Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sense of Progress

I always know when Dean Dad has written a great column: I am composing a reply before I even get to his thesis statement!

That was true for his first post of the new year, about progress and cycles. As soon as he wrote "The one idea of this book is that the feeling of “progress,” even when small, is a powerful motivator." I was thinking about a key part of my teaching style. But then he started talking about ... semesters? Yeah, he has a point there as well. And on one other topic he could have addressed. And another.

Lets take up both my thoughts and his. That will also keep my comment on his blog a bit shorter than normal in a case like this.

Dean Dad's Semesters Question:

Dean Dad asks "How do you handle the lack of a sense of progress that attends the semesterly reset?"

Since I teach a subject that consists of a two-semester sequence, I don't suffer as much as some people because there is a huge sense of progress at each reset. Those that make it through the distillery that is my classroom (not to mention those of my math colleagues) are generally not at the level of finely aged "sippin whiskey", but they sometimes get close! I have come to expect a 90 to 95% pass rate in my second semester class, and it would be higher if I didn't have some students slip in from a nearby university. [And, as noted in my next topic, those students also benefit from the objectively valid sense that they can now learn anything.]

I view the reset in the first semester class as a new opportunity. (I hope the students attempting a second pass through the distillation apparatus see it that way also, rather than repeating their original flawed approach.) Now that "outcomes assessment" and a revise and evaluate cycle are being institutionalized here, there are things one learns from each class that feeds back into the next. I have always done some of that, usually focusing on some specific problem, but the gift of "outcomes" from our accrediting agency has led me to look at the entire course once again with new eyes. That is something I wanted to blog about over break.

In the interim, I'll just say that I concur completely with Dean Dad that "a deliberate focus at the cc level on pedagogical and curricular experiments over time could pay off" in more than one way. It has always been that way for me. So maybe it is a bigger problem for Administrators? They only see the classes being taught, not the students in them, unless something has gone horribly wrong.

My Teaching Version:

I am a huge believer in "small victories". That drives the intense, short cycles I use for homework and increasing use of active learning in the classroom.

That wasn't my original motivation for tightening up due dates or using active leraning. It started my first semester teaching at a CC, following someone else's previous syllabus with homework due on Friday. I quickly saw that students procrastinated so badly that they didn't know what they didn't know until almost a week had passed since a topic was introduced. The lurkers didn't even know that they had no clue what had been going on as the engaged students participated as we did problems on the board. I cut the sets in half, more like the twice-a-week recitation approach I had experienced as a grad TA. Better. On-line homework let me push it further. Sets open up early so they can see what is coming, but the first basic problems on a topic are due within a day or two of when the concept is introduced.

Get an easy one under your belt, and away you go to harder problems.

Ditto for active learning in the classroom.

The only thing I can't seem to deal with is "active failure". Never do the homework, sit with a pencil napping on the paper while texting about something more interesting at that millisecond, refuse to even start a problem when everyone else is working at their desks, or not attend at all. Actually, I view that as a small victory for all of us because someone with an attitude like that should never have thought for one second about becoming an engineer!

My Dean Dad Semesters Snark:

Dean Dad often promotes eliminating semesters, although he always does so with nonsensical references to an agrarian calendar and without ever offering a functional alternative that would allow employers and others to evaluate what students might know. I suspect he wants shorter grading periods tied to competency exams. I ride a similar hobby horse, arguing for shorter terms like those in the "quarter" system that has three 10+1 week terms rather than two 14.5+1 week semesters in an academic "year".

Both of these makes the faculty problem he writes about worse, but does help students get some small victories at the course level unless they don't start attending class until 8 of the 10 weeks have gone by.

Frankly, I have no idea what has driven the movement to semesters other than filling football stadiums from August through November. It certainly seems more of a herd mentality than anything that is research driven.

Overlooked Analogy in Developmental classes:

Some of the more promising approaches to developmental math at a CC make use of the "small victory" approach. Diagnostics locate problem areas, and targeted homework along with instructor feedback -- often in a computer classroom -- attacks that weakness until it is corrected. The alternative, where some students remain forever weak in a particular tiny area as the class moves on, is ultimately fatal in math.

Programs where a student can pass all of it in one semester by working at their own pace appear to hold great promise. They also have the distinct advantage that none of these classes transfer anywhere as college credit, so all we need is a clear way to document internally that they have met the requirements to move into college algebra. That is where other colleges need to know what something on the transcript really means.


Sherman Dorn said...

I'm also a little confused about DD's assumption of few small wins in a teaching context. I read the Amabile and Kramer book as well, and it's a great focus for a department chair -- I can see one of my critical roles as sweeping barriers away for my colleagues just to do their jobs. (It's not always like this, but it's a good part of the role.) And making sure faculty are not interrupted in the term is a hidden victory I'm willing to take -- one point of The Progress Principle is that teams can more easily generate their own momentum than stop outside barriers, and that they are often quite aware of whether bosses are sweeping problems aside/insulating them or blocking them.

Anonymous said...

The move to semesters these days is motivated by compatibility with other universities, for ease of transfer. Georgia's technical college system moved to semesters a couple years ago because the university system used semesters, and Ohio's public universities are standardizing on semesters next year (about half of them are now on the quarter system) by order of the board of regents. I don't think it has anything to do with football, since Ohio State still uses quarters (for now), and they make more money off football than anyone else in the country.

Also: you don't have to use the semester schedule, just the semester hour. Colorado College (expensive private school, not a CC) has one class every four weeks, but each class is a standard semester course. That isn't really practical for CCs, but our local two-year college normally teaches evening classes on an eight-week schedule. There's no reason you couldn't do this during the day.

Doctor Pion said...

That argument does not make sense. Why would the flagship school change to match the schedule of second and third tier schools, as is the case for Ohio State? They should match what OSU does, to ease transfer there.

I know that is what they SAY, since that is what they have said at every major football school that has made the switch in the past 30 years or so, but the answer is usually in the empty student section in August.

The other possibility is that it allows you to capture more tuition from the one-and-done students.