Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Confused Teacher

This semester I'll be teaching a course in financial math (a first-year-level course offered by the math department). This is a bit of a change from what I've been teaching (calculus, for 5 years). Moreover, I basically know nothing about the subject.

Ok, sure... you put money in a savings account, it earns interest at some rate, compounding sometimes, and you end up with more money than you started with. Conversely, you use a credit card to buy stuff, and it costs more, due to interest. I've got some grasp of those concepts (though not much... I mean... why would a bank give me money for having money?), and the equations involved. However, some of the chapters in the book that I'm supposed to cover are titled: "Discount Interest", "Ordinary Annuities", "Other Annuities Certain", "Debt Retirement Methods", and possibly also a chapter on "Investing in Stocks and Bonds". Well, I think I can claim to have heard those words before (not necessarily together), but that's as much as I can honestly own up to.

So I'm supposed to go teach a class (45 students) on a topic I basically know nothing about. This has put me in a bit of a philosophical mood. Or, since I also won't claim to know what philosophy is, let's just say: I've been thinking about how I should set up a course like this, and why I think that.

[Just a heads up. This post has parenthetical comments within parenthetical comments. And it isn't about LISP. If that gives you some indication about how rambly this post is, and you don't have time for it... perhaps I'll do better next time. See you then.]

My thoughts are: I'll be learning this stuff essentially as my students do. I will be no more an expert on the subject than they would be after reading each section. It believe it's quite possible that some students will come in knowing more about the subject than I do. So why should I lecture on it (nevermind if I should be lecturing when I do have an understanding (calculus))? Shouldn't they be able to teach themselves, just like I'll be doing? And then we can all get together and see if we came to the same understanding?

I asked basically these questions on twitter, where @michiexile was kind enough to offer up some thoughts. He stated that I've got some advantage, having spent more time learning how to learn, and also that I'm there to be "a bad conscience", "a voice of authority", and to "give context".

I can certainly see the bad conscience part. That's the point of making assignments with due dates. I'm not sure how much context I can give, though perhaps I'll do more reading in places besides the text, so I'll have more to share (but, again, they can do this). I'm not a particularly authoritative person, but perhaps that's something I should work on in my role as an instructor (or perhaps not?).

Clearly his point about having more experience learning is valid. If you kept count that high, I think I'd be in 22nd grade (only taking 21 of them though :)). With my students who I'm expecting to mostly be in 13th grade, that's approaching twice as many years in school (ouch). Surely I've picked up something in all that time. How can I best impart this knowledge (which I don't have a ready grasp on) to my students as efficiently as possible? I have no idea. My consolation is a guess that I'm not alone in not knowing.

It seems fairly clear to me that knowing a bunch of things is useful. Surely (though I have no experience to base this off of) employers like to hire people who already know many things, and know how to do many things. However, there is absolutely no way an employer can expect a future employee to know everything about pertinent subjects. There's quite simply too much out there. And this holds true especially for students fresh out of college, who almost certainly have significantly less experience than individuals who have been working for some time.

So it seems to me that what employers should be hoping to find is individuals who have a strong ability to learn. I'm guessing this isn't much of a revelation to anybody. I think I'd like to claim something stronger though. I believe that an individual who has a strong ability to learn independently makes for a stronger job candidate.

(Please don't think that my whole outlook is helping kids land jobs. I don't even want a job :), though of course money is nice. I have little idea how to get one anyway - that's a portion of the reason I'm still in school. Also, I don't have much in the way of an idea how an employer would determine if one individual is a stronger independent learner than another. I do believe the internet can help, by giving people a place to show what they do. But I'm getting off track (seems to be what I do).)

I've been trying, at least a little bit, to think about why I believe that an ability to learn independently is an admirable quality. Possibly I'm behind, and people have decided that it's simply true, sort of intrinsically or something. Perhaps not. Part of my concern is that I like to think that I have at least some ability to learn fairly independently (I'm quite possibly fooling myself), and so perhaps I just want to believe that this is an admirable quality. Or, more drastically, perhaps I've got some psychological issues about relying on other people. I like to think this isn't the case, but what do I know?

Having not much in the way of "other opinions" on the subject, I'm pretty much going on the assumption that I'll be doing well if I can get my students to be better independent learners. I'm not saying total independence. I'm not going to cancel all the class meetings and just have a final exam, and expect everybody to be fine at the end of the semester (man, think of all the free time though...). I know that I am not that independent myself (and I'm sure my thesis advisor would be quick to agree), and I don't think it's even a reasonable goal.

So here's what I think I'm going to do with my class. We have 75 minutes class periods, one on Tuesday and one on Thursday. Each Tuesday there will be an assignment due, presumably consisting of exercises from the text (I'm still working on this part), on sections that I have not talked about in class at all. This will require the students to read the appropriate sections, carefully, so that they actually gain an understanding of the material. I'm going to have office hours on Monday, to help students who got stuck on the assignment.

