What I learned in Fall 2020: A 3x3x3 reflection

Well, that was an interesting semester.

Back in the summer, when it was fashionable to speculate wildly about just how much of a disaster Fall 2020 semester would be, I posted this on Twitter:

I was challenged at the time to come back to Twitter in October to see if I still felt the same way. I didn't, because I left Twitter following this incident, a decision I do not regret. And this was never about feelings anyway. How we handle the adversity we find ourselves confronted with, is about our identity. I'm fundamentally a learner, and so that's how I respond to things like global pandemics.

Anyway, now that the dust has mostly settled on Fall 2020, I'm now able to report out to the world how it all went --- in 3x3x3 format as previously seen after another profound learning experience.

Three things I learned

  1. Less is more. There were two things I did this Fall and leading up to it that had compounding positive effects. One was to make lists of clear, measurable learning objectives for my courses and organize everything in the courses around those lists. Although this was important, I can't say I learned much here because I already knew how important this was. The other thing was to cut my syllabi down to the bare minimum. Unlike the first thing, I'd never really gotten serious about downsizing my courses until now. In Calculus, I questioned every topic, and if learning it consumed more than it produced with my students, it was gone. I cut at least four major topics --- topics that most mathematicians would consider untouchable in a beginning Calculus course --- and reinvested the time to go deep on just two main recurring themes, namely optimization and integration. The positive effects were undeniable. From now on, rather than asking What can I add to my course to make it better? I will be asking What can I remove?
  2. If you are going to do mastery grading, keep students involved. I made at least one big mistake with my mastery grading systems: I adopted a lasseiz-faire policy about student tracking of grades. The thought was I provide the data and the tools about your grade, and students track themselves. Like a lot of quasi-libertarian concepts, it sounded good at the time but crashed when it met real life. While it's true students are responsible for managing their own grade information, I learned --- through a cascading dumpster fire of misconceptions about the system that are still popping up 10 days after turning in grades --- that students need guidance and nudges to stay on top of things. Next semester, I'll be building in regular check-ins for students to tell me how they're doing in progress toward the course grade they want.
  3. If you want social interaction, you'll need to engineer it. Even though I taught hybrid classes and was in the classroom 10 hours a week with students --- who presumably put themselves at grave risk to their health for an in-person human experience --- it was still hard work to get any kind of interaction going. It became clear to me that social interaction doesn't spontaneously happen just because you offer a F2F meeting, even less so if your meetings are online. If you want it, you have to build it. No, I am not sure how that will look next semester, but I'm trying to learn.

Three things that surprised me

  1. The misconceptions about how the mastery grading system worked. I am used to there being a learning curve for mastery grading. But I was caught off guard at how varied and persistent the misconceptions were with students. Some thought that problem sets were optional; some thought that they had to earn a mastery rating on every Learning Target in the course to pass; some thought that overachieving in one area will "balance out" underachieving in aother; some thought that exceeding requirements for a C automatically earns a B. Not only do these not appear in the syllabus, they are directly contradicted by it. I have a lot of work to do to make the grading systems simpler and less misconception-prone.
  2. The extent to which my students took the whole situation in stride. A lot of professors complained about Fall 2020, but students had it worse. Students were navigating multiple courses, job/family/health issues, quarantine situations, and general uncertainty --- all while doing difficult coursework under conditions that would crush many of us with Ph.D.s. And yet: I did not get a single student complaining about their situation, not a single request for leniency, not a single tweet that all is lost and the world is a disaster. My students simply stepped up and learned.
  3. The depth of thinking on my final exams. Mastery grading tends to make traditional final exams obsolete since students are constantly reviewing and redoing assignments. So for their "final exam", I gave students some writing prompts asking them to explain how all the topics in the course are connected and talk about their experiences in the course. This semester the wisdom and depth in those responses was the best it's ever been --- unsurprisingly. The responses to one of those prompts from my Calculus classes were so good, that I curated them and put them online. Please take some time to read and share.

Three questions I still have

  1. How do you simplify a course as much as possible --- but not moreso? I really need to make basically everything in my courses simpler. But how much is too much? For example if I cut the grading system down to just the final exam, that's simple but too much; if I add nuance to the system to allow students more options and leeway, then that's helpful but it adds complexity. Where's the sweet spot?
  2. How do I get students to read what I send them? You're probably laughing at this, and I don't blame you --- it's an age-old question and especially relevant in an online setting. But I lost count of the number of times I was emailing screenshots of announcements and pages out of the syllabus where some important piece of info was said, and that seems like a waste. When students don't read announcements or documents, is it the medium? The frequency of posts or the lack thereof? The tone? My personality? Or what?
  3. What's the right amount of student self-reflection? After the final exam responses, I resolved to ask my students to reflect on big issues more often. But how often? Too little reflection on one's work leads to mindless "cranking" through a class; too much and it becomes pro forma, busy work. And what do you ask?

So the TL;DR for Fall 2020 is:

  • It was hard, but I learned a lot and got better at what I do.
  • I have a lot to work on, but I also know what to work on.
  • I was inspired by my students, many of whom might be better learners than many professors.

As we head into Winter semester 2021 (that's what we call "Spring" in Michigan) I'll be posting about the course-building process. I have two courses --- Calculus again, and Modern Algebra --- both fully online, so there will be some tweaks to the process and some ground-up rebuilding. Stay tuned for these.

Until then, let me just say one more time for the people in the back: We are learners. Let's act like it.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.
Michigan
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