Friday, March 30, 2007

Turning them into Students.

Another one I need to get out of the "draft" folder ...

Buried within an article about whether there is any value to a Master's degree for K-12 teachers, Sherman Dorn writes that a senior colleague "told me years ago that part of my job in graduate [education] classes was to turn enrollees into students".

That certainly summarizes our challenge at a community college.

If one operates under the assumption that young people should leave our CC ready to function at the same level as those who started at the Uni (usually about a year or so ahead in math), which is my operational assumption, they had better be independent students when they leave. They rarely are when they arrive. On the other hand, my colleagues at Wannabe Flagship U tell me that a substantial fraction of their enrollees aren't students either. That might explain why the kids who became students along the way have excelled after transfer.

Now I just have to figure out how to increase that fraction.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Writing ... and reading

Inside Higher Ed had an interesting story the other day about training (not educating) a student to do well on the SAT essay exam. That story, Fooling the College Board, generated a lot of comment about standardized testing of writing. I found the comments as interesting as the article.

My summary of this experiment is that it demonstrates the weaknesses of mass grading dictated by a rubric whose rules are known (or, in this case, inferred from published information provided to the public). [*] Clearly, if you teach to the rubric (which our institution's Kool-Aid Lecture Series suggests is one favored approach) you might get nothing but formulaic results from the best students.

The premise of the SAT is that it predicts performance in college. I don't know if that premise has been tested for the essay part but, if so, it says a lot about college writing requirements that form is of greater significance than content in the grading of the essay in question. I am more concerned with what it says about the teaching of composition in any high school where "high stakes" testing includes an essay. They must spend 90 to 100% of their time teaching formulaic writing.

I had forgotten about the "5 paragraph essay", or maybe our schools did not use it. In any case, that certainly explains why some students seem unable to write only three paragraphs when I ask for that, but does not explain why some fail to grasp the idea of an introduction and a conclusion. Guess those are the unprepared ones, but how did they pass the HS grad test's writing component? Does that mean the HS test has only one paragraph? Is that what passes for being prepared to leave high school (and go on to college) these days?

Might explain a lot. Will have to look into that.

Certainly it could explain why it is harder to get students to write a short executive summary of their lab results, with an emphasis on the most important data, than it is to get them to write an open-ended summary. Might also explain why those longer essays sometimes seem to consist of lots of letters but few ideas.

I gather that writing a "precis" is a lost art. (Certainly must be, if blogger does not even recognize it as a correctly spelled word. Sheesh.) A precis is a writing form that requires a lot of critical thinking, usually in response to a close reading of some original text. Just what I want my students to be able to do. The problem is that it takes as much time as other approaches, yet does not generate the large word count required by strict guidelines on writing volume set by the state.

[*] Full disclosure: I evaluated proposals for ETS in the distant past, and was most impressed with the way they prepared us and kept us on task. Although that exercise has zero to do with grading SAT essays, because eventually we all discussed all of the proposals that made it to the final rounds, it makes me 100% sure that ETS would hold its graders to a tight time limit per essay and strict adherence to the grading rubric set for that essay.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

xkcd is not in my neighborhood, but ...

It looks like xkcd's latest comic strip is describing a gathering in late September at a playground at the corner of Dudley and Cedar St in North Cambridge, Mass. At least that is what Google Maps says it would mean.

Could be a strange bit of fun if I was in the neighborhood.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

My thoughts on College Readiness

I can see that my concerns are not unique. In the span of a few days, Chad Orzel (in Uncertain Principles) took up "College Readiness and AP Classes" and "Reading Science in College". I posted a few comments on the first topic in his blog, and in the IHE viewpoint on College Readiness that motivated it, but there is much more to be said about it. I will take that up at the end of this entry. The second one ended up being mostly about reading physics papers, not what subset of skills is needed to do so, but it pointed to a very detailed article on "How to Read in College" by Timothy Burke (History Dept, Swarthmore) that I will recommend to anyone.

Reading: (and "close reading"?)

