Saturday, October 02, 2010


Deciding no longer to grade textbook problems in Calc I is one of the best decisions I've ever made.


1. Textbook problems (even those which are more "conceptual") are largely rote and computational; students get little real understanding from them. There's something to be said for the mechanical fluency to be gained from chugging through a few dozen such exercises, so I keep assigning them as "recommended practice." The students are far better off working through the more carefully-designed (though harder-to-grade) conceptual problems I write myself. Though solving the problems is a struggle, the students are wise enough to know that it's a worthwhile struggle. (Saith one of them at the end of his response to this week's problem set, in which the students were asked to ply their calc skills to craft a reasonable interpolative model: "I loved this problem! I was thinking to myself how I might be able to make an equation for reality as a whole -- I believe this problem begins to open the door...this is exactly the stuff I came to school to understand!")

2. Unable to simply look up the homework problems' answers to be found in the solutions manuals in the Math Lab, the students have to give legitimate attempts at their own solutions. Therefore they (even the strongest students) are likely to make more mistakes, but they'll learn from making those mistakes. I'd rather have a stack of 10/15s in which the students are struggling, straining, and coming very near (but just short of) the target than a stack of 15/15s containing nothing but look-alike plasticky responses.

3. Grading the homework is more fun! This is in part because of #2: I'm not forced to read through a few dozen halfheartedly (and poorly) transcribed solutions manual responses. It's also in part because the problems I'm posing to the students are open-ended enough to elicit thoughtful and creative responses from the students. They'll often come up with ideas I hadn't thought of, and I learn from them as much as they learn from me. They're clever, these kids.

Grading is a labor of love, but it's a lot more fun (and stress-free) this term than it's been in a long, long time.

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