Reflection inspired by Meaningful Quotes

So, a blog post from Prof Ilana Horn (found on twitter @tchmathculture) came across my reader last week. It was titled ‘First, Do No Harm’ (you should head over here to read it) and this caught my eye for a number of reasons. The first is that one of my proudest moments in the sprawling world of internet interactions came when Tina Cardone (on twitter @crstn85  or over at her blog here) grabbed a quote from me to use in her magnificent Nix The TricksThe following quote, a comment I made about the use of the dreaded FOIL acronym, is the one she used in an earlier version of her terrific book.

I would say, then, that it is not reasonable to even mention this technique. If it is so limited in its usefulness, why grant it the privilege of a name and some memory space? Cluttering heads with specialized techniques that mask the important general principle at hand does the students no good, in fact it may harm them. Remember the Hippocratic oath – First, do no harm.

I’m excited whenever I see a new post by Prof. Horn, but this one grabbed my eye by its title. Little did I realize that her post would be itching my brain for days at a time when I have little spare space or energy. We’ve been engaged in fall term finals at my school. Otherwise, I would have responded sooner.

Prof. Horn lays out some common practices that do harm – at different levels – to students and to their chances of increasing their competency in the math classroom. I’d like to respond to a couple of them and try to gather the wisdom of the internet (or at least the minuscule portion of the internet that will read this post!)

  1. Timed math tests – Prof Horn links to Prof Jo Boaler here and says that our assessments communicate to students what we value. I could not agree more with this statement about assessments. I speak to colleagues about this all the time. If we say to our students that we value thought and process but then give them multiple-choice tests where points are all or nothing, then the students quickly figure out that we do not mean it when we say we value process. What we do is FAR more important than what we say in this arena. Years ago I read a powerful essay about assessment written by Dan Kennedy (you can find that essay here.) I found many of Mr. Kennedy’s arguments to be powerful ones and I remember that my primary takeaway was that we should assess what we value and we need to value what we assess. I tell my students that I want them to be able to tackle novel problems. That they need to be able to tie together ideas we have worked with and apply them in a new context. I often give problem sets for HW that require them to remember from past lessons and from past courses. I tell them that I don’t necessarily expect everyone to get these problems completely correct, but that I think it is important that they grow as problem solvers. If I never put problems like this on graded assessments, then my students would quickly sniff out the fact that I don’t really value that process very much. However, what also has to go along with that in a graded assessment is a willingness to pay careful attention to their work, a willingness to reward thoughtful work with meaningful partial credit, and some careful feedback either on their written work or in a group setting when papers are returned. (This feedback question is also burning my brain thanks to a recent series of thoughtful posts by Michael Pershan over at his blog on twitter you can find Michael @mpershan – I hope to draft something meaningful soon in response to these thoughts!) The belief that I have that is challenged by Prof Horn here is the idea of speed or efficiency being valued highly. I think that I want to argue that efficient problem solving is a skill I want to value and one that I want to reward. Where this gets tricky is that I know that there are certain problems – meaningful, valuable problems – that just do not lend themselves to quick solutions. How do I balance the desire to see my students think and wrestle with new contexts with the desire to reward efficiency and cleverness? I also teach in a school run by the bell system (I’m certainly not alone there!) and I need to think how to work within that system. I tell myself that I balance the points on my tests so that the diligent student who has gained increasing mastery of facts and skills can still earn a respectable grade even if they fail to connect the dots on the novel problems. This only comforts me to a small degree. I know how much grades serve as motivators (and de-motivators) for my students. I know that a student who feels that s/he has worked hard can walk away from an assessment feeling defeated and incompetent simply due to failing to finish one problem. I know that students can convince themselves that their hard work was for naught and that maybe they just are not cut out for this particular challenge. I’ve been at this a long time now and I still do not have a satisfactory answer and Prof Horn’s post really brought that home to me again. What do you say wise readers? Is it reasonable/valuable/important to reward those clever students who can solve novel problems more quickly than their peers? Should this be a valued skill? If it is, then I believe it should be assessed somehow.
  2. Not giving partial credit – I agree 100% with this point. As a teacher of two AP courses, I feel that part of my task is to help my students be ready for the format and the peculiarities of the AP test in May. Most of my students choose to take these tests and for those who are not yet seniors, they feel that their test scores can help/harm their chances to get into the college of their choice. What this means is that I incorporate multiple-choice questions into their assessments. Now, if I tell them that I value process, how can I feel good about MC questions? Well, I don’t. I have dealt with this two ways and I am not thrilled with either of them. Sometimes I simply value each MC question at such a low point total that mistakes will not have a great impact on their grades. The other way I have dealt with them is to decide what the most reasonable incorrect answer is and give partial credit for this mistake. I am not happy with either path. Any wisdom from others who deal with the (sometimes) reality of MC questions?
  3. In the comments section there are some additions like this one – Grading practices that do not allow reassessment. Again, I am wrestling with this and I have blogged about this. In my two AP classes, where I am the only instructor, I allow retakes on unit tests for anyone unhappy with their grade. I have averaged the two grades. I have read some powerful arguments against this from the SBG crowd, but I cannot find a place where I am happy simply waving off performances. I may get there one day but I am not there yet. I am not at all happy with myself or with my students about the current retake policy I have. I hope that I can construct a more meaningful one by the time our winter term starts in December.

