How to design a compact summer course?

Disclaimer: This is my very first summer compact course in my whole teaching career, so read my course design ideas with a grain of salt.

When I knew that I will be teaching a compact summer course MATH2720, the first thing that came to my mind is how to help students stay on track, and have a high retention rate. This post will focus on what I tried in my course design to address this issue. Anecdotally, students tend to drop out of summer courses more often because of its tight schedule. Once a student falls behind, it’s almost impossible to catch up. I made sure the course materials all available to my class way ahead of time.

You can see the daily plan for the course in the Excel titled “2021S MATH2720 Daily Plan”. In a normal semester, I see no need to share such a detailed course map with the class since we have plenty of time to cover the content, and communicate with students. But in a compact course, even a minor miscommunication may lead to a student dropping out/failing the course, with little room to clarify it.

This Daily Plan serves two purposes: for those who do not plan to join me synchronously, they can pace their learning better since the whole course is available one week before the semester starts. It also helps everyone to understand the course structure better, and by making a clear list of all assessments in the last column with their deadlines, everyone can plan for the course better.

Activities and assignments are all hosted on UM Learn, the LMS we use in my home institution. When they are being set up, they are all linked to the course calendar automatically, which shows up on the course homepage once students log in. This also serves as a reminder to students so they know when to submit what on a weekly basis. The criteria for students to earn credit for these assessments is effort: in other words, as long as enough effort in shown in their submission, they get full credit. It’s okay for them to make mistakes. I got this idea from the general practice of ungrading. And I believe this choice also makes it easier for students to keep up. Once the stress of getting everything perfect is eliminated, they can focus more on understanding the topics. Having the space to make mistakes is also crucial because we all learn from our mistakes.

Another idea to help with managing deadlines is having flexibility. Each student has 3 Green cards they can use through out the semester: if they feel they can’t submit an assessment on time, they can simply inform me that they need to use a Green card, then the deadline will be extended. No question’s asked. I have this system in place since 2020 Fall and students really appreciate it. This is something that I will keep even after the pandemic, when we are back to campus.

So the big question is did all these ideas help with retention? It’s too early to tell, and I will come back and update this post once withdrawal deadline is here.

If you are curious about other aspects of my summer course, here’s a copy of the course syllabus.

One complaint I have is about the logistics of setting these up: there is no simple way to “bulk-edit/create” these almost identical assessments. I have to create them one-by-one in D2L, and manually set up the deadlines/submission view/link to gradebook etc. Each assessment involved 5-8 clicks which becomes annoying fast. When my TAs are marking students’ submissions, they run into another logistics nightmare: once they click on one submission, they have to download it to their local computer, read it, then key in a grade. The option of reading the files in D2L is not there, so the extra click->save becomes really tedious when you have a large class.

update (July 2021): the course ended on June 26th, and final grades have been submitted. Looking at student’s grades and comparing them with the past two semesters, I’m happy to share that the summer cohort actually did slightly better (which really surprised me). When I reflected on the possible reasons of why it happened, here’s a list of my speculations:

  1. Many students took only this one course in summer so they can dedicate more time and effort to it.
  2. Certain assessments are graded based on students’ effort, instead of correctness. This helped them learn the topics without stressing out too much.
  3. Having bonus points: students can choose to submit solutions to learning activities on a weekly basis, which will contribute to their final grade as bonus marks. If they choose to not complete these, they still have the opportunity of earning 100% for the course.
  4. Using Teams as our main communication channel: I’m able to answer students’ questions quickly, and having public channels means other students who have the same doubt can see my responses right away. I can also tag students if I think certain posts would help them.

I think I will keep the upgrading portion for future courses, and I will have another post that focuses on mastery-based grading soon.

So Student Evaluations arrived, what next?

My student evaluation forms arrived two weeks ago, and the emotions that accompany with these documents can have so many layers and overwhelming. Over the years, I learned to be at peace with them and here’s how I read the reports.