Burke's article is superb. Although written from the perspective of an historian at a highly selective PLAC, I agree with Orzel that it also applies to how one reads physics papers. I don't think it applies to a graduate student starting into a new area (that person has to read a single paper and many of its references, and references in those references, with attention to every detail needed to catch up with the people who started that field), but it does summarize the key parts of a skill we all learned the hard way. However, my impression (see, I did not read it closely) is that it ignores whether a student actually knows how to read "with intense precision and in gory detail". I think this is unlikely in general, although I suppose it is possible that most of his students come to Swarthmore with that skill, or enough of it that they can function in his history classes. It is more likely that they skim paragraphs as well as entire chapters, because they were trained to skim paragraphs so they (and their school) would do well on the verbal part of "high stakes" achievement tests.

The problem in physics is that 90% of what students actually do (and most of what they need to do) is read and analyze physics problems. Skimming is fatal there, because every word counts. Students seem to recognize that every number matters, and they quickly learn to associate each number with a symbol and the appropriate terms in an equation. They are not nearly as good at classifying problem types based on the information given. They are terrible at turning a work picture into a real picture, so we usually provide a drawing on tests if the situation is at all complicated or novel. They are particularly weak when a quantity is given in words, say when a sign is "given" by saying, for example, that the voltage lags the current by 28 degrees. [They get the 28 deg angle, but not the sign. After all, "lead" and "lag" both start with L.]

This is where the ideas on teaching close reading, borrowed from literary analysis classes, can give us some ideas on what to do.


Orzel mentions that, like me, he assigns a textbook but not much reading. As he states, they can "sort of follow along" but our lectures never actually follow the book. [I do, however, make it a point to minimize differences in notation, because they do use the book as an example or equation reference when stuck on a problem.] Although I would never confuse an intro level textbook with the actual academic publications of a physicist, I think he gives too little attention to the awful state of physics textbooks. They get bigger every year (compare 1967 Halliday and Resnick to 2008 H+R and Walker) and do not get easier to read. A student, who is trying to learn which concepts are important ends up being overwhelmed with all sorts of side trips down Relevance Lane.

It does not do much good to assign a book that cannot be read. The physical science book produced by Hewitt is a step in the right direction. My first instinct was that its language was much too simple, but he puts all of the attention on the technical words and their unique definitions in physics. Lind wrote a compact version of one of Serway's books that was "just the facts". Not a bad idea. Students, for generations, have been using Schaum's Outlines in place of the textbook. Are they trying to tell us something? The ideal solution might be a textbook where volume 1 has everything you need in terms of definitions and equations and a few detailed examples worked like you do them on the board, and volume 2 has all the real world examples and and pretty pictures. Volume 1 you keep, and Volume 2 gets sold to the next kid.

College Readiness in Algebra:

Algebra. And Trig. I think this is going to have to be a separate article. I am in 100% agreement with what Orzel said in "College Readiness and AP Classes", although I don't attribute it all to AP classes. A similar problem persists among students who take (or retake) algebra and pre-calc in college. I think the core problem is that the K-12 system never conveys the concept of prerequisites so they view each class as an end in itself. Standardized tests don't help, and I suspect that what Dave Spence argues for (yet another one-size-fits-all standard) would make it worse. When they get to college, students will be held accountable for still knowing what they allegedly learned, but they have no clue what this means because lower level math classes spend substantial time on review from the previous year.

That said, lack of drill and 100% mastery of basic algebra skills -- the essence of Orzel's argument against the rush to get on to the AP courses -- has merit. I have seen one student from an IB program who left GaTech to get restarted at my CC, and my diagnosis is that he had a superficial knowledge of both calculus and algebra coming out of HS. I could never understand how one of my nieces could struggle in physics at college after "taking" an AP class in HS, but I'll wager that it was due to a lack of fluency in algebra.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Who is crazier, them or me?

You'd never guess from my comments Tuesday that I volunteered to be elected to the ExComm of our college's faculty governance system earlier that same day. Or maybe you would. Either way, I feel like Groucho Marx (do I want me as a member?). I darkly suspect that some of my colleagues prefer a potential loose cannon to the people who long ago "drank the kool aid". [*] Should be an interesting year.

[*] Full disclosure: I can, and have, used rubric in a sentence.

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xkcd on blogging

Click image to go to the rest of this comic strip.

This is a really clever comic, if you get all of the math, computer science, and physics references in it.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Spring has sprung!

This has been a really good year for blooms.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Trade school or University ... or both?

