Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Letter to My Students

Today in Financial Math we were talking about approximate versus exact time, and ordinary versus exact interest. I was telling the class about my observations on the topic, and our textbook's handling on the matter. I don't think our textbook does a particularly good job. After this became clear in class, one student commented how it made him excited to try learning independently from it (this is my goal for the course, I've rambled about it recently). We all had a little chuckle. I think it was at this point that one student opened up a discussion on thoughts about the course structure. Mostly I don't remember exactly too much what was said. Students could not believe that I was expecting them to read the text, do problems on the reading before I had talked about the content, and then still come to class. At least one student made a comment about the price of the education I was apparently not giving the class.

I was a little bit entertained, to be perfectly honest. It seemed a pretty strong reaction to have after a single assignment. But ok, the course is different, it'll take getting used to. It helps (me, if nobody else) that I really do believe it's a good way to structure class.

On one hand, I seem to have students who were shocked that I am asking them try to figure things out for themselves. On the other, I apparently have students who feel that they can do this well enough to make class discussion worthless. My guess is that many of the students alternately believe both of these things. I just can't win :)

So anyway, after several minutes in class of many of the students sharing their thoughts, things calmed back down a bit, and we got back to the topic at hand. I heard some mumblings about how the course was "ridiculous". It might have been "absolutely ridiculous", I don't recall.

I want my students to embrace this course. I really think it can work. I decided that I should share more of my thoughts on the matter with them. I probably should have done more of this earlier. I did tell them how the course was set up on the first day. And I remember asking if I needed to try to convince anybody that learning independently was a valuable thing. At the time, nobody claimed to need convincing.

But anyway, I wrote a little response for my students, and have posted it on our course discussion board. I hope to continue the discussion with the students there. For whatever reason I also thought I'd share my letter here. So without further ado:

Dear Students,

I would like to take some time to tell you about my thoughts on why I have set up our course the way I have, as well as to give you some better insight into how I anticipate this course working and what I expect from you.

Here is how I envision this class working. Every Tuesday you will have an assignment due at the beginning of class. The assignment will say to read some sections of the textbook, and will require you to write solutions to exercises. The content will be things I have not talked about in class. I expect that in addition to reading the contents of each section, you will look at all of the exercises, not just those that are assigned. You should look at all of the odd problems, and all of the preliminary short answer questions, and try enough of them to test your understanding. When you can answer odd problems correctly without looking at the back of the book, you should feel like you are in good shape.

Your write-ups should be clear and well-written. Explain, in your write-up, where your formulas, and the numbers in them, come from. You might model your write-ups on the solutions in the back of the text, or the solution to example problems worked in the section. I anticipate choosing even-numbered problems from the text that are noticeably similar to nearby odd-numbered problems.

I have designated several hours on Monday for office hours. If you are stuck on homework problems, please feel free to come to any of the scheduled office hours. If you are working on things over the weekend and have a question, feel free to email me. Also, if you would like me to look at your work before you turn it in, Monday's office hours are a good time for that. As indicated on the syllabus, I am also happy to meet with you at other times throughout the week, by appointment.

There are some difficult problems in our text. I do not anticipate assigning particularly difficult problems on written homework. I would rather talk about these problems during class time, after giving you a chance to ask questions.

I expect you to come to class Tuesday with questions from the reading - things you didn't understand, or examples that didn't work out as you expected. If you work a problem in a manner different from that in the text, you should share it with us. As you are reading each section, keep notes on your thoughts and questions, they will make good discussion material. I will do the same.

Thursday's class will likely begin with a spill-over of any discussion from Tuesday. Also, I expect Thursday will be a good time to work on the trickier problems that were not assigned. Finally, as I intend to have homework graded for Thursday's class, we can spend time talking about any mistakes you (or I) made in our solutions.

I hope the above begins to address some of the concerns mentioned in class today about how coming to class would not be beneficial. I have a very hard time believing that you cannot benefit from discussion with 45 other individuals all thinking about the same content that you are. Had you really thought about all of the issues mentioned today about exact versus approximate time?

There remains the issue that I have designed this course to make you learn the material by reading the book. I expect that this is not the way many of your other courses are, or have ever been, structured. It's a good thing I got to you before you graduated.

I absolutely believe that reading a textbook is a good way to acquire an understanding of any new material. I believe that being able to learn independently will make you more attractive to employers. I believe, moreover, that this independence will help you in your personal life. It should inspire you to dream bigger, knowing that you can figure out the steps necessary to attain larger goals. As corny as that sounds, I stand by it.

I also believe that this sets up class time to be more beneficial than a traditional lecture. Why would you bother sitting through a class where an instructor will be delivering a lecture, the content of which is sitting in a book you could read when it best fits your schedule? How many of the lecture notes you have taken have been things that were written in your textbook? How is that an efficient use of in-class time? Doesn't it make more sense to have thought about material on your own, developed your own understanding and questions, and then use class time to address that?

Yes, this course is structured differently. Yes, it does require you to do work. I believe you can do it. And I will be there to help you when you need it. All I ask is that you try it by yourself first.


Kate Nowak said...

You probably don't need any validation, but, I wanted to tell you about an undergrad class I took that ran similarly. It was Linear Algebra, taught by Matt Brin at Binghamton. We had to read the chapter before the class, and, every class began with a 5-question quiz on the reading that we hadn't even talked about yet. AND, if you got a zero on five quizzes - which you would get if you cut class or bombed the quiz - your grade would drop by a whole letter grade.

I took this class when I was 27 years old, because I needed more math credits to supplement an engineering degree in order to get credentialed to teach. I thought it was GREAT. I learned A TON. But my 19, 20 year old classmates HATED IT and thought it was TOTALLY UNFAIR. At the end of the semester, though, Matt told me that the average on the final exam was a full 10 points higher than all the other times he'd taught the class.

So. You're not alone. And you could be quizzing them. :)

sumidiot said...

@Kate I may not _need_ validation, but it certainly doesn't hurt :) It's nice to hear that your instructor found those positive results on his final using this method.

Unless I'm completely forgetting something, nearly all of my undergraduate math courses were set up this way. I always thought it was great, but I know that individual results may vary.

One of the students in class yesterday actually asked if this was how my math classes were set up. She seemed a little surprised to find that it was. I didn't tell them that I went to a small liberal arts college, and my classes rarely had even 10 people in them, as opposed to our 45 :)

Anonymous said...

This is the current generation of students. Been told they're so uniquely special for so long that they think they shit doesn't stink. Most math students consider the textbook as solely a source of homework problems assigned and a place to turn to if you get stuck on problems.

sumidiot said...

@Anonymous from what I've seen (little), the textbook is mostly just used as a list of problems, so the students aren't entirely wrong with their impression. Or rather, they can get by adequately with that impression. It's upsetting.

I have a hard time blaming the student's much, or "the kids these days". I reckon I'm probably one of them.