Why community is now part of my mathematics courses

Yesterday as I was laying out some details of my upcoming Fall semester course design, I mentioned that I was introducting a new category of assessment in my courses called Learning Commnunity. And if you go into the syllabi for my Fall courses and look in the section containing the main learning objectives for the course – the basic principles that define student success – you will find this:

Students will be active, caring, and productive contributors to the class learning community.

I have never put such language at the heart of what it means to be successful in my courses. But I should have been doing this all along, and I want to explain why and what I expect from students.


Back in Winter semester of this year when I first rolled out specs grading in my courses, I wasn’t sure how students would react. I figured I would get pushback, because the system was new and because this was my first implementation and a rush job to boot. So I administered lots of informal surveys and gave students chances to vent and ask questions. As students got more familiar with specs grading, the logic of the system began to sink in and a lot of those initial concerns went away — all except for one of them.

That persistent complaint, the one complaint that was loudest and never really faded out, came from among the highest-achieving students in my courses. These students were easily making A’s in my course and would have been making A’s in any course. Their complaint was: It isn’t fair that other students should earn good grades in the course by revising and resubmitting their work, while I’m earning Pass marks on the first try.

One could interpret this as saying, there should be a reward for students who master the material early and don’t need to make multiple attempts before they eventually Pass. But honestly, to me this sounded like: It’s not fair that other people who have to work harder should get the same grades as me. It’s not enough that I should get good grades: Others should get bad grades too, or else my good grades are diminished.

I don’t know that this is what those students meant. But what is profoundly missing from this sentiment is a sense of community in the class. If I’m a good student who doesn’t need revision of my work to earn a good grade, and I see myself as a member of a community with my classmates, then why should I care if another student does need revision? If I really care about the person sitting next to me in the class, and that person has to work harder than I do, then shouldn’t I be helping them, pulling for them, and eventually being happy for them that they made it?

Do we really want an A in a course or a university degree to signify that the student has come out on top in an every-man-for-himself battle? Is a university education really worthwhile if students get strong certification of content mastery but lose part of their souls in the process?


Fastforward to this summer. I just finished teaching a 12-week fully-online section of Calculus 1. There were no synchronous meetings whatsoever. As I was doing research before the course to learn about online teaching, one of the best practices that was stressed was that forming a community in your online class is critically important, since there is no physical proximity to rely upon. So I worked hard to forge that community through lots of discussion board interactions, video presentations where students had to get on camera to present their work, and so on.

Students in that course had to earn a certain number of upvoted discussion board posts during the semester (10 for an A, 5 for a B, 1 for a C). The general rule was that your contribution is upvoted it if significantly adds to the learning experience of others. That includes complete solutions, good questions, even good mistakes or meaningful acts of encouragement. I would just read what students wrote and make a judgment call.

There were students who didn’t like this, because they wanted a rubric. And they wanted a rubric because they wanted to do the smallest amount of work possible in order to get their upvote. But that betrays the whole idea! I had to tell at least one of these students: You won’t get upvoted until you put other people first in your work and stop focusing on yourself.

Looking back over the last ten years, it seems that selfishness and radical individualism have been steadily creeping into my students’ approach to learning. There is less and less of a sense that they are going to university to earn a degree so that they can be of value to other people. Instead the focus is on my job, my salary, and so on. I don’t think higher education is sustainable if students’ humanity, ther respect for the dignity of other people, diminishes as they work toward their degrees.

I’ve decided that the concept of classes as learning communities is vitally important in this day and age, and making participation in a learning community a central goal in my courses is not only appropriate but urgent. Certifying as an “active, caring, and productive contributor to the class learning community” involves preparing for class; participating in groups; leading discussion groups; and doing other things like creating content for the course or leading a study group. I want my classes to be a safe place to make mistakes, where we all look out for each other, help each other, and have each others’ backs. In fact I insist on it.

So although I am no great fan of touchy-feely stuff in my classes, and although I can already see the eye-rolls that I’ll be getting from my CS majors this fall, I’m going to try to impress on the students that “success” in my class means more than just “I did it as an individual”; it has to also mean “I helped others learn”.

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