Today's insightful article by Dean Dad concerned a story in IHE about incentive pay tied to the USNews ranking of the university (Arizona State, in this case). The only thing I found surprising about the article and all related discussion is that no one had done this before. After all, rankings of comparable institutions influence student enrollment, for reasons ranging from academics and job placement in a specific career to football to the number and quality of the parties on Thursday night. We might wish that the emphasis would be on improved learning outcomes for students, such things as the pass rate on the nursing boards or the professional engineering exam or Rhodes Scholars in philosophy or admission rates to Fancy Grad School, but the enrollment growth that generates the most dollars is most likely to come from factors that reflect the interests of 18 year olds.

Along the way, however, I found one of the comments on IHE to be more interesting than the article and related discussion. In addition to arguing for a BCS-style hybrid ranking of rankings, "RWH" complained about an alleged increase in the emphasis on training vs. education at universities in the half century he? had been a professor. That surprised me, because my impression was that the GI-Bill-driven growth of universities was mostly in the practical areas of business, engineering, education, and the like. Maybe RWH was remembering the short-lived peak of impracticality driven by us baby boomers between 1965 and the 1974 recession.

That remark also reminded me of a sure way to irritate a Provost. I was on the university Academic Policy committee of an Enormous State University as a grad student, and the Provost was complaining about the extra credit hours the engineering accrediting body was insisting on. I remarked that "if you are going to run a trade school, you have to keep the trade happy". He was not pleased at that harsh bit of reality!

However, I will freely grant that engineers and scientists value the critical thinking and analytic skills learned in literature and humanities classes. (They even require them at pure engineering schools like MIT or the Colorado School of Mines.) My point is that universities have always had to respect the external requirements of medicine, engineering, law, state boards of education. They have always sought public recognition for the quality of their grads, playing that USNews game. I'll even admit that our CC plays that game, publicizing our graduates who have gone on to careers of distinction from non-traditional backgrounds. And our President does a pretty good job of getting us in the paper on a regular basis, which makes him our best PR person.

I will close by saying everyone in higher education should embrace the image of providing training with education. I certainly try to emphasize both in my teaching: training, so that certain basic skills are carried out automatically; education, so those skills can be brought to bear in new situations.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

More on Close Reading (Thanks, Dr. Crazy)

I think there is really something to this. I tried a few ideas from the English-teaching side of the fence in a Friday class, and could see some lights come on for several students. Further, as I see more detail from others who teach "close reading" in English classes, I see more commonality in the challenges we face.

In an article I wrote last week, I guessed that student difficulties with problem solving in Physics and literary analysis in English might be related. I did not explicitly ask for teaching advice from that side of the fence (after all, no one is probably reading this blog yet); instead, I sent an e-mail asking Dr. Crazy to post a followup to her February article, to explain how she teaches "close reading". Dr. Crazy's response provided lots of detail about how she teaches it, and others added additional details, include a lengthy followup blog by Scott?. A big thanks to all of you.

I mainly use "modeling" to teach problem solving, and have some observations about it (and what helps make it work) that I'll append below. The main point, I think, is that we have to convince students that the methods we teach them in class are actually ones that we use ourselves, not ones we are parroting out of the "instructor's manual". The ideas I picked up from Dr. Crazy are, IMHO, ways to convince students that they are also methods they already use ... albeit in a different context.

The ideas I singled out for Friday's experiment were "in your own words" and "three questions". Homework was due and there were questions about one particular problem where something we had dealt with in the past (a particular phrase) appeared in a new context. As soon as we got to that phrase in the problem, their words were the right ones because they looked at the phrase on its own. Scott's emphasis on "the words on the page" also came into play here. Somehow breaking the sentences into pieces, and asking about each piece, really helps them. (The long-dead skill of diagramming a sentence immediately comes to mind. Do they need my prompting because they don't know how to identify each of the clauses?) Then I asked them what questions are raised by the problem, what things we need to know to answer them, etc, and we went on to convert it from english to mathematics.

The "three questions" then became a theme for the rest of the class (which was working examples related to next week's homework). By the end of class, several students were much more engaged in that process than in the past. Like some of the other discussions suggest, I suspect that giving this technique a memorable name is one key to getting them to automate it for themselves. Time will tell, but I am looking forward to making this into a collaborative learning exercise at the next opportunity.

