Monday, December 20, 2010

Student Feedback

Since I tried a few silly things with my class this semester, I wrote a couple of extra questions on the end-of-the-semester evaluations to get student feedback on them. In particular, I set up homework so that students were to choose which problems to do on an individual basis, and I orchestrated a class project to write our own textbook. Overall, student feedback was not as negative as I had anticipated, which was nice. Of course, only 19 of 39 students completed the evaluation...

Homework feedback was the least negative of the two. Of the 19 responses, 11 said they liked it. Others seemed to think it was ok, but didn't provide enough structure (not unexpectedly). A handful thought it would have been better if they were given some direction of things to focus on (I still don't see, for our class, how there was that much to choose from). One student apparently initially thought they would like the setup, but ended up not. A few flat-out didn't like it. Alas. I still like the basic idea.

The project was a source of frustration for all involved, which is too bad.

I'll begin with some of their feedback. A few students noted that they liked the idea of the project (and the project itself), working together to make something other students might use. And a few said they learned some things (mostly whichever mini project they were on), even if it wasn't related to the course content as listed on the syllabus. Some students found it tedious, and busy work, and would have rathered just do more homework problems (this confuses me, because assigning problems seems like busy work to me). A couple think in-class time to work with groups would have been good, which I can definitely see. And one student's comment, about wanting to see all the work at the end, makes me think another part could be added to the assignment, in which students would present their mini project work at the end of the semester - I think this would be valuable (even if the work is all accessible on the wiki anyway).

And now, my perspective. First off, there was no point in letting this project exist for half of the semester, as almost all of the work seemed to get done on due dates, right up to the minute. Apparently about two weeks probably could have produced the same result.

One of the parts I thought would be best was the "write questions" and then "write answers to classmates questions" parts. This seemed straight-forward enough to me, and the mostly clearly useful for our course content. Questions were due in two blocks, on a couple of Friday evenings. I'd then spend the evening (my life is that exciting!) formatting things so it all looked somewhat uniform, and randomly assigning problems to students. Due dates were such that after a block of questions were written, the answers were due two weeks later. I wanted to have a quick turn-around time from problems being written to problems being assigned, so students could have more time working on well-written answers, as well as working out issues with the questions (poor wording, ambiguity, problems in the wrong sections, etc). Of course, by my previous comment, I really could have spared more time before assigning answers. And I should have, using the time to edit the questions for clarity and content, since apparently students writing answers mostly didn't feel the need to do so (despite it being written as part of the assignment). I'm also concerned that I should have tried harder to see if questions (and, later, answers) were copied from the textbook, early on in the process. And for some reason I expected all of my students to follow the guidelines about how many of which questions (difficulty/content) to write (and write them on time), so that I when I redistributed them, everybody would end up writing the same number of answers. Silly me.

Clearly that part of the project would need to be tweaked (completely dismantled and reassembled) for future use.

The other useful part of the project was the MiniProjects, which students were put into groups for, based on initial project proposals they submitted. This part of the project was intended to involve group meetings about 2-3 weeks before the semester ended so students could show me rough drafts (ideally just little issues remaining). It became clear, the week of these meetings, that only very few of the groups had done anything at all (those that had done things had done well), which was hugely frustrating. Several students came to the meetings hoping I'd tell them what do to do get started, with no ideas of their own. This was weeks after their project proposals and group assignments. Perhaps a few more meetings would have been a good idea.

Anyway, eventually a whole-book pdf was compiled by one of the groups, of all of the sections and pages of questions and answers, and lots of appendices containing the further research found as part of many of the MiniProjects. It comes out to 126 pages, of which I wrote about 35-40. I'd share the book with you, but students at UVA own the intellectual property to their work, and I clearly can't force them to give me their work so I can just post it online for free for anybody, nor would I try. However, I did tell them I'd release all of my base effort under a CC license, and told students that if they wanted to contribute their work similarly, I'd be happy to compile it. I've got signatures from 18 students that I can gather their work up into a bundle, which I fully intend to do in the coming weeks. I'm sure you'll hear more about it, if you're still reading this far into this post.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Textbook Poll Results

Here are results from the first 77 responses to the textbook poll I mentioned recently. Charts are via Google's api, and numbers for the pie charts are percentages. I don't really know who ended up taking this, unfortunately, but my guess is that it is predominantly undergraduates at the University of Virginia.

  1. How likely would you be to purchase an optional textbook for a math course, if it were a reasonable price?
    One of the fill-ins was: "Only if I perceived to be beneficial to my grade."
  2. Would you be comfortable using a student compiled textbook for a math course if your professor used it as the main textbook for the course?
  3. If you were taking a mathematics course and your professor provided you access to a free, online textbook in addition to your regular textbook, how likely would you be to reference the additional book for extra help and problems?

    With a write-in "Depends on how well I understand the respective material."
  4. If a free digital copy of a textbook were legally available online, how likely would you be to buy a paper version?
  5. To what extent do you use your textbook in a math course? (multiple answers allowed, counts are number of respondents). The available answers were: "I real all relevant sections", "I skim example problems", "To do extra unassigned problems", "I focus on highlighted formulas", and "Only to do assigned problems".

