Category Archives: Education

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…

Read More

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 …

Read More

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,…

Read More

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….

Read More

November 25, 2014, 9:10 am

4+1 Interview: Linda Nilson

It’s been a while since our last 4+1 interview, so I am very happy to get this series going again. In these interviews, we pick an interesting person somewhere in math, education, or technology and ask four questions along with a special +1 bonus question at the end.

9781620362426_cf200Our guest this time is Linda Nilson, founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She’s the author of numerous papers and books on teaching and learning in higher education, including the essential Teaching At Its Best, and she gives regular speaking and workshop engagements around the country on teaching and learning. Her latest book, Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time, is IMO maybe the most innovative, provocative, and potentially revolutionary one she’s done, and that’s the focus of the interview.

I first met Linda …

Read More

November 4, 2014, 9:26 am

Notes to my sleep-deprived self

Grumpy_CatRemember how earlier this semester I wrote that, despite the constant influx of projects and tasks that I am working on, I am really focusing on just four things: relationships, balance, simplicity, and kindness? Well, unsurprisingly it turns out that this is harder than it looks. In fact, as the semester creeps into the final few weeks, I’m freshly aware of just how hard it is to summon the humanity and the charity it takes to not throttle a whole lot of my students treat each student with the care and respect she or he deserves.

This was particularly clear last Monday morning. I have this condition I call “Sunday Night Insomnia” which involves me sleeping extremely poorly almost every Sunday night. I don’t know why this happens. It’s not because of nervousness – most of the time I’m not even thinking about work the next day – or being in front of the TV, or drinking …

Read More

August 12, 2014, 12:22 pm

Is lecture really the thing that needs fixing?

d510c2df-22fc-47b9-8511-e1e69a9d560bOne of my Twitter people asked me to share my thoughts on yesterday’s Chronicle article, “Can Universities Use Data to Fix What Ails the Lecture?” At the time, I skimmed the article and replied that LectureTools, the technological tool developed by Perry Samson to gather real-time data from students during a lecture, reminded me of the contraption you see in the photo to your left. That’s an automated chalkboard eraser. As technology goes, it’s quite effective in what it does. Just look at how clean that board is! Which is great but… that’s a chalkboard for goodness’ sake. A piece of communications technology that is not significantly different than prehistoric cave drawing, and which has been improved upon countless times. (Purists who still cling to chalkboards: You guys are Luddites. Sorry.)  Strapping an awesome piece of technology to a chalkboard doesn’t make the …

Read More

July 25, 2014, 1:17 pm

Clients, not customers

3313998177_d38c471257_mThis morning the Chronicle had an article with the expertly-crafted headline “5 Dirty Words Admissions Offices Should Embrace”. The first one of these was “customer”:

Many people who work at colleges dislike the word, preferring to call students “students.” But as more Americans question the value of higher education, Mr. Niles said, institutions must think more like businesses, with customers to please, customer-service to enhance: “It gives you a sense that you have a responsibility to them.” Colleges exist to serve students, he insisted, and not the reverse. It’s worth noting the terms used every day in admissions offices include “inquires,” “prospects,” and “suspects.”

(Ed.: “Suspects”? Really?) Unsurprisingly this generated a number of comments, some of which may contain actual dirty words.

As much as I’m uncomfortable with business-buzzword …

Read More

May 19, 2014, 12:25 pm

Technology, learning, and institutional mission statements

13164220234_91e79f4575_mRight now I’m preparing for a talk I’m giving next month, in which I’ll be speaking on using technology to connect students, faculty and institutions to the fundamentally human activities of learning and growth. Of those three groups – students, faculty, and institutions – I’m finding it to be a lot easier to talk about students and faculty and their relationship to technology than it is to talk about institutions. I’m wondering: Why is that?

After all, people are messy – we are a combination of social backgrounds, economic statuses, geography, past learning experiences, attitudes, preconceptions and more. When we advocate for the “use of technology” in learning, this phrase has to take all of these aspects of each person involved into account. That’s what makes the “use of technology” hard – and it explains why simplistic applications of technology in…

Read More

April 28, 2014, 12:00 pm

Flipped learning skepticism: Is flipped learning just self-teaching?

3366045227_b2c630bde5_mI had to take a bit of a hiatus for the last two weeks to finish up the semester and to give and grade exams. Now that this is over, I wanted to come back and address some of the comments in these two posts. Specifically, many of those comments are principled skepticisms of flipped learning and the flipped classroom, and rather than bury my responses in an already crowded comment thread, I thought they deserved to be brought up point by point for discussion.

Here’s the first one to bring up, and it’s a tough one. This (and many of the other topics I’ll be bringing up) come directly from Manda Caine’s comment on one of those earlier posts. She said:

When my colleagues and I have [taught with a flipped classroom], students do not perceive that a professor is teaching them at all, so we have comments such as, “We could just do this at home” or “Why am I paying all this…

Read More