On modeling:
I think modeling is crucial, but the trick is getting them to adopt it. Like Scott, who wrote "I realized a while back that simply modeling a close reading (which for them often registers as some kind of witchcraft) wasn’t enough.", I know they think I have magic wand, or the entire solutions manual in my head. Even when I verbalize the steps I normally do in my head, they are still looking for shortcuts. They want a magic wand for every problem! [I suspect they have a lot of un-learning to do. We need to deal with the side effects of prep classes for HS competency exams, which treat everyone as if they were at the 10th percentile. ] Thus I tell my students about once a week that this is how I solve problems! One thing that has really worked for me is getting some 'graduates' to come back and talk about what they use at the next level. They listen to peers, which is probably why many of the collaborative learning methods work so well.

Note added October 2007:

Interesting article in IHE on more effective teaching of freshmen at Ball State. One of the approaches was entirely about teaching higher-level reading skills.

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DeLay calls Bush a traitor?

Today, on Meet the Press, the chattering classes included Tom Delay, pushing his new book. He saved the worst for last, when no one had time to reply:

From page 6 of the transcript:
FMR. REP. DeLAY: .... When you tell the enemy what your strategy is, that's aiding and abetting the enemy because they can use that strategy to come back and harm your soldiers.

Tom DeLay was clearly hoping everyone would think he was talking about war protesters such as Tom Andrews (also on the program), because he said it while commenting on Andrews' efforts to set a withdrawal deadline. However, what he actually said also applies to President Bush.

Bush gave "the enemy" more than a month's head start when he announced the latest Surge in his "surge and run" cycle. Plenty of time for them to alter their strategy and stay inside the US military's decision loop. Clearly aiding and abetting them. Maybe DeLay has a point.

And, of course, DeLay was also attacking the Secretary of Defense and most Generals involved with the war in Iraq. At various times each of these have articulated our strategy in Iraq. They have told the various insurgent groups exactly what they needed to do to get us to leave (be real quiet during the election, for example, which they did). The insurgents simply seem to lack the patience to wait the six months or so that Bush needs to claim victory. If the insurgents had taken a decent history class, they would know that Nixon needed a cease fire to justify a peace agreement in early 1973 that led to a full withdrawal of all US troops by late March (before Congress "cut off" funds for the war in Indochina, by the way) and might guess that Bush needs a similar bit of political cover for him to get out. Maybe they want the US to stay.

And, I'll ask in closing, was DeLay calling a notable conservative such as Ed Meese (Reagan's Attorney General) a traitor because, as a member of the Iraq Study Group, he supported deadlines for specific actions by the Iraqi government with specific consequences? DeLay must be, if he consistently attacks anyone who supports the proposals in that document.

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March (announcer) Madness

Speaking of a freshman player: "He's not a freshman any more."

I'd take them seriously if they also said, about other players, "He's not a sophomore any more" or "He's not a senior anymore". Then what is he, a pro? The fact is, he is an experienced freshman, and some have learned more than others from that experience.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

What ... a great way to waste time!

Profgrrrl's blog
led me to find out what color green I happen to be on this St. Patrick's Day:

You Are Teal Green

You are a one of a kind, original person. There's no one even close to being like you.
Expressive and creative, you have a knack for making the impossible possible.
While you are a bit offbeat, you don't scare people away with your quirks.
Your warm personality nicely counteracts any strange habits you may have.
What Color Green Are You?

Interesting. So what emoticon should I use today?

Your Emoticon Is Laughing

You've got a wicked sense of humor. You're everyone's favorite IM buddy... at least today!
What Emoticon Best Represents You Right Now?

Now, today we are celebrating St. Patrick's Day with a top-down Miata road trip to get some ribs at The Best BBQ Place in Town (even though its not even in the same county), whose owner is retiring. What should I really be driving?

You Should Drive a Lamborghini

A true daredevil, you're always in search of a new rush. Clearly, you're a total speed demon... just don't get caught!
What Sports Car Should You Drive?

Not bad, although a Bugati Veyron is my dream car. As if. Anyway, I'm just glad that I once got a chance to drive a vintage TR-3 that once raced in the "24 Hours of Daytona" back when the clock only ran for 12 hours. Have a good day!

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Thoughts on "close reading" and physics teaching

I got hooked into a certain section of the academic blogosphere (why does blogger flag that as a misspelling?) when my brother sent me a link to an article by Profgrrrrl wherein she reported visiting another faculty member on campus and overhearing some education majors complaining about doing math in their math ed class. [Having math taught by persons who hate math is a sore point with anyone whose students can only follow their dream of being an engineer by becoming fluent in basic algebra skills. Many of my female students did not discover they liked math and science until they got a decent teacher in college.] Fascinating.

