Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Be yourself

I can only be the person that I am.

I have to remember that.

Fresh off of a post in which I wax elegiacal over the stresslessness of grading in Calc I this semester, I find myself stressing out over the stultifying quiet of my two sections of that course. The morning section is a bit on the shy side, but they're coping and coming out of their shells a little bit. The afternoon session is borderline catatonic. I can't recall the last time I had a class this reluctant to speak up, to volunteer, to interact, to show any signs of life.

Let's break it down:

1. There are three or four students who have had calculus before and who are therefore pretty comfortable with the material but who (bless them!) hold off from blurting out the answers and volunteering to work something out on the board...at least not until someone else has had a chance. I have a feeling that these few folks, though, are beginning to grow self-conscious, since it's becoming apparent that they're about the only ones who are volunteering themselves at all. (Notably, these folks are mostly male.)

2. There are another seven or eight students (most of whom are female) who clearly know what's going on most of the time but who are painfully shy about it. Generally they telegraph signs of understanding to me (smiles, nods, even a little laughter), indicating that they're grasping what's going on...and they almost unfailingly come to the right conclusion on any in-class exercise we perform (and typically well before anyone else in the class), but they're beyond reluctant when it comes to sharing their ideas, even when those ideas are spot on.

3. There are about ten more folks who may not get at the right answer right away, but are happy to actively work to get at it, and these folks work really well with one another on group activities. Here they'll speak up, and they'll share ideas. There are signs of life, but not very vivid ones. I'm not particularly concerned about these people, as quiet as they are. (These people are of mixed gender.)

4. The remaining ten or so (also of mixed gender)...I just can't read. They neither volunteer to help out at the board nor interact much in groups. They let themselves get moved forward on in-class activities, but I can't tell if they're moving along with understanding or if they're only being pushed forward by their friends. As big as the class is (34 students right now) I don't have enough time to circulate around the room and police every moment of every group interaction to see how they're faring on a day-to-day basis. Truth be told, I'm worried about them.

And overall, I'm frustrated. I'm trying not to be; I'm trying to remember that just as I can only be the person that I am, so it goes for these students as well: many of them are just (a) shy, (b) uncertain, (c) and timorous (if not terrified) when it comes to math. It's the perfect storm of disaffected students. While I've always prided myself on being able to instill self-confidence and self-assertion, even in the most mathphobic of my students, and I've always prided myself on being able to bring students out from their shells, to help them become more outspoken, engaged, and involved...have I met my match in this class? Is this nut just too tough to crack?

I'm going to write notes to a few of the students I'm most worried about tonight, just to see if they can help me to figure out just what it is I can do to help them out. I'm also going to have a brief conversation in class tomorrow about what I'm hoping to see in the second half of the semester...and about what they hope to get out of it.

I want to make it work for all of us. Please help me to do that.



JM/ Dr. Jinx said...

I'm in a similar spot but with 70+ students in vector calculus. The class is late in the day (4:10-5:25 pm), and it is like pulling teeth. I don't get much interaction or feedback, and I can tell a lot of my students aren't following. I'm not sure what to do about it. It is my first time teaching the course, and the sections are so large, it discourages interaction. I try to encourage. Even my energy is flagging walking into that room. But tomorrow, I will try again.

gpsguy said...

I teach infrequently... I'm a staff researcher, and tend to teach when someone leaves suddenly or gets sick (really sick) and can't cover their class that semester. As a result, I often start feeling like I'm part of the problem, and if I'd had a little time to prepare, I'd do better. BUT, I've also found that I do tend to get the concepts across, and if my infrequent forays into the classroom don't make me as smooth as someone who teaches regularly, I still can do it, and I do like the opportunity to work with students.

But how to get them to interact? I've noted this same problem getting worse over the last couple of years, and I've gotten more dynamic about seeking their interactions out. I usually give 'em about a week to get involved, telling them every class day that I like questions, and I don't generally mind interruptions to answer them. I, too, seem to see fewer who respond to this over time.

My next step is to warn them that if I don't get some sign of life, I'll start asking THEM direct questions. With a large class, this can be challenging, because I'm notoriously bad about remembering names, but if it gets them to stat responding, it helps.

If that fails, though, I start the short quiz process and I inform them that, since catatony is apparent, I have to have some method to determine if what I'm teaching is making inroads.

My major exam schedule is usually pretty rigid, and often set by whoever I've had to pick up the pieces for. In fact, in most of the classes I've taught of late, I've had little option but to follow existing syllabi, and have given a midterm and a final, or in one case, a midterm paper (topic requiring approval but otherwise almost open-ended), a project, and a final. If I'm REALLY desperate, however, I'll modify the published major exam process and give more tests. The kids hate them almost as much as I hate grading 'em. But it does give me a chance to see what they're learning, and that's the object of the whole exercise!

K-Fin said...

As a student in your second Calc I section that you are currently struggling with getting to speak up and interact, I was hoping to shed some light on the subject. However I've mulled over the same conundrum with no conclusion. I can't fathom why I won't speak up. It just doesn't make sense.

I've taken Calc before, so I understand what is going on in class...so I'm not embarrassed I'll be wrong. It's more I'm embarrassed I'll be right. Which is completely ridiculous, I acknowledge that.

I've just always been the kid with the answers, and from experience those kids aren't well liked. The ones that always yell out the answers can frankly be annoying. Especially if you're lost and someone is yelling out answers it can be frustrating. I don't want to frustrate people by being that person.

I just wanted to let you know you're not the problem. You're one of the most engaging and entertaining math professors I've ever had. You make it more than easy for us to speak up...we just don't. I realize this is frustrating for you, so I'm going to try my best to speak up more. Because you're right, if we engage we'll get more out of our education.

That's just my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I, personally, have been trying to speak up more in class. I have always had a problem going up to the front and writing things on the board, even though I know I shouldn't. However, I know that if I were to go to the board with a wrong answer 1) no one would probably notice or think anything of it and 2) I would NEVER forget how to do that problem.

I think, Dr. Bahls, that the problem really lies in our education system as a whole. Throughout highschool we are allowed (nearly forced) to stay silent and not really participate. So when we get to college, it's hard to break through that.

Like K-Fin said, you really are one of the most engaging and entertaining professors I have ever, and ever will have. I constantly talk to my other half about how amazed I am by your willingness and desire for us to really learn.