Sunday, February 08, 2009

Committee report report

I've just picked a perilous path through the eye of the perfect storm of grading, fourteen and a half hours of toiling and troubling over computational exercises and low-stakes writing on derivatives from my Calc I kids, first-order logic problems and truth tables (not to mention first-time LaTeX exercises!) from my Foundations students, and a passel of problems on ring theory from my Abstract II class.

Fortunately the cold I came down with at the end of this last week made sure I didn't want to be anywhere else but home this weekend.

I've been meaning for some time now to say a bit about how the homework committees are going this semester, since so far I've been proud of their smooth functioning. (For the people reading this on my first-ever cross-post on the Young Mathematicians' Network, you can read a number of my older posts about using homework committees here. Briefly, it's a peer-review technique I use to encourage students to (1) begin their homework more promptly, (2) engage in self-authorship, (3) grow accustomed with the frequent multiplicity of correct solutions, and (4) develop their teamwork skills. Students volunteer to serve on committees tasked with reviewing and offering feedback on their peers' drafts of solutions to particular homework problems. After reviewing all submitted drafts they lead a brief class discussion on the problem they considered and return the drafts to their respective authors, who then have time to revise their work before submitting a final draft one class period later.)

There have been four reports in each of Foundations and Abstract II, and despite their relative inexperience with the genre, the former students' committee reports have been stronger than those of their Abstract II counterparts: they've skillfully avoided simply answering the problem placed before them (this was a major problem the first semester I asked students to serve on homework committees), they've intentionally made use of the course's writing stylesheet (the now-infamous Four Cs), and they've done a marvelous job of indicating common pitfalls, clever solutions, and helpful hints.

When the first homework set was handed in there was a little misunderstanding concerning exactly who received which draft of which problem, and as a consequence I was given a glimpse of the feedback the students were offering to one another on the drafts submitted to the committees. It was heartening: the few comments I saw were meaningful, respectful, and helpful without being too much so.

The quality of these students' committee work greatly exceeds that of the students in the first Foundations course in which I assigned committee problems. Back in "the day" the kids'd frequently just get up in front of the class and solve the given problem for their friends, resulting in a couple dozen nearly identical eventual submissions in which the students would faithfully render every jot and tittle (whether correct or not) of their colleagues' proffered solution. During the past couple of semesters I've very deliberately pointed out that it is not the job of the committee to perform this disservice.

Word's gotten out.

So, props.

In other news, I'm happy to see that I've received a few (not even anonymous!) replies from my students regarding Gil Strang's free text, Calculus. I might be misreading the message here, but it seems that though people are not yet ready to chuck the text through the nearest open window, it might not hurt to mix a few of my own exercises in with the relatively recondite ones offered at the end of Strang's sections?

I believe this is exactly what I shall begin doing.

Thank you all for your feedback, I appreciate your attention to improving our classroom environment! Together we'll make it to the semester's end.


Anonymous said...

hey Patrick, I am glad you blogged about the committee rpts. I have been thinking about it a little after your comment today on the process being nullified if things couldn't be turned back in today. I really think the committee rpts have a lot of advantages--but I have noticed, this semester, that we(abstract II) seem to have lost our way a bit. Perhaps we should discuss again, what we are trying to get at. For me, one of the best experiences with the rpts have been when some of the problems depths have been discussed as a group. This happened a lot in graph th. Lately, it seems that we spend more of the time just saying whether or not the majority of the class got the general idea. Perhaps, in a class like Abs.II we need to tweak the process to be more of a conceptual conversation about what is happening with the assigned problem. More like a "after looking at the turned in proofs, it seems that we are all thinking way X about the problem--what else can we draw out of this problem--why was it assigned...ect. This would go along with your comments last year on changing the type of problem you assign committee rpt designation to. I guess I am thinking that as the classes become more advanced, the question of "what did people turn in" should be less of a quality concern(I hope) and the discussion should take on an air of "what are we trying to get at" you have been so diligent in teaching us--it is time to start coming to some ownership of what we are learning, as we advance in these classes. I think it might be a good idea to bring back up the question of what we want from the committee rpts. It might energize everyone to consider that assigned task and we may be able to cultivate a little more cohesion in our exploration of Abstract II topics-week to week. Anyway, I would like to see a little more engagement in this really great learning tool.--

DocTurtle said...


As usual, you've given very thoughtful consideration to this topic. I don't think that you're off-base here, either. Most of the feedback on committee experiences I've gotten from people in our class this semester has concerned itself with, as you've indicated, "quality control," rather than furthering of learning.

My primary concern with the model you propose is that different committees are going to have different levels of motivation for getting at the deepest aspects of a problem presented to them. It's not to say that your idea doesn't have merit, it's just that we'd have to realize that not every committee is going to have much more to say than "yeah, most people did all right": for many (most?) people in the class, committees will continue to be bodies tasked primarily with quality control.

As I said, that's not to say that the idea isn't without merit, and I'm willing to give it a go.

It's interesting: in light of your comment I can see very clearly, in reflecting on a conversation I had this afternoon with some of the folks currently serving on a MATH 280 committee, the evolution of the role of the committees that you suggest here.