job. It’s nice to make your own schedule for when you do your homework for the most part.

I live in New Braunfels with my husband and 3 awesome kids who are 10, 12, and almost 14.  I work Monday-Friday from 8-5, so online classes tend to be easier for me. Luckily, Texas State has offered a lot of my classes either at night or online, which works out well.

[I’m] in the online experience as I travel for work and can’t really commit to a set class schedule.

I am currently enrolled in a 9 hour block course off campus so I was looking for a class to take that wouldn’t make me drive all the way into campus this semester and I enjoy math so this class seemed like a good fit.

I chose the online class because it’s easier for me to work more hours at my job with an online class.

I also work and this course allows for the flexibility I need.

I decided to take the class online because it helped make my schedule work for the semester.

I only had a couple classes left, so I am commuting from San Antonio and needed the flexibility of the online course. I learn math by teaching myself so this is a good way to take a math class.

I have an extremely busy schedule so I felt like this was the best way to take this class.

I live in Taylor.  For those of you that don’t know, that is about 20 minutes northeast of Austin.  Obviously, it would be about a two hour drive to get to San Marcos.  I normally attend online or at the Round Rock campus.

Hoping to finish up my undergraduate work this semester at Texas State, and taking online college algebra was the most convenient way to do that.

Online classes are really my only option as I live and work in Austin and San Marcos is quite a hike for me.

I took on a couple of online classes because I live in Austin and work in Lakeway so I thought it be smart to save on gas.

I chose taking this class online because it works well with my schedule.

(For those not familiar with Texas geography, the main campus of Texas State University is in San Marcos, a small town halfway between Austin and San Antonio.  We have a small satellite campus in Round Rock, about 50 miles north.  The Round Rock campus offers only certain types of courses, which does not include freshman- or sophomore-level math.)

I know that, as a university we have a lot of students that commute from all over central/south Texas, but I was surprised that so many students wanted to take an online class for that reason.  Even more surprising to me were the traditional students, generally on campus, who took the class to fit into their schedule.

I suspect that at least some students took the class believing that it would be easier, with watered down content.  Of course, no one said that in their introduction in the discussion forums, but then they wouldn’t, would they?

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.