So many thoughts rattling around my brain. Thank you to Prof Horn for agitating me with her blog post. Thank you to her commenters for furthering the conversation. Finally, thank you to anyone who reads this and helps to continue to refine my thoughts and practice.

The Mysteries of Students’ Thinking Processes

A busy week of writing letters for advisees, writing a letter of rec for a former colleague, and pulling weekend dorm duty. Back on duty again tonight, so it is three out of four nights now!

Last week was the first time in quite a while that I found myself largely disappointed by my students and I have a couple of questions I want to air out. Trying to understand what students understand through assessment is, of course, one of our big challenges as teachers. People much smarter than I am have been hashing this out for a long, long time. So, I have two stories to share that are each nagging at me.

In AP Stats we are wrestling with probability. Most of my students have had very little, if any, exposure to probability before this class so this tends to be a tough unit. We had a problem on our last quiz that went like this:

Mr. Felps has 28 students in his AP Calculus BC class and 8 of them are left handed. We know that approximately 10% of the population is left handed. Can this situation in Mr. Felps’ class happen by chance?

A number of my students felt that this could not happen by chance. It seemed too unlikely to them. This bothered me a bit since we had looked at some simulations and talked about runs of short duration. We had discussed the law of large numbers and looked at a decent EXCEL simulation. I thought I had covered our bases on this one. But what really flustered me was that the follow up question asked for the probability of 8 out of 28 left handers under this condition. Every one of my students attempted this computation. Almost all got it right. BUT – a number who got it right had just told me that it was impossible for this to happen by chance. Somehow in the span of two minutes they seemed to forget that it was impossible and instead gave me the small percentage chance of it happening. What happens? Why do such good students have these kind of hiccups, especially in assessment situations? Man, it feels as if this is THE golden treasure to find as a teacher. How can we help our students step back and be metacognitive enough to sidestep these mistakes?

The second situation involves my Calc BC crew. We had a test last week and I try not to have too few questions on these tests so that each question does not feel so overwhelmingly significant. i have settled on feeling comfy with 7 questions in a 45 minute or 50 minute class test. Our recent unit on arc lengths and surface areas involve some problems that take a bit of time. To compensate for this while still having 7 questions I threw in what I thought was a gift wrapped set of points. Here is the question I tossed in as a softball for them.

I realize that if I increase my cycling speed by 3 MPH it will take me 40 seconds less time to cover each mile. What is my original speed?

I had students who left this problem completely blank. AP Calculus BC students who were so stymied by this that they did not even write an equation relating the information presented to them. I’ve been wrestling with this for days on a number of levels. It feels like this was an easy gift to them, one that my competent Alg II kids can easily solve. However, this was clearly not the way the problem was received by my students. They felt tricked or ambushed. They feel like it is unfair to lose points on a Calculus test on a problem that does not feel like it has anything to do with Calculus. I sort of sympathize on some level, but I feel that it is absolutely essential for these kids – kids who want to pursue serious, high powered technical degrees and futures – to be able to synthesize and recall old ideas with ease. Man, I am frustrated by this one. I felt I was tossing them a bone and it got stuck in their throats.

I have so much thinking to do (still!) about assessments and understanding what my kids understand.