This is the way my undergraduate math courses were structured, by the way. I'm excited about diving in on this policy. I've made attempts in the past, with my calc classes, but went too easy with it, I feel.

So, great, my course is set up. Except, there's one small issue. I've got 150 minutes in front my students each week. If I'm not talking about new material, and they just turned in an assignment showing that they understand old material... what do I do with this time? This part has me seriously nervous (so I'm writing about it out here, good use of time :)).

My guess is that students (including me!) won't understand all of the material from the section. I'm planning on spending as much class time as possible and necessary having a discussion with my students (hopefully with them doing most of the talking) about any questions we have from the reading. Hopefully some will be confused about examples in the text. Hopefully some will still have questions about how to work problems. Hopefully some will have questions about how to interpret answers to questions.

I'm trying to think about what to do if they don't have anything to say. Or if they pretend they don't. I'm guessing if I say "So, since none of you have any questions, maybe I should just give you a quiz on this for you to earn lots of points on, and then we can all go home", some hands will go up (and some people will think going home is a great idea).

One thing I think I'll do is to try to keep track of my own thoughts and observations and questions as I read, so that I can share that with the class if they don't have their own things to talk about. I may also come with some extra examples, to give them time in class to work on them (possibly in groups, or as part of a game or something) and get better at problems simply by doing more of them. Possibly I'll be inspired to look at other materials online or in other books, and can come in with something to share from that reading.

I think talking about the material the students (and I) have just read, after we have worked some problems on our own, will help with our understanding of the material. Surely that's a good goal for the course.

But I was rambling on just a few paragraphs ago about getting my students to be more independent learners. I do think that setting up the course as described above will give them experience trying to develop this skill. I also think, however, that this goal can be addressed slightly more explicitly during class time. I hope that by keeping track of my own "how I read this section" process, I will be able to share that with the class. I touch on this a little above. But I could take it further, I think. I could perhaps scan a section of the text, and keep my notes on the paper as I go. Then during class I could walk through how I read the section with my class. Perhaps they'll pick up on things. Things like... what questions do I ask while reading? How can I tell if I'm actually understanding this material? Where can I go to answer questions I have? Perhaps the exercise will make me more aware of the process myself, and I'll be able to point something out. Perhaps students will point out their own methods of gaining understanding.

At this point I've probably rambled on far too much. Clearly this semester will be (or, at least, could be) an interesting one. I believe that I will learn quite a bit. I hope that my students also do.


Robert Talbert said...

About 15 years ago I was in the exact same situation as you. I was teaching a Business Math course at a community college at night (moonlighting from my "day job" as a PhD student) and knew basically zilch about money matters. That turned out to be one of my favorite classes I've ever taught. Some things I learned:

(1) Don't overestimate the financial knowledge of your students. You'd be shocked at how financially illiterate most people are these days. The concept of interest will probably be totally new to a plurality of them.

(2) The audience for "financial mathematics" is a lot different than that for calculus. You will pick up a lot more people who are quite literally scared of math. You will have to prepare to be a calming influence on them regarding their exposure to math. And many of the pedagogical approaches that work fine in calculus will be DOA in this class.

(3) The combination of students who do know a nontrivial amount about finance but not much about math, and a professor who's the opposite, can be very rewarding and productive for everybody if you approach the class as a sort of partnership.

As for learning how to learn, I believe this is the main reason people should go to college and maybe the thing people carry with them the longest once they're out. I recently read that any time somebody begins a new job or career, there are only two questions about that person: Can they learn on the job? And, How fast? The demonstrated ability to acquire new information on one's own and put it to use is more powerful than the degree they are earning in terms of predicting success later in life. (And I mean that not only in career terms but in terms of being a parent, keeping your mind active as you grow older, etc.)

To a more practical point: You might consider structuring your class time so that students are working on mini-case studies or some kind of extended problem in groups. These kinds of large open-ended problems tend to lead students to better discussion questions than simple reading assignments, although your plan for reading assignments seems good too. For example, when I taught mortgages in a recent class, I gave students the assignment of shopping for houses online using a realtor's web site and doing different kinds of mortgage calculations to answer certain questions. (If my current rent is $700/month, how much house would that buy? What if I put 20% down first? etc.) The material is so practical that these case studies practically write themselves.

Looking forward to further blog posts on this stuff.

PS: I'd also recommend reading through some popular finance books for background, like Dave Ramsey's "Total Money Makeover".

sumidiot said...

@RobertTalbert Thank you very much for all of the thoughts and advice and... everything. And for being so quick about it too! Only one more full day before the class starts (EEK)!

Seabrook said...

I was researching this sort of topic for a programme that runs here in Au where people who use maths in their work talk with high school students. One book I found useful was "The Two Headed Quarter - How To See Through Deceptive Numbers & Save Money on Everything You Do" by Joseph Ganem. On the one hand are the formulas / equations, on the other hand (and this is why I liked the book) is the context you might use the equation in.

sumidiot said...

Thanks @Seabrook! Looks like I'll be heading to the library soon.