Archive for the ‘Classroom Life’ Category

What if you don’t have enough whiteboards?

Just a quick post to share this video from Betty Love (University of Nebraska – Omaha). Betty attended our MCC Math & Technology Workshop in 2011 and really wanted to try paired boardwork with her students during class. The problem? Not enough whiteboards/chalkboards. The solution? Well, just watch!

If you’ve got pictures or video you’d like to share of your Math ELITE Classroom redesign, or how you’ve incorporated the principles into your teaching, please do!

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What does the classroom say?

Yesterday I had a short talk in the ITLC Themed Session called “Change the Classroom, Change the Learning” about the necessity of math classroom redesign.

Without changing the classrooms, it is unlikely that we will see much change in the instructors or students.

Here is the video from the talk, called “What does the Classroom Say?” and the slides from the presentation.

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Keeping the Same Instructor

Question: Why do we design all the learning for a course (i.e. the syllabus) before we every meet a single student?  Answer: Because there’s no alternative.  At least, not for those of us in Higher Ed.

When you really stop and think about it, does it make ANY sense to design the syllabus before meeting your students?  I’ve been noticing that school systems that get good learning results have an interesting common characteristic. The instructors stay with the same students for several years.  They learn how their students learn best and design the learning to suit their needs.  There is an excellent article in Smithsonian called, Why are Finland’s Schools Successful? Finland is now considered, by international exam comparisons, to be one of the best in the world.  There are many reasons why Finnish students are so successful, but I’d venture a guess that at least one key is instructors taking the time to get to know their students learning quirks (knowing they will be teaching them for several years).  The ability to flex the curriculum as needed, knowing that extra time spent this year can be made up next year when students are better prepared, is invaluable.

In U.S. higher education, especially in the first two years of courses, we rarely see our students more than once.  We certainly can’t depend on seeing our students the next semester … and so we have to push the curriculum out to properly “prepare” our students for the next course, for the next professor.  What a shame.  With more flexibility and a better understanding of how our students learn, we might be able to engage in more successful learning strategies.

I think we could accomplish a lot by keeping our students for more than one semester … but the question is how could it be done?  I’m open to suggestions here.

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Delusional Hindsight and Academe

In a previous post this week, I discussed optimism bias and student success in online classes. Optimism bias causes us to paint a rosy picture of the future (even when it’s not likely).  But what about when we whitewash the past?  I’d like to propose that we call this delusional hindsight.  Some of us are able to learn from our past mistakes.  Others not so much.

Let me outline my reasoning.  I’ve been reading Generation Me, by Jean Twenge.   In this book she suggests that “Generation Me” is particularly good at pushing blame to others because it is the only way to deflect it from hitting their self esteem.  If you admit to doing something wrong, then you wouldn’t feel very good about yourself, and Generation Me has been taught that the most important thing in the world is to feel good about themselves (to have high self esteem).

Suppose a student signs up for classes late ever semester.  Every semester he doesn’t get the classes he needs.  Every time the registration date looms, he ignores it, registering late again. It seems to us (the instructors) that this student is unable to remember that his procrastination usually ends badly.  However, I no longer think this is an inability to remember, but an inability to causally link Action A (late registration) with Action B (unable to get desired classes).  How could the student possibly reason away the self-blame for registering late?

  • The reason he didn’t get the desired classes because the college doesn’t offer enough sections or seats.
  • He couldn’t register any earlier because he hadn’t made the important decision to go back to school yet, and that was a decision requiring careful consideration, not to be rushed.
  • He didn’t want to use financial aid, and was trying to save up enough to pay for the classes himself before registering.
  • He didn’t want to trouble a counselor during the “busy season” so he considerately waited to register.

When we were discussing this last weekend, my husband suggested that we call this process of whitewashing the past “delusional hindsight.”  This should not be confused with hindsight bias (the tendency to view events as more predictable than they really are).

delusional hindsight: to impose a misleading belief upon the understanding of a situation after it has happened

Just like with optimism bias, I can think of dozens of examples of delusional hindsight in academe.  Here are a few (hopefully you can tell which ones apply to students and which ones to professors):

  • Signing up for 8am classes, even though you’ve never been able to get up that early.
  • Waiting till the last minute to write a paper, even though past experience should tell you it doesn’t work well for you.
  • Telling yourself you don’t need an alarm clock despite sleeping through class regularly.
  • Telling yourself this will be the semester that you pass fill-in-the-blank-class, even though you haven’t changed anything since the last time.
  • Swearing to yourself you won’t take any paper-grading home this semester, even though you’ve sworn this at least five times before.

I think that delusional hindsight and optimism bias go hand-in-hand.  Without a retelling of the past, it would be impossible for a student taking Beginning Algebra for the 4th time to even give it an attempt.  Can you imagine placing the blame for failure (three times) squarely on your own shoulders and then taking it again?  How depressing.  Much better for the psyche to place the blame on the textbook, instructor, time of day, difficulty of exams, sick relatives, change in work schedule, etc.  With this whitewashing of the past, it is possible to be optimistic about the future.

I think it’s helpful to see these cases of delusional hindsight for what they are.  Once you begin to recognize the faulty thinking, it becomes a little easier to cope with student excuses (and our own delusions) that just don’t seem to make sense.  We are whitewashing the past for a reason, and that reason is us.  The question is, once we know this … what do we do to help us and our students to move past the cycle of delusional hindsight and optimism bias?

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Custom Stamps in Adobe Acrobat for Digital Grading

Many people have asked me to give a tutorial on creating custom stamps in Adobe Acrobat for paper grading.  There’s no reason why you couldn’t do something similar in other programs by pasting images into files, but there’s no doubt that the ease of one-click access to custom stamps is a nice feature of Adobe Acrobat.

Step One:  Create the content of the Custom Stamp

You can use any program on your computer to create the content: MathType, LaTeX, Wolfram Alpha, Mathematica, Maple, Sage, Word, Journal, etc.  Write the content and try to make it somewhat compact in width (aim for a square or squarish-rectangle rather than a long skinny rectangle).

Step Two: Capture an image of the Content

Use any screen capturing program to capture an image of your content.  You want to use one that has a “snipping” feature so that it’s not a screen capture of the entire screen.  Just capture the content you want in the stamp.  I usually use Jing or SnagIt to do this, although there are certainly many other options.

Step Three (optional): Make a Border

If I am making a longer comment, I like to put a border around my “stamp” content to make it clear that this was something that was added in the grading and not part of the original content of the exam or assignment.  Even free programs like Jing have the ability to add a rectangular “border” box on the image.  Save the file.

Step Four: Create the Custom Stamp

In Adobe Acrobat, open the stamp menu and choose “Create a Custom Stamp.”  Browse to find the image file you’ve created (Adobe defaults to finding PDF files, but you can use the drop-down menu to choose from other file formats).



You’ll find it helpful to have stamp categories (Limits, Derivatives, Integrals, Exam 2, etc.) to make stamps easy to find.

Step Five: Use the Custom Stamp (over and over and over and over)

At this point, you should be able to use the stamps by choosing them from Comments & Markup Tools –> Custom Stamps.

Once the custom stamp is inserted in a PDF document, it can be resized and moved all over the page.  You can use a custom stamp multiple times in the same document.

And now that notation error that requires you to explain in a lengthy comment is not such a burden to correct anymore.  I use custom stamps to explain the difference between d/dx and dy/dx, to insert missing limit notation, to explain the difference between a derivative and a differential, to explain how to rewrite an improper integral … once you can just stamp the comments, the explanations can be as clear as you want them to be.

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Change the classroom, change the learning!

My video entry into the 2011 STEMposium Innovation Contest about our Math ELITEs (classrooms for active mathematics).

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Mastering Your Document Camera

My latest “Teaching with Tech” column is now out in MAA Focus.

Take Another Shot at your Document Camera

So, what can you do with that document camera?

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Before You Give That Exam

Students lose SO many exam points because they just don’t read the directions and pay attention to details.  On the first exam, they usually discover this … but they don’t REMEMBER it for the other exams.

This is a very simple exercise that takes about 1 minute at the beginning of the test.

Just have the students repeat after you:

I promise … to read all the directions … for all the problems on the exam …

And if I finish early, … I promise … to RE-read all the directions … to make sure I haven’t missed some detail … or forgotten to come back to some question I skipped.

I understand that … it is not important to finish quickly … it IS important to demonstrate what I know … and once the points have been lost … the points cannot be regained.

Believe it or not, this results in a remarkable number of students that stay until the bitter end, making sure that they have been careful and answered every question completely.

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Math Technology to Engage, Delight, and Excite

Back in May 2010 I presented a keynote at the MAA-Michigan meeting in Ypsilanti.  Even though it sounds like it’s about math, it’s really more about a philosophy of using technology to engage students.  Yes, the examples are in the context of math, but if you’re involved with educational technology in any way, I think much of the talk is applicable to all subjects.

We’re in a recession and so is your department budget.  Luckily for you, there are lots of great programs and web resources that you can use to teach math, and most of these are free.  Use the resources in this presentation to tackle the technology problems that haunt you and capture the attention of your math classes with interactive demonstrations and relevant web content.

Here is the video, audio, and slides from my keynote talk “Math Technology to Engage, Delight, and Excite” from the MAA-Michigan meeting in May 2010.  There is also an iPad/iPod-friendly version here.

In case you’re wondering, the PIP video was recorded from a Flip Video camera that was affixed to one of the seats in the auditorium with masking tape.  It’s not elegant, but it works.

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NYT Opinionator Series about Math

For a few months now, the NYT Opinionator Blog has been hosting a series of pieces that do a phenomenally good job of explaining mathematics in layman’s terms.

The latest article is about Calculus (with a promise of more to come): Change We Can Believe In is written by Steven Strogatz, an Applied Mathematician at Cornell University.

There are several other articles in this series, and if you haven’t been reading them, you really should go check them out.  Assign them.  Discuss them in your classes.

Given the discussions we’ve been having about teaching Series and Series approximations lately on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, I wonder if he’d consider writing an article explaining “Why Series?” to students.

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