Usually there are a few sections in Student Feedback/Evaluation, and the first section is always a collection of likert scale questions. They vary from institution to institution (after teaching at 6 universities/colleges, trust me on this :), and here are a few typical examples. On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 = Not at all to 5 = A great deal,

  1. I found the course intellectually stimulating so far.
  2. The course is providing me with a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
  3. The instructor is creating a course atmosphere that was conducive to my learning.
  4. Course projects, assignments, tests, and/or exams are improving my understanding of the course material.
  5. Course projects, assignments, tests, and/or exams are providing an opportunity for me to demonstrate an understanding of the course material.

I tend to focus on median results of these questions instead of mean, as we know mean value offers little information to the data when there are outliers, and I almost always see a response of 1 here or there. I learned to not feel personal, and at times I do question whether these questions are vague for students. Intellectually stimulating can mean totally different things for two students, and I’m not even sure how do you define a conducive course atmosphere.

Then comes the real gem: open ended questions. You may see “please comment on the overall quality of the instruction in this course”, “What did this instructor do to facilitate my learning within this course?”, or ” How might this instructor improve this course? “. These are the comments that I read really carefully and put a lot of thoughts on. It’s great to know what my students liked about my teaching, and what I can do differently next time. Again don’t take it personally, and I think we’ve all experienced reading two completely contradicting comments on the same copy of evaluation form. To entertain you, I’m sharing some comments that I received for the same class:

  • “The instructor’s explanation was not that much understandable.”
  • “It was well done. The prof used various methods such as powerpoints, the chalkboard, a live feed of a paper at the front of the room, as well as online modules to teach concepts.”
  • Professor Wang was an excellent instructor. Her teaching methods were very clear and concise. Outside the classroom, she was also very approachable and friendly.

You get the idea. Usually before I open my student evaluations, I find a quiet and comfortable place, get myself a hot cup of tea, and take a deep breath to embrace what’s coming.

however, I do have to admit that this year’s evaluation makes me tear up a little: students are so overwhelmingly supportive, understanding and appreciative. I have never received such detailed comments like

  • “The decision to have 2 tests every two weeks instead of midterms and a final exam was monumentally beneficial to my mental health. I felt like the pace at which the material was given was very good, and allowed me time to learn the material and practice at a steady pace. Out of all my online classes this semester, I feel like this course had the best transition to online learning. The video lectures were short and very instructive, furthermore, replacing the lecture times with Q and A sessions was a great idea. I could ask the instructor questions about course material without having to wait until the end of the week for student hours. Overall, I had an excellent experience in this class.”

or

  • ” The instructor had a creative combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning that balanced out the difficulties of online learning. She did many practice problems and had multiple fair assessments to take the pressure off of online testing. She provided many resources and did not fill up our important study time with meaningless assignments. She shows great skill at adapting to online learning and I think more professors should take a note out of her book. She was very kind and compassionate throughout the course and it was a pleasure learning from her. I envy those who will take her class in person in the future as she is an excellent instructor and as well seems to be a wonderful individual. One of the UofM’s best math profs!

before, and they may just be enough for me to power through another challenging year ahead.

I have a folder titled “treasure” which is the collection of nice things students shared with me about my teaching. And these comments are definitely going there. It really helps me feel better at difficult times and you should start collecting if you haven’t done so.

OERs and the Vision of Mathematics Education in the Open, presentation at OCMA Virtual Symposium 2020

I recently gave a talk at OCMA Virtual Symposium 2020 titled “OERs and the Vision of Mathematics Education in the Open“, during which I shared my experience with open education resources and open textbooks in my teaching. Since we shifted to emergency online teaching this March, it has been challenging for everyone: students, faculty and staff. We are living in a time during which we experience the loss of family and friends without much emotional support, overworking is the new norm and the future is uncertain.

How are our students doing? Many of them are not sure whether they can continue their education now that they lost their part-time job without enough income to cover school and textbooks; they are not sure whether they can keep their scholarship because they may not be able to keep their perfect GPAs; they are not sure what is the best way to study now that courses are all online with minimal or even no connections with their peers and instructors; their course load is getting too much: all of a sudden every course they take has weekly check-ins and quizzes; they may not even have stable wi-fi because they are financially disadvantaged and/or live in a war zone; they fell terrified when they are watched by proctoring softwares because even the blink of an eye could signal they’re cheating. This list could go on, and this is the situation our students are in.

Is there anything we could do as instructors to help our students on their learning journey? I believe OERs are part of the solution. As Sean Fitzpatrick pointed out on Twitter, we should use OER because they are just as good, sometimes better than commercial textbooks, and our students can use them any time, any where; we instructors can connect with a passionate community of educators which is exactly what I experienced this semester. We are using Active Calculus for MATH2720 Multivariable Calculus at University of Manitoba in fall semester, and I got to connect with the author of the book: Steve Schlicker who are so supportive and shared a ton of resources with me when he learned that I’m teaching using this book. I also connected with Feryal Alayont from the Department of Mathematics at Grand Valley State University because we both teaching the same course using this book. It’s wonderful to connect with and learn from them. And none of this would be possible without this wonderfully written open textbook. My class and I also use Hypothes.is for social annotation and the discussions students have are another proof that using an open textbook is the right choice.

As I said during my presentation, when teachers work together, students win! Let’s try to build a supportive community for each other so everyone’s life is a bit better, easier and brighter. If you are interested in learning about my experience with OERs, feel free to reach out to me via email xinli.wang@umanitoba.ca and on Twitter: xinli_w. I always love a good chat. Take care for now.

Inquiry Based Learning Virtual workshop

We are in the second day of IBL virtual workshop with The Academy of Inquiry Based Learning, and we started off building a list of community norm elements. This is a great idea that I will definitely borrow for my future classes. As workshop participant, I feel my opinions are valued and am more willing to conform to the final rulebook. There was some discussions about whether people should keep their video on during the talks; even though majority believe the answer is yes, we settled on “having video on if possible; turn it off when needed” because people may need to have privacy due to various reasons or maybe someone has bad internet connection (talking about myself here).

During the small group meeting, Kyle shared with us his experience with IBL when he started. We don’t have to revamp the whole course at one go. We can start with a few short activities every week, and continue lecturing the rest of the lecture time. Just like any new teaching skills/techniques we want to include in our practice, incremental change is usually how we approach them. Try a bit, see how it goes, reflect, revise then start another round.

What should we instructors do when students make mistakes while presenting? In general we have three choices:

  1. in the moment: take immediate action at that moment when it happens
  2. forward thinking: take actions in the future lesson to remediate
  3. preventative: how the mistake could have been avoided

There isn’t a rule book we can refer to; we can’t really categorize these mistakes either. There might be multiple ways to address one mistake; there usually isn’t one best way to address it either. It comes down to our student body, to the community we built together with all of them, and our own teaching styles.

Plus we had Happy Hour via Spatial.chat and I have to admit it’s quite fun. Never though online happy hours could work.

Rethink of assessment in a pandemic

The whole teaching and learning community has been talking about assessments among other things: should quizzes/tests/final exams still exist? What about third-party proctoring services? Personally I do not think using proctoring service and watching students via a camera is the solution. It comes with very high cost, and there are serious ethical issues that come with this practice. Can we redesign course assessments so that we can give the trust back to students?

I believe the answer is yes, and a few simple things instructors can do is to first take a close look at your syllabus and ask yourself why the assessments are there at the first place. Most of the time the goal is to actually help students consolidate what they have learned, and a by-product is a number, i.e. grade. If that’s the case, shifting to summative assessments is one way to help with the current situation. We can also provide assessments more frequently so students can receive more timely feedback.

I’ve been experimenting with H5P since last year when I started working on the open textbook. These are excellent tools that instructors can leverage on to engage students and monitor their progress in a nonstressful manner.

You can find many well-designed examples on H5P.org https://h5p.org/ and eCampusOntario H5P studio: https://h5pstudio.ecampusontario.ca/.

Below is a recent example I made using course presentation format. These interactive presentation slides allow instructors to incorporate course content, assessment, and students reflection all at one place.

A summer that will never be forgotten

As we are three months into self-isolation and social distancing, I feel it’s time for me to write something to remind the future me what this time period is like, and for anyone who’s in the similar situation with me, this is for you as well.

First of all, it is not easy. I’m having a difficult time due to many reasons: I lost a close family member in May, and we are still mourning. The grief will never truly go away. It’s more like tidal waves and I’m learning to live with it after losing my mum last year. It dawns on me that adult life is not getting easier, quite the opposite to what I believed growing up. Then it’s my job situation: it’s uncertain to me whether I will have my current teaching job when September starts so I have been applying for teaching jobs, as well as education developing jobs, and some other seemingly interesting admin jobs. As anyone who’s experienced job hunting, it can be soul-crushing: I usually spend hours on one job application, and sometimes I don’t even get a rejection email. I learned recently that 75% of resumes never landed in a real person’s hands thanks to AI so I’m learning how to beat the machine and trying to match the key words in job descriptions. But I more or less accept that the whole job hunting is more about luck: knowing the right person, applying for a job at the right timing is more important than what I’m actually capable of doing. That somehow helps me cope with the frustration and move forward. Then it’s home-schooling my little one. She just turned six a few days ago and it’s getting almost impossible to get my work done and keep her entertained/cared for on a daily basis. We have agreed on a daily routine which helps to certain extent: every morning she reads 3 books on Tumblebooks: https://www.tumblebooklibrary.com/TumbleSearch.aspx followed by piano practice. Then she listens to audio books on Audible stories: https://stories.audible.com/discovery?ref=adbl_ent_anon_ds_ds_vn We usually go for walks in the afternoon, either in the neighborhood or drive to Oakville/Halton conservation parks. Then more stories for her before bed time. I also need to cook, clean, do laundry in the middle of all these. The arrangement is not the best if I want to get more work/reading/meetings done. She pops up more often in my Zoom meetings and please do not be surprised if she becomes a regular soon.

So any good news? What am I doing these days? Well I still manage to get a few things done. We(Ann, TJ and I) are writing a paper for OTESSA 2020 conference now that our presentation won’t happen due to COVID-19 and it feels good to put our ideas down in written form. I’m taking an online course now: Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom on edX from Columbia Univerity and thoroughly enjoy the course. I’m at the last module and you can see my notes and reflections on this google doc: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1N9d8lCSVd4dx_gLu2xxV-Ntl99XAHFg-456-9vITJvk/edit?usp=sharing I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on my own teaching practices and plan for future. If you teach in higher education and are new to the idea of UDL, inclusive teaching, equity and accessibility, this course is for you. You won’t regret the time spent. I’m also organizing a reading club MEdJoC with Sarah Mayes Tang from UofT: we want to read education research papers and learn how to do proper ER in mathematics. So far we’ve met twice and had great discussions. If you are interested, you can find more information in this google doc: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1wd3p_YLECruhAd3WRTNpsytdL2CjPw_qOYlSwRyMmRk/edit?usp=sharing I’m constantly attending Zoom webinars to learn about teaching online, how to engage students, how to design assessments, and best practices shared by colleagues from other institutions. Learning new things is always exciting to me, and this is one of the best part of my job besides having wonderful students to teach. I’ve been brushing up on my H5P skills. You can find a lot of wonderful examples at eCampusOntario’s own H5P studio: https://h5pstudio.ecampusontario.ca/ I also put together a list of OER for online teaching purpose: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1JEzG-iQo0M6rda1uirTXGAlY-3DWCZtgEzk-Fz051sU/copy I’m about to start another reading group with colleagues from UTM and we will be talking about Small Teaching Online. I’ve always enjoyed these reading clubs and I’m sure this one will be just as good.

Do you see a silver lining in your life during this challenging time?

Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom

I’m taking Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom offered by Columbia University on edX. I would like to record my learning journey here to share with the community. This course discusses the following five principles of inclusive teaching:

  1. Establishing and supporting an inclusive course climate
  2. Setting explicit expectations
  3. Promoting diversity and inclusion through course content
  4. Designing all course elements for accessibility
  5. Cultivating critical self-reflection

I’m using this opportunity to reflect my own teaching practices and learn about techniques and skills of conducting inclusive teaching for my future courses.

You can view my learning journey here; here’s the google doc link you can click: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1N9d8lCSVd4dx_gLu2xxV-Ntl99XAHFg-456-9vITJvk/edit?usp=sharing

Edit: After almost a month, I finally completed this course. You can see my certificate here:

https://courses.edx.org/certificates/6e696d9cacfc4fd6877f4ad17a552ee2

I really enjoyed taking this course: it not only taught me basic knowledge and best practices about inclusive teaching, it also allows us to hear from different people who are experts in this area and learn about their personal stories of how to promote inclusive teaching. I’ve never been doing so much self-reflection till this course. It’s something I should do more regularly.

Learning Strategies

This is a collection of evidence-based learning strategies I’d like to share with my new incoming students in 2020 spring. If you are aware of anything else that might be helpful, please feel free to share them with me.  

  • Spaced practice: space out your study over time. You can have your own calendar to plan out how you will review chunks of content. Do not wait till the last minute before your quizzes/exams to study.

  • Retrieval Practice: practice bringing information to mind without help. When you do this exercise, you will need to turn off your devices, put all your notes and books away, then write everything you know about a particular term or topic. You can doodle if you’re more comfortable with that.

 

  • Elaboration: explain and describe ideas with as many details as possible. Ask yourself open-ended questions about the topic, answer in as much detail as possible, then check the materials. 

  • Interleaving: switch between different ideas/subjects while study. Mix the topics you are learning at a given time. Do not keep working on the same topic for long stretch. 

  • Concrete examples: use concrete examples when you learn an abstract topic. I often like to use visualization tools for mathematics concepts. Check out GeoGebra if you haven’t already. 

 

  • Dual coding: combine words and visuals. We learn new information better when there are multiple channels available to us. 

                         

The research can be found here: The Learning Scientists Website You can also find the book Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide by Yana Weinstein, Megan Sumeracki and Oliver Caviglioli in our library to read the full research behind these ideas.

Presentations at RTL and CMS winter meeting 2019

Dec 2019 turned out to be a good month: I managed to present a few talks at two conferences: Research on Teaching and Learning Conference and CMS winter meeting 2019. RTL focuses on SoTL research where educators share their teaching and learning scholarship experience. I enjoyed it a lot: the crowd is small enough for people to connect and have in-depth discussions. Even an introvert like myself is able to feel comfortable and I enjoyed all the talks that I attended. This is also the first time I learned about Q-Methodology which is a fascinating way to analyze qualitative data such as students’ course evaluations. I can see a lot of potential in using this method for our future work. I gave two talks at this conference and have enjoyed my interactions with the audience. The slides can be found here:

Design of a classroom-based intervention through technology-enhanced activities

Active Learning Design for Calculus II

It’s a perfect opportunity to get some valuable feedback for the education research projects we have been working on in the past year.

CMS winter meeting 2019, on the other hand, has attracted hundreds of mathematicians from Canada and worldwide and can feel overwhelming. There are so many sessions happening at the same time so one is bound to miss a few that he/she plans to attend. I’m glad I caught the Art of Mathematics talks especially the one given by Gerda deVries during which she talks about quilts and mathematics. I have to admit it gave me a lot of ideas of future painting projects I can work on. I gave a talk TECH for teaching during the special session Teaching Strategies for Increasing Diversity in Math moderated by Sarah Mayes-Tang from University of Toronto. What a lovely audience! I enjoyed the conversations and sharing of all the speakers very much but it’s a pity I couldn’t attend all the talks (and the lunch!) due to a final exam in the afternoon. I’ll make sure to come back next year.

Life does have surprises for us: the first time I attended the same meeting was in 2010 while I was a Ph.D. student in Singapore. I still remember the excitement and nervousness of presenting our work the very first time. That’s also my first time visiting Toronto. Who would have thought we will end up living here after this many years.

Book Recommendation: a list of books that I enjoy reading

Here’s a list of books that I enjoy reading and I believe most of my students will benefit from reading as well. A majority of them are math related: they are meant for the general public to enjoy mathematics so it will be fