Friday, December 03, 2010


A few random observations about my courses this semester:

1. Ever since our department implemented a writing component in the Senior Seminar, the overall quality of the students' oral presentations has gone up as well. Of course, this makes perfect sense for anyone who understands the concept of writing-to-learn: the students are using writing as a means of engaging meaningfully the topics on which they'll later present...moreover, they're making that engagement earlier in the semester than they normally would, asked as they are to complete a rough draft of their written report by the halfway point of the term, at least a week or two before they must present.

2. As in every semester that's ever been and every semester that ever will be, the "nontraditional" students in my Calc I class are outperforming the young 'uns. The more mature folks (juniors, seniors, and returning students) are the first and most frequent askers of questions and the strongest showers on exams, and they make up the majority of those still completing the homework regularly, despite the fact that it's been optional for a week or more by now.

Though there are a couple dozen Cs and Ds scattered throughout my two sections of Calc I, none of the 15 (out of 65) older students has a grade below a B going into the final exam. While they might not have quite as fresh of math skills (or even intrinsic mathematical aptitude) as do the first-year students, the older folks have vastly superior time management techniques, study habits, self-direction, commitment, and sense of purpose. Those skills and attributes (among the most important ones learned or acquired in college) help them to be, by and large, far more successful than their younger peers in most of their courses.

3. This semester's end-of-term presentations in Linear (the first three of nine given today) are far and away better than those the students put together for the course the last time I taught it...and they students have had less time to prepare them than they'd had the last time, too. Though this is a particularly strong class, I humbly give myself some credit for doing a better job overall in leading this course than I did last time. The exercises and activities I've put together are more authentic and robust, and the ways in which the various components of the course were fitted together simply made more logical sense.

Incidentally, one of the presentations will very likely lead to a rich research project. Ino and I have already discussed (at great length) our plans to parlay her team's presentation on linear analysis of nutritional data into a full-scale publishable project. The sky's the limit, and I'm really looking forward to directing what will likely be my first-ever truly applied math research project.

4. As early as I can next term I need to make a point of helping students get past their own pride when it comes to asking questions in class. Students (especially younger ones) often have a morbid fear of "looking dumb" in front of their peers, and of course asking questions makes one appear ignorant. (As opposed to remaining silent, which leads not to appearing ignorant but simply to being ignorant.) I've got to more actively help students overcome that fear.

To that end, I made some remarks in my second (the quiet) section of Calc I today that seemed to have a positive effect on students' querulousness: before proceeding from a specific example of a definite integral computation to a general one, I said something along the lines of "any questions before we move on? This idea is a crucial one, and it's very important that you have a good grasp on it before we proceed. [Silence. Pause.] How many people are there in here? [Count out loud.] Thirty or so? In a class this size, I fully expect more than half of you, probably 15 to 20 of you, don't understand something about what we just did. I expect that. Typically at this point half of the class doesn't fully know what's going on. I expect that. I'm sure you've got questions. I'm just not sure why you're not asking them. But I really can't do anything about it if you don't ask, so we'll just move on."

Move on I did, and within a minute or so two or three people who almost never ask questions posed a few. I was ecstatic! It's the first time this semester that some of these people have come out of their shells.

I've got to remember that trick.

5. I will never ceased to be amazed by how wonderful are the students I work with on a daily basis. Our students are incredible. They're intelligent, devoted, hard-working, honest, and down-to-earth. They're smart, sassy, funny, and fun. They're some of my favorite people on the planet, and I cherish every moment in working with them. I am the luckiest man on Earth for getting to do what I do, and getting paid for it.


Meredith G. said...

A bit more about those non-traditional students. I would love to see a push on research on the neuroscience of the teenage brain and the "wisdom" of pushing ever-more high school students to take Calculus, at the expense of time spent on functions, trig, etc.

DocTurtle said...

Yeah, as I hinted in the post itself, it's really no surprise that the nontraditional students are outperforming the younger ones: it happens every semester. The relatively high percentage of such older students at UNCA is one of the things that makes our school such a fun place to teach: I can't count the number of more mature students I've had whose presence has measurably improved the dynamic of whatever class they're in.

"Measurable"? This semester is an extreme case: my morning section of Calc I has about three times as many "returning" students as does my afternoon section. Yesterday I noticed that every single one of the fifteen or so questions (every one of them reasonable and deep) raised by students in my morning section during our discussion of integrals was asked by a nontraditional student. Every one. They're simply less fearful of appearing "stupid."

It's this fearlessness that's helped deepen the level of the discussion that goes on in that course and that has ultimately, I really believe, led to the startling difference in grades between the two sections: my morning section's overall course average is almost a full letter grade higher than my afternoon section's.

There are other factors which contribute to this differential, to be sure, but it's difficult to discount the involvement of so many older, more mature students.

To get back to your point, Meredith: I absolutely agree with your placement of priority, and I'll bet you'd agree that we need to stop pushing kids straight into college after high school unless they're truly intrinsically motivated to pursue college coursework on their own. Some kids (even very, very smart ones) simply are not ready for college, and go there only because they've been told by their teachers, their parents, and their guidance counselors that it's the "next step." Often, though, the best next step is to burn off some energy taking a full-time job for a few years, traveling (perhaps in service of a humanitarian organization like AmeriCorps or Peace Corps), or even joining the military for a tour or two. Though I'm not a fan of many of the things the military is called on to do for our country, I believe one of its most beneficial functions is providing order and structure to kids who sorely need order and structure in their lives.

Anonymous said...

Patrick, I just want to let you know that I (one of your students) really appreciate you and what you're trying to do here. I don't say it enough and I know that, personally, as we're nearing the end of the semester, it's getting harder and harder to stay caught up and involved in class. But I want you to know that I still care and still appreciate your eagerness to help us understand and enjoy the subject. So thanks, Patrick. We're lucky to have you.