Saturday, October 2, 2010

Math for Love and Love for Math

Dan Finkel loves math. His blog, Math for Love, is one of my favorites. Here's a short video of him talking about the perennial question, "Why are we doing this?"

I've slept better the past two nights, but I was still awake for about an hour in the middle of the night last night, thinking about my difficult class. I might get some videos of people in the fun class, talking about what's starting to change for them, and then tell my difficult class that they can become a community of learners, too, if they choose it.

Here's are some snapshots in words...

A has taken this course 4 times before this, and has always dropped when they got into graphing, because she just wasn't getting it. She's starting to get it now. I asked her to help B, who has been an amazing community organizer, emailing other students, suggesting times to study together, encouraging them to stick with it. A promised to do that.

B came by my house this afternoon for some tutoring. When I was teaching at a community college in Michigan, I had long lines of students waiting for their turn with me during my office hours. Here in California, they don't come for help as much (at first). Perhaps I've changed, but I think it's a difference in the students here, they don't expect as much help from their Professors, and think they have to go to tutors for help. (Is this really true?)

C walked out once, angry with me. She gets pretty angry at herself too. Each test that comes back with a 'Redo' at the top makes her mad. But then she comes in, and aces her retake. She's doing great in this class, but she would have gotten C's if I used a 'normal' grading system. [I do not call what I do Standards Based Grading, even though I was inspired by those folks to expand my Mastery Tests to be most of the grade.  Mastery Tests seems like a simpler name for it. They get to retake until they've got a score of 85% or better.] Won't it be great when grading systems like this are the new normal?!

D complained at the beginning of the term about all the pictures I use (trying to get them to really understand fractions, instead of memorizing steps). She also complained about me asking them to do things before I explained how. "Most teachers explain first, and then let us work on it." She struggles with math, and got 100% on her retake yesterday. I asked if she liked my method better now. She hesitated, and I think she's not really believing in the pictures and the trying things out before getting fed the steps. But she's happy about her progress, and that's what counts.

This class starts at 10am two days a week, and at 9:40 the other two days. Many of the students are coming in around 8:15 to study together. We are very lucky that our classroom is empty before our class meets - that's rare. They're making great use of this lucky break. One of them, E, often goes up to the board during this time to explain things to the others. He got a chance to do that in class on Monday or Tuesday, and he did a great job. (He made a mistake at one point, and I waited, on edge, hoping the others would correct him. It got fixed, but never got pointed to directly.) They were all shouting things out, as they moved together through the problem. I told E after class that I knew he'd make a great teacher some day, and his eyes lit up. Watching this beautiful scene during class, I thought this group would do great on the test. When they didn't, I was really discouraged. (What I said to them in class the next day is that I know they're working hard, and working together, which can make a big difference; we need to figure out together what they need to do to work more effectively.) But they are keeping their spirits up.

Most of the students I've described are older students, and have made a commitment to themselves that they're going to do it - they're going to pass this class. My commitment to them is to push them to do more than pass. I love their dedication.


  1. How do you do your mastery test?

    Is it the same test again, or is the same material, different test?

    What if they do nothing on the first test - can they still redo? (That is my problem - they use the first pass to determine if they have to study and what).

    I have been doing a cumulative test every three tests or so - or one that they should be able to pass with the one that we all give....

  2. Same material, different test.

    Yes, they can redo. People who are out sick on test day have to wait a week until I allow retests. (To retest, you have to study more. It would be silly to retest right away.)

    I'm teaching college, so many of the students are more responsible. I do have a few students turning in almost blank tests. It will take them longer to learn what it takes to pass.

    I am not giving cumulative tests during the term, but I will be giving a final exam that's cumulative. However, if they've passed all the other tests, they can pass the class without passing the final exam.

    For now, I'm seeing it more as a way to assess whether this system has improved my outcomes. I'll be using a final exam that's very similar to the ones I've used in the past. I'll be able to compare these students to students who went through my previous grading systems.

  3. I'll post all the details next month some time, in case anyone would like the information to help them change their system for next semester.


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