    Also a few fill-ins:
    • Whenever I find I don't understand a topic I find the book explains it in a very simple understandable way.
    • To try and find lost-related Equations
    • Reference tables and equations in the back of book
    • never
    • Paperweight
    • I do not own a textbook
  6. What changes/improvements would you like to see in how textbooks are structured?

    Here's a sampling of answers:
    • A couple comments about digital versions:
      • "Putting textbooks online is hard for a lot of people (including myself!) to read from"
      • "would prefer more kindle/e-reader-friendly books".
    • Some about textbook usage in relation to class:
      • "Perhaps if the textbook order followed the order are curriculum is taught."
      • "Force students to use the textbook by alternating between online homework and maybe do quizzes based out of the book."
      • "More similarity between the material taught in class and the material in the textbook and more sample problems."
    • Some miscellaneous comments:
      • "Less space on corny math jokes. More space on actual math."
      • "More colorful; Black and white only is hard to look at and discourages you from using the book"
    • Most of the responses were about examples and solutions:
      • More examples
      • More and more-detailed examples of problems; detailed answers in the back of the book
      • More concrete examples and better solutions to the problems
      • To have more examples problems where the problem is worked out step by step and explained
      • clearer example problem presentation, clearer explanation of concepts
      • In the example section of a chapter, I would like to see questions that are actually challenging, something that will actually be on the test. The textbook companies always provide the most basic examples, which most of the time, are not helpful for actual application later.
      • When working out sample problems in each section split the problem into two sides. The left side would have the actual mathematical processes with each individual step shown. The right side would have the processes explained in words, not just symbols, which would make each step more understandable.
      • more steps to the answers
      • i would like to see example problems with full explanations of EACH step as well as a break down of definitions into simpler terms.
      • Solutions that show the work
      • More examples of how to solve hard problems, instead of just the basics.  If the point is to learn the material, why just assign really difficult applications of the principles as problems when you could just as easily show us how to solve them in the body of the text?
      • Many of the problems in the textbook seem rather easy compared to the problems on WebWork or questions asked on the test. It would be nice to have more problems in the textbook that would be comparable in difficulty to the UVA level of calculus.
      • Answers to every problem not just odds.
      • I think they are good but textbooks ought to have answers for all the problems - our textbook has answers for just the odd problems.
      • More examples would be nice, because for many people that is the best way to learn - by examining problems and understanding why they are done a particular way.  Also, better explanations of each step in given examples.
      • Make more sense with it. Show answers for EVERY PROBLEM and show how the answer is SOLVED. Don't just use one example and then hope that the people can figure out how to do the rest of the assigned problems. Show all the steps involved to do each problem. Make an ""answer"" textbook instead of putting the answers in the back, so that way people can have the assigned problems AND the answer textbook open so they can understand the steps required to solve the problems. It may sound like people are just going to copy the work, and maybe they will, but the answers will show a thorough way of how to solve the problems, which will help people do much better on quizzes and tests overall.
  7. Do you have any additional comments or feedback?

    A sampling:
    • "The text book we have no has not helped me at all - my teacher explains everything we need to know, so the only use it has is practice problems. In the future I would suggest saving students thousands of dollars and not making a textbook mandatory"
    • "Try not to use all the example problems from the text book, it takes away a student's resource if the lectures are not helping."
    • "I haven't opened my textbook at all this year."
    • There were also two comments about how textbooks are too expensive.

    There was also a fairly lengthy response expounding on the virtues of e-books and the ePub format in particular. It mentioned how videos right in the textbook "could be a cool new way of learning mathematics." And apparently this student loves his or her iPad:
    iPad and tablets will run rampant in education/academia in the next 5 years. My iPad has transformed the way I take notes, do my reading for class, organize my life, and access my material. I have never been so prepared for class in my life, I don't necessarily do anything beyond what is assigned, I just now have the time to do it on-the-go, interactively, and efficiently. It's one of those cases where I am working smarter, not harder. And I owe it all to the iPad streamlining my academic life. Textbooks are going paperless and nearly half of mine are (all on my iPad).
Perhaps the thing that struck me the most about these results were all of the comments about examples. Many students seem to want answers to all of the problems in the book, not just the odds, and also want more detailed solutions. I can certainly see the appeal of this to students, and how it might seem helpful. However, I'm not sure that it actually would be helpful. Unfortunate as it may be, struggling through problems yourself seems to me to be a better way to really learn the content, instead of relying on textbook solutions. It's too easy to get stuck, look in the back, see what was done, and then think you understand what is going on. It's the same problem one of my students mentioned this semester: students may think they understand what's going on when they are listening to me talk about examples, but then feel stumped when they get to doing problems by themselves. Certainly I'm happy to hear that things make sense when I talk about them. But if students think they understand what's going because they can follow lectures and examples in the book, they may be fooling themselves. The only test is to struggle through problems without a guide (until you really need it).