When I was a brand new professor...
Before an exam.
Students: Can you tell us what to study?
Me: Everything from Chapter 1 to 6. Plus all the stuff covered in the last 5 weeks. Plus all the wisdom coming out of my mouth. Anyway you should figure it out on your own.
After the exam.
Me: Grrrrrrrrrr. I can't believe everyone bombed the problem on the exponential decay of Carbon-14!
A colleague: Did you tell them it's important?
Me: Well, they should have known!!! It's in Chapter 6 and we covered all of Chapter 6.
Colleague: No you didn't.
I visited Nicole Watson's Human Biology class before fall semester ended. It was a fantastic class! Nicole is such an effective communicator, and it has a lot to do with her many verbal cues:
- This is very important...
- That is a tricky question...
- You should know that...
By constantly communicating goals and expectations, Nicole does more than presenting information: she guides students and actively engages them. As a result, the class is focused, productive and clearly enjoying the experience.
Not all teachers make efforts in telling students about goals and expectations, or about what is important and what to study. (Putting them in a 25-page syllabus and never emphasizing them in class is hardly an effort.) But why not?
Some instructors think that if we tell the students what topics to study, they will only study those topics and ignore the rest. (Wouldn't it be great if students would actually study exactly what we ask of them?) If the students are so good at taking such directions, it makes even more sense that we give them a great deal of specific directions, instead of vague ones like studying all of Chapter 9.
Some instructors believe that learning how to learn is part of the learning process. (Sorry for the tongue twister.) In that case, let's guide the students through this learning process. Don't just hope that they would figure it out on their own before failing a few classes along the way. For example, a 5-minute class discussion on what was important from last week, Family Feud style, might serve the purpose. In the end, students need to know about the goals and expectations. They need to know what to study.
Not all of our students have the best preparation for college. They might have weaker academic background or studying skills, and they also take on responsibilities with jobs and family. However they try hard and study as much as they can. They would have a good chance to succeed, as long as we articulate the goals, specify what they should work on and help them work on those things.
Back to my first-year teaching experience. If I could do it all over again, would I tell the students that the Carbon-14 problem would be on the test? If that makes them study and figure out the problem, then absolutely yes!
In ancient China, a doctor prescribed for the Emperor a rare medicine containing rhino horn powder. Since rhino horns were hard to find, the Emperor had to use bison horns which are slightly less potent. So why prescribe the rhino horns? First of all, they are best for this prescription, according to the doctor. Secondly, since the Emperor couldn't really get rhino horns, the doctor would have something to blame for if the Emperor does not get better.
If we assign an amount of assignments that is unrealistic for most students to do, we are no different from the Chinese doctor in the story. Of course the more students study the more they learn, but what if most of them can't complete the assignments anyway? And when/if they fail, do we blame it on not finishing the assignments?
I began my career at Ramapo College of NJ, a liberal arts college and New Jersey's equivalent of U of M Morris. A rookie math professor, I would go over the exercises in the books and assign over 100 problems a week. I graded 4 or 5 of them, and left the rest unattended.
When I moved to Metro State University, I focused only on essential topics and I assigned no more than 40 exercises a week. But with carefully designed assignments, my students at Metro State learned just as much even though they were less prepared and had less studying time than my students at the 4-year elite institution,
A few general thoughts on creating assignments:
(1) Have a clear agenda and set the priorities. What do we want to accomplish in an assignment? Is it about memorizing particular formulas? Drilling certain techniques? Understanding concepts? Making applications? Manipulating tricky skills? Modeling and problem solving?
(2) Be efficient and effective. Keep control on the amount of work in each assignment. When an assignment gets too big, cut it to size according to your agenda and priorities in (1).
(3) Integrate the assignments into teaching. Follow up on the agenda and the priorities: Have the students accomplished them? How do the assignments help them learn the content and prepare for tests?
Community college students often juggle with jobs, personal and family life, and a challenging course load. Let's design effective assignments that would help them use their studying time efficiently and maximize their success.
Dear Colleagues of SciMath and ITEC:
Happy December! As we march into the grand finale of the semester, I want to thank you for a successful Fall 2018. A lot of exciting things happened because of your great effort and stellar work, such as
- The awesome Student Success Day and ITEC Career Fair (SciMath and ITEC)
- Advisory board meeting (ITEC)
- Visiting Augburg University to explore opportunities for our students (SciMath)
- Multiple projects to promote student success in dev and college math (Math)
- Many more.
I have yet to know everyone well enough, but many of you surprise me on a daily basis: your wealth in knowledge, your passion for teaching, your commitment to student success, to name a few. SciMath and ITEC are blessed to have strong members in you.
It feels like yesterday, but I have been your dean at SciMath and ITEC for more than 3 months! (Does that disqualify me from being the shortest-lived dean on this position?) I have much to learn, and I ask that you keep advising, helping and pushing me to be a worthy leader of yours.
I cannot thank my coordinators enough. I wouldn't be able to manage all the things going on within our schools without the great leadership and fantastic work by Maire and Andy.
As usual, many end-of-semester emails and information will be coming your way. Please at least pay attention to (a) grading deadlines, (b) other deadline-related stuff, and (c) messages from your coordinator or your dean. (Especially (c), in my humble opinion.) I wish you a wonderful December!
When in doubt, check with ARC (Accessibility Resources Center).
Sometimes it makes little/no sense to accommodate students in situations like missing homework without an excuse or skipping a class to take care hairball (sorry cat lovers.) However, there is one situation when we shall NOT deny accommodation: when a student has a legally protected status that grants him/her accommodation at no fault, such as documented accessibility needs, pregnancy, etc.
(1) No rule by instructors, labs or departments shall be used to deny student's right to accommodation.
For example, none of the following can be used to deny accommodation:
- The syllabus says to drop the lowest of the 5 exams.
- The instructor says no late homework is accepted.
- The department says no makeup for lab-related exams.
If an assignment or test has little or no impact on the grade, the instructor may try to persuade the student to ignore it, but the student still has the right to make it up if he/she so chooses.
(2) The College works with the instructor on providing accommodations.
Generally ARC tells faculty to either (a) do it for all students or (b) only exactly what is approved by the ARC. In the case of (b), ARC will coordinate the effort for the student to receive the accommodation, and the instructor should not turn the student down unilaterally.
(3) How do I know when a student MUST be accommodated for having a legally protected status?
Refer the case to ARC for assistance and cooperate with ARC. When in doubt, check with ARC.
Dr. Ben Weng