Category Archives: Teaching

May 29, 2015, 3:19 pm

4+1 Interview: Victor Piercey

PierceyA while ago, I blogged an invitation to the 18th annual Legacy of R.L. Moore and Inquiry Based Learning conference, to be held in Austin, Texas on June 25–27. That’s only a month away! To lead in to this event, I’ve asked a few members of the organizing committee, who are leading practitioners in inquiry-based learning, to join us here for a 4+1 interview. The first of these is Victor Piercey. Victor is an associate professor in the Mathematics Department at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan (practically a neighbor to me, in other words). He took time out from the hectic pre-conference organizing schedule to answer a few questions about IBL and the R.L. Moore conference.

1. In your own words, how would you describe or define inquiry-based learning to someone who had never heard of this concept? 

To me, inquiry based learning is all about engaging students in…

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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 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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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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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 …

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November 19, 2014, 3:57 pm

Making screencasts: The working example

This is the last of three videos that I made for the An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching on Coursera. Here, I describe how I make what I call a “working example” video, one in which I am working out an example as if at a whiteboard, only on an iPad screen.

As with everything, there is more than one way to do this. I used to use a Wacom tablet and the Flysketch app to annotate PDF’s and record the action. I’m more iPad-centric these days but even now my methods are still a work in progress. Since the making of this video, I’ve tried to make a couple of working example videos for my classes, but the Doceri window that appears on the Mac has a lot of flicker on it, so much that it’s distracting when viewing the final product. I don’t know why this is the case, but it’s led me to consider other workflows, including recording the entire screencast on Doceri…

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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 …

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