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Math 52

I will take care of me for you, if you will take care of you for me.

- Jim Rohn

These are the polls I use during a typical term.

How are you doing?

How do you respond to an amygdala hijack?


As the new school year begins, at a faculty professional development activity, I was asked to read Cathy Davidson's article The Single Most Essential Requirement in Designing a Fall Online Course.

She writes, "We need to build our courses thinking about how to offer the opposite of an emotional burden: empowerment, agency, community, care."

I appreciate her intent, but disagree about what the opposite of an emotional burden looks like.

To me, the opposite is at atmosphere of safety in which:

There might be assessment, but not in a judgmental way.

There might be responsibility, but reacting to how other people lead is sufficient, so I need not do the more difficult work of proactively creating my own energy and direction.

Although empowerment, agency, community, and care are indeed positive things, they can regrettably happen without my five features of a safe atmosphere. Empowerment and agency often involve proactively assuming responsibility and stepping out of our comfort zones into places where we risk being misunderstood and judged. Community and care can involve groups too large for everyone to experience collaboration and smiles of gratitude.

Here is how I structure my college remedial math classes to have the desired atmosphere of safety.

If you also teach college classes, please leave a comment about how you make room for students' emotional burdens in class design!

Non-Judgmental Assessment

First drafts have due dates. Improving a draft does not. Except for the final exam, assignments can be resubmitted until sufficient mastery is shown. Simple standards (80% on homework) or rubics (for this project...) make clear what counts as "sufficient" mastery.

Speaking of deadlines, I ask my students how much nagging they want.  It is a funny discussion, and revealing.  I can personalize communication that term knowing who abhors reminders and who appreciates them.

Each week I require seeing each student's face. This can be at a class, study session, or office hour appointment. This can be in-person or online.  Attendance is not graded beyond this requirement.

Letter grades measure the breadth of sufficient mastery. Scores on assignments above 85% never matter for what letter a student earns. Students should demonstrate proficiency with all curriculum topics (including study skills) instead of relying on high scores they earned in certain topics balancing out minimal attention to other topics.

Celebrating Class Participation

Students view the things we grade as the things we value, both as individuals and as representatives of our academic disciplines. So the primary responsibility of a gradebook should be to communicate what we value, and secondarily it must turn assessment into a meaningful letter grade.

Following the lead of Robert Talbert, I use a + or − after a letter grade to measure class participation, which is recorded using "achievements". Students who earn enough achievements get a + after their letter grade. Earning too few achievements puts a − after the letter grade.

The main class participation achievements are about asking questions during class, sharing work on the board during class, constructive compliments to a classmate who shared something at the board, participating in study sessions or office hours, studying before a test with someone, sharing neat and organized notes with the class, and watching then discussing with someone one of the class's online videos.

Study skill achievements include finding new appropriate online videos, working with a tutor, visiting campus tutoring and advising offices, teaching someone else about study skills or the hidden curriculum, turning in a start of term reflection, turning in a post-test study plan, scheduling when to take practice finals.

Certain structured ways to explore extensions of our curriculum topics (including study skills) outside of class also earn achievements.

There are achievements for turning in enough final draft assignments on the first draft due date, and also for attending enough classes. That high level of class participation deserves recognition.

There are achievements for scoring more than 85% on certain assessments. That high level of mastery also deserves recognition. (This is admittedly an exception to the intent that achievements measure class participation. It exists on purpose, so students who are taking the class more as review than to learn new material can use their high assessment scores to spend less time doing the class participation activities they do not need to succeed.)

Ending the Term with an Oral Exam

The oral exam has three steps.

I start by asking students to look at their own final exam, then pick one or two problems to share why they are especially proud of getting those correct.

(I am often surprised and fascinated by which they picked.  I expect them to brag about getting difficult problems correct.  More often they share why they cared about the topic and how it relates to their current situations or future plans.)

Then I have them orally fix their own careless mistakes from their written finals.

(It leaves a bad taste in the mouth for a class to end with "...and then I made some careless errors on the final exam.  The End." So students love the opportunity to fix their careless mistakes.)

Finally, we go over slides I prepared in advance that collect from all that class's written finals a variety of handwritten answers with small errors. These focus on common misunderstandings but include a few careless errors too. Can they fix other people's mistakes?

(This is the only part of the oral exam where I assess and push them.  The less firmly that student was assessed by earlier term content the more completionist I need to be to ensure their overall class grade accurately describes their learning.)

I begin this last stage of the oral exam by pointing out that fixing other students' work is harder than doing the problem correctly yourself because our brains like to agree with what is written in front of us. The A-level students interpret this warning as a challenge and try to fix every problem.  The B-level and C-level students interpret this warning as permission to give up without me being judgmental, which will indeed happen repeatedly. "Good job describing how you were thinking about it.  And my hint didn't help.  Ready to move on?"

Tangentially, I schedule oral exams with students either one-on-one or in small groups, as the students desire and their schedules allow.  Most students prefer a small group.  A group oral exam becomes a mini party celebrating how much the students are proud of their work and how much they have learned.

The Best Day of Class is the First Midterm

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