Author Archives: Robert Talbert

May 14, 2015, 12:57 pm

Is flipping an online course possible?

6247271401_a39a9b0f5c_mI am emerging from a self-imposed blog exile that happened because of the usual end-of-semester chaos, plus the fact that I am currently teaching my very first online course — a fully online version of our standard Calculus 1 class. Being new to online teaching, designing and building the course was a major time investment. The class has turned out to be a microcosm of everything I have tried pedagogically in the last several years: it uses a lot of technology, it uses specifications grading, and it’s flipped.

That last part, about being flipped, has been a fascinating and perplexing problem. Flipping a fully online class challenges all the usual assumptions about the flipped classroom that we make. Our language about flipped learning is rooted in the concept of “class time”. Students gain first contact with new material “before class”, then there is some work on more advanced and…

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March 18, 2015, 9:00 am

GTD for academics: The importance of review

This is the second in an ongoing series of posts about using the Getting Things Done (GTD) system to manage time, tasks, and life in academia. Here’s the first post.

4680873542_d046edbe82_zIn the first post in this series I discussed the basic premises behind GTD and the problems it attempts to solve. In the next few posts, I want to give a description of how I operate on a day-to-day basis as a professor using GTD. You’ll see parts of my system in the process.

Doing academic work with GTD involves things that happen in the moment as well as careful planning that I set aside time to do at various points in the week. The interplay between our plans and those moments is what life and work are all about. This post was going to be a single post at one point, but in writing this I realized that both the planning part and the moment-by-moment part deserve some depth. So this post will focus only on planning,…

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March 16, 2015, 9:03 am

An invitation to the Legacy of R. L. Moore/IBL conference

agh3math-1060669If you’re interested in inquiry-based learning in mathematics, I highly recommend you consider attending the 18th Annual Legacy of R.L. Moore and IBL Conference in Austin, TX from June 25–27. This conference is lively and active affair with mathematics instructors from all walks of life and from all over the country coming together to talk about IBL and how to practice it in the classroom. This year’s theme is “Empowering with IBL” and promises to “highlight how inquiry-based learning gives students and instructors the space to realize their own talents”.

This year I’m on the organizing committee for this conference, although I myself am not a practitioner — at least not at the moment — of inquiry-based learning in my classrooms in the sense of using the “Moore method” (modified or otherwise). The reason I’m helping to organize this year is because I see an opportunity for the IBL …

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March 9, 2015, 9:00 am

GTD for academics: The mindset and the precepts

352200409_283935d56a_mLike many of you, I have a lot going on both in my professional as well as my personal life. Also like many of you, I am pretty committed to finding and maintaining a healthy work/life balance so that I can get maximum enjoyment out of both life and work. But how do we find and maintain that balance? For me, it’s a matter of being sort of obsessive when it comes to productivity. And with this article, I want to kick off a regular series of posts where I talk about my system for productivity, which uses the Getting Things Done or GTD system created and championed by David Allen.

I remember the first time when it dawned on me that whatever it was I was doing to manage time, tasks, and projects wasn’t enough. It was at my previous institution; I was walking down the hall when I happened to pass my VPAA, who said to me: “So, I’ll see you at 2:00?” It took me a half second to realize that …

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March 6, 2015, 11:56 am

Observations and changes for specs grading, 8 weeks in

3871170258_8914063280_mIt’s hard to believe, but right now we are about 2/3 of the way through our semester, and with each week that passes, I’m getting more experience and insight with the use of specifications grading. Several people have mentioned on Twitter that they are following these updates with interest — and I don’t mind being the guy who goes first and makes all the mistakes. So here is an update on how things are going on the specs grading front.

First, some observations:

  • We have now had two timed assessment periods in each of the classes in which I am using specs grading, and so every student at this point has worked a CORE-M problem, failed, and tried again. My first observation is just that this cycle of try, fail, try again has an importance in higher education that I had previously failed to appreciate. In higher ed, we talk a lot of platitudes about “lifelong learning” without seeming…

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February 16, 2015, 9:00 am

If you don’t succeed, try again: Timed tests using specs grading

3546334679_abb69fc9ff_zIt’s been six weeks since the start of the semester, so it’s time for a brief update on the specifications grading “experiment” (although something being carried out in real life probably shouldn’t be called an “experiment”). So far it’s going quite well. 

In this post I want to talk about timed testing under specs grading. This is an idea that’s not prevalent in Linda Nilson’s book on specs grading that got me started down this road. Mathematics is a subject that typically has a significant amount of procedural knowledge, unlike a lot of the subjects represented in Linda’s book. So there is a need to assess students’ ability to show that they can perform certain tasks on demand, without the benefit of virtually unlimited time and resources — things like calculating derivatives, interpreting graphs, and instantiating definitions.

Don’t misunderstand: Those tasks don’t make up

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January 22, 2015, 8:00 am

Three evolving thoughts about flipped learning

8617442811_567440ed8c_mWhile specifications grading continues to unfold in class, I’m also still using and refining the flipped learning model. Recently I had time to reflect on how I’m implementing flipped learning in my classes, and I noticed that some of my thoughts on flipped learning have evolved over the last few years, including some breaks from things I’ve written here on the blog. Here are three of those thoughts that stood out for me.

What I used to think: Pre-class activity in a flipped learning model is about mastering content-oriented instructional objectives.

What I think now: Pre-class activity is for generating questions.

I attended a talk by Jeremy Strayer last year, and he said something that stuck with me: that the purpose of pre-class work in the flipped classroom is to “launch” the in-class activity. In flipped learning we certainly want students to pick up fluency with …

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January 19, 2015, 4:45 pm

Putting specs grading to work

9781620362426_cf200I’m back from taking a few days away for the holidays and to get the new semester underway. Before the break, I had posted a couple of articles about specifications (“specs”) grading and how I planned on using it in my classes. That was before I had sat down to hammer out the specifics. Now that I’ve done some hammering, I thought I’d give some updates, specifically on the way specs grading has worked itself out in the Discrete Structures for Computer Science course.

A lot of what I am going to write here is a repeat of what I wrote earlier on December 22, but between that previous article and the actual start of classes two weeks ago, I made some significant changes. So bear with me if it sounds like I’ve said a lot of this before – I have, but this is the final version.

I’d taught this course before a couple of times using a traditional grading system. The course …

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December 22, 2014, 4:38 pm

An update on the specifications grading process

8167818394_244f97b2a8_mThe last time I posted, I made a public commitment that I would be moving away from traditional points-based grading systems and implementing specifications grading in the upcoming semester. It’s 20 days later, and after a week of in-depth trial and error (mostly error, it feels like), I have working prototypes of specs grading-centered versions of both courses I’ll be teaching. With a few modifications (that’s your cue for suggestions, readers) these are basically ready to “ship”.

Discrete Structures for Computer Science 2 is the second semester of a year-long sequence in discrete mathematics aimed specifically at computer scientists. Here is the newly revamped syllabus for the course and here is a document that will go out with the syllabus that details exactly how the assessment and grading will work.

Modern Algebra 2 is the second half of a year-long sequence on, obviously,…

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December 2, 2014, 2:03 pm

Thinking about grading

2158796487_8133cf75dd_zAfter reading about specifications grading in this article and then interviewing Linda Nilson about her book on the subject, I read Linda’s book over the holiday break. It’s causing a chain reaction in my mind about how I view and assess student work that expands outward into how I think about teaching and learning on a fundamental level.

Whether or not you’re on board with the idea of specifications grading, Linda’s book is a challenge to re-think the fundamental assumptions we in academia often make about assessment and grading. For me, there were four things that were very clear to me after reading the book that were only partially clear before.

1. Traditional grading systems work against my goals as a teacher. At the beginning of this semester, I publicly stated that I was organizing my work around the principles of relationships, balance, simplicity, and kindness….

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