Saturday, March 24, 2007

Running on empty

I have this to say regarding my Number Theory class this semester: it's the first class I've ever taught that I feel is running itself.

I've had low-maintenance classes in the past, and I've had semesters in which I've taught a course I'd taught just the semester before (last Fall's Calc II sections, for instance, saw a repackaging of a large amount of the material I used with last Spring's Calc II folks), but never before have I had a course that just sort of...does it for itself.

That's not to say that I'm not putting any effort into the class (I am), and that's not to say that problems haven't arisen (they have), but the problems have been little ones (like yesterday's goof when I used an inappropriate power for the RSA cryptosystem on the handout I'd written up...oopsies!) and the effort I've expended has paid off to an extent I've never before experienced. I feel that after an hour or so of preparation for the class I can walk in, plop the worksheets in front of the students, and let them take it away. I feel comfortable in that class. I don't worry about it at all, it's very stress-free.

This is largely because of the students in that class. They're strong, they're independent, for the most part they're comfortable working together. Their talent (not to mention Deidre's lightning-fast calculator skills) makes my job an easy one. I'm looking forward to their presentations, beginning in a few weeks. I think Karl is still planning on undertaking a project dealing with the structure of arithmetic functions, and I know Bocephus and Simon are looking into the Riemann Hypothesis and how it related to the distribution of primes. (Simon came to me the other day with a copy of Selberg's paper on the elementary proof of the Prime Number Theorem.) I don't know what some of the others have up their respective sleeves, but I'm betting it'll be good. I'm going to get them to nail down their ideas during the next week.

My Calc I students got my cheese a little bit this weekend, I have to admit. I spent an hour or so this morning grading their latest projects (which were by and large good) and the latest homework assignments. Hmmm...I'm concerned, primarily for those that are clearly not putting effort into the homework. Not surprisingly, those that are turning in the homework regularly (even if they don't complete it so beautifully as they'd like) are the ones at the head of the class. For the most part these are the same folks I see in the Math Lab all of the time (Tiffani, your efforts are paying off!).

Maybe I'm not motivating them properly, not making it clear enough that doing the homework matters? Am I being too nicey-nice, too much of a big softie? The thing is, see, they're just not getting it done. I've never had this much trouble getting a class to just do the homework. I'm not asking for perfection, just completion. I understand that homework is a testing ground, it's where one learns by making a few mistakes here and there. Appropriately, it's low-stakes: any one homework problem counts for so little of the final grade (roughly 0.25% per problem, as opposed to maybe 1.5% or 2% for an exam problem of comparable difficulty, if that's the kind of thing you're worried about) that one shouldn't be concerned about messing up now and then.

Maybe that's the problem, that I'm making it too low-stakes?

Or maybe the "homework lottery" that's worked marvelously for four sections of Calc II during the past two semesters just isn't the thing for Calc I students, or for this particular set of Calc I students?

It's something to think about.

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