Category Archives: Problem Solving

November 29, 2010, 9:00 am

What correlates with problem solving skill?

About a year ago, I started partitioning up my Calculus tests into three sections: Concepts, Mechanics, and Problem Solving. The point values for each are 25, 25, and 50 respectively. The Concepts items are intended to be ones where no calculations are to be performed; instead students answer questions, interpret meanings of results, and draw conclusions based only on graphs, tables, or verbal descriptions. The Mechanics items are just straight-up calculations with no context, like “take the derivative of \(y = \sqrt{x^2 + 1}\)”. The Problem-Solving items are a mix of conceptual and mechanical tasks and can be either instances of things the students have seen before (e.g. optimzation or related rates problems) or some novel situation that is related to, but not identical to, the things they’ve done on homework and so on.

I did this to stress to students that the main goal of taking …

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November 12, 2010, 4:04 pm

This week in screencasting: Optimization-palooza

My calculus class hit optimization problems this week — or it might be better to say the class got hit by optimization problems. These are tough problems because of all their many moving parts, especially the fact that one of those parts is to build the model you plan to optimize. Most of my students have had calculus in high school, but too many calculus courses in high school as well as college focus almost primarily on algorithms for computation and spend little to no time with how to create a model in the first place. Classes that are so structured are doing massive harm to students in a number of ways, but that’s for another post or two.

Careful study of worked-out examples is an essential part of understanding optimization problems (though not the only part, and this alone isn’t sufficient). The textbook has a few of these. The professor can provide more, but class time really …

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August 17, 2010, 4:01 pm

Why change how we teach?

Sometimes when I read or hear discussions of innovation or change in teaching mathematics or other STEM disciplines, whether it’s me or somebody else doing the discussing, inevitably there’s the following response:

What do we need all that change for? After all, calculus [or whatever] hasn’t changed that much in 400 years, has it?

I’m not a historian of mathematics, so I can’t say how much calculus has or hasn’t changed since the times of Newton and Leibniz or even Euler. But I can say that the context in which calculus is situated has changed – utterly. And it’s those changes that surround calculus that are forcing the teaching of calculus (any many other STEM subjects) to change –radically.

What are those changes?

Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/brostad/

First, the practical problems that…

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August 11, 2010, 8:35 am

Student (mis)understanding of the equals sign

Interesting report here (via Reidar Mosvold) about American students’ misunderstanding of the “equals” sign and how that understanding might feed into a host of mathematical issues from elementary school all the way to calculus. According to researchers Robert M. Capraro and Mary Capraro at Texas A&M,

About 70 percent of middle grades students in the United States exhibit misconceptions, but nearly none of the international students in Korea and China have a misunderstanding about the equal sign, and Turkish students exhibited far less incidence of the misconception than the U.S. students.

Robert Capraro, in the video at the link above, makes an interesting point about the “=” sign being used as an operator. He makes a passing reference to calculators, and I wonder if calculators are partly to blame here. After all, if you want to calculate 3+5 on a typical modern calculator, what do…

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August 8, 2010, 12:47 pm

Calculus and conceptual frameworks

Image via http://www.flickr.com/photos/loopzilla/

I was having a conversation recently with a colleague who might be teaching a section of our intro programming course this fall. In sharing my experiences about teaching programming from the MATLAB course, I mentioned that the thing that is really hard about teaching programming is that students often lack a conceptual framework for what they’re learning. That is, they lack a mental structure into which they can place the topics and concepts they’re learning and then see those ideas in their proper place and relationship to each other. Expert learners — like some students who are taking an intro programming course but have been coding since they were 6 years old — have this framework, and the course is a breeze. Others, possibly a large majority of…

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May 12, 2010, 12:52 pm

Boxplots: Curiouser and curiouser

The calculus class took their third (and last) hour-long assessment yesterday. In the spirit of data analytics ala the previous post here, I made boxplots for the different sections of the test (Conceptual Knowledge (CK), Computation (C), and Problem Solving (PS)) as well as the overall scores. Here are the boxplots for this assessment — put side-by-side with the boxplots for the same sections on the previous assessments. “A2″ and “A3″ mean Assessments 2 and 3.

Obviously there is still a great deal of improvement to be had here — the fact that the class average is still below passing remains unacceptable to me — but there have been some definite gains, particularly in the conceptual knowledge department.

What changed between Assessment 2 and Assessment 3? At least three things:

  • The content changed. Assessment 2 was over derivative rules and applications; Assessment 3 covered…

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April 11, 2010, 2:56 pm

MATLAB as a handout creator

One of the fringe benefits of having immersed myself in MATLAB for the last year (in preparation for teaching the Computer Tools for Problem Solving course) is that I’ve learned that MATLAB is an excellent all-purpose tool for preparing materials for my math classes. Here’s an example of something I just finished for a class tomorrow that I’m really pleased with.

I was needing to create a sequence of scatterplots of data for a handout in my Functions and Models class. The data are supposed to have varying degrees of linearity — some perfect/almost perfectly linear, some less so, some totally nonlinear — and having different directions, and the students are supposed to look at the data and rank the correlation coefficients in order of smallest to largest. (This is a standard activity in a statistics class as well.)

I could have just made up data with the right shape on Excel or…

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April 8, 2010, 8:17 pm

Analyze, hack, create

One of these days I’ll get back to blogging about the mathematics courses I teach, which make up the vast majority of my work, but the MATLAB course continues to be the place where I am working the hardest, struggling the most, learning the biggest lessons about teaching, and finally having the greatest sense of reward. This week was particularly rewarding because I think I finally figured out a winning formula for teaching a large portion of this stuff.

This was the last in a three-week series on introduction to programming. We had worked with FOR loops already. I had planned to look at WHILE loops in the same week as FOR loops, then have the students play around with branching structures in week 2, then have them apply it to writing programs to do numerical integration week 3 for use in their Calculus II class in which most of the class is currently enrolled. But the FOR loop stuff we…

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March 17, 2010, 8:26 pm

You can't become an expert in college

Cover of "Outliers: The Story of Success&...

Cover of Outliers: The Story of Success

Here’s something of an epiphany I had at the ICTCM while listening to Dave Pritchard‘s keynote, which had a lot to do with the differences between novice and expert behaviors in problem-solving.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, puts forth a now-famous theory that it takes at least 10,000 hours to become a true expert in a particular area, at the top of one’s game in a particular pursuit. That’s 10,000 hours of concentrated work in studying, practicing, and performing in some particular area. When we talk about “expert behavior”, we mean the kinds of behaviors that people who have put in their 10,000 hours exercise as second nature.

Clearly high school or college students who are in an introductory course — even Dave Pritchard’s physics students at MIT, who are likely…

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March 1, 2010, 9:21 pm

MATLAB and critical thinking

My apologies for being a little behind the curve on the MATLAB-course-blogging. It’s been a very interesting last couple of weeks in the class, and there’s a lot to catch up on. The issues being brought up in this course that have to do with general thinking and learning are fascinating, deep, and complicated. It’s almost as if the course is becoming only secondarily a course on MATLAB and primarily a course on critical thinking and lifelong learning in a technological context.

This past week’s lab really brought that to the forefront. The lab was all about working with external data sets, and it involved students going to this web site and looking at this data set (XLS, 33 Kb) about electoral vote counts of the various states in the US (and the District of Columbia). One of the tasks asked students to make a scatterplot of the land area of the states versus their electoral vote count…

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