I discovered an informal, virtual coffee shop with people from parts of campus I had not visited since I was an undergraduate: social sciences, english, history, philosophy, etc. I discovered that they face similar challenges with student engagement and skill sets. I even learned, recently, how to put a name on a skill I was taught by my HS advanced comp teacher. A skill my physics students, mostly future engineers, often lack. That skill is "close reading".

Physics and chemistry problems are all "word" problems. Simply put, those problems require a particular kind of "close reading" that results in associating an abstract symbol with a particular concept described by words in the problem. Our starting point is to assume that our students have met a specific "college-level" reading and writing prerequisite, since we are not trained to teach reading. We assume they know that words have specific meanings, and that adjectives modify those meanings, etc. This may be a bad assumption.

Dr. Crazy, in A Post on Close Reading, was writing from the point of view of someone teaching upper division English majors. That her students, well past first year composition classes, would be unfamiliar with the "deep analysis of a passage of text" or with "grounding one's claims in actual ... literature" is a clear signal that the problem I see has deeper origins. I assumed that students would base their persuasive essays on facts drawn from a primary source that had been read with some care. That was commonplace in my experience (about 30 years ago), but Dr. Crazy seems to be saying that English now avoids word problems (f.k.a "story problems") as much as Math does.

I wonder if it is for the same reason.

A colleague at another institution has seen a steady decline in "problem solving skills" in conjunction with rising SAT scores at his institution, that he attributed to the rise in high-stakes HS competency exams. Teachers put a lot of time into raising their school's NCLB grade by teaching to a particular kind of standardized test. I suspect they teach "rushed reading", with an emphasis on grabbing at a key word and running with it. [That would explain why a student would miss an exam problem asking him to "calculate the work done by friction" (emphasis added) because he read it as "calculate the ... friction" (a specific instance of a different category, force).] If so, college English courses have a lot of un-teaching to do before students will begin to appreciate the importance of reading every word rather than jumping on the first or last one they read. And I may have to learn how to teach reading, or at least let English professors know that a bridge might fall down because of the way students read.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Celebrate with some bytes of Pumpkin Pi

Yes, this was actually used on Halloween.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Happy Pi Day!

Yes, tomorrow is 3.14, making it pi day.

Although mathematicians probably stole the idea from chemists, who have been celebrating mole day on 10/23 for quite some time, I'll use this opportunity to post my favorite pi-related factoid:

e^{i*pi} = -1

This result combines two transcendental numbers and an imaginary number to produce the negative (crucial for subtraction) of the most basic number of them all. But it is more than a curiosity, because this property of the exponential function is crucial for a variety of results in mathematical physics (particularly scattering theory) and electrical engineering.

Some of the high-end scientific calculators (Casio fx115 ms, TI-83) will evaluate this expression if you put it in "complex" or "a+ib" mode. While you are doing that, notice that ln(-1) is equal to pi*i = pi*sqrt(-1). It is almost like two wrongs make a right, since neither ln(-1) nor sqrt(-1) are legitimate calculations when you are restricted to the Real numbers.

When 2015 rolls around, Pi Day will be 3.14.15. Watch for it.

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Time to get this started!

Nothing like a new blog to generate writer's block, followed closely by all sorts of minor work-related tasks that had to be done yesterday.

My main thought was to start by talking about taking a path through life similar to a good racing line: Don't take the most direct route into the next corner; rather, take the quicker line that has a "late apex" ... where you turn in a bit later but come out of the turn faster. The problem is, most of you probably use the brakes at the end of a turn (because your direct route forces you to tighten up the turn at the end) rather than at the beginning, so you won't even see the analogy.

The trick is that this works best only when you are alone on the track. Driving like this will open up the inside line to another racer, who can then force you outside. Same thing in life, where someone else can make a move before you are ready to do it "just right", and take something (job, scholarship, girl friend) that might have been yours if you had gone for it. But that person could wreck, or go wide, leaving the quick line open for you at the next turn. Never live your life looking in the rear view mirror. Live it so you are ready for the next bend in the road that comes your way.

That bit of philosophy ought to last me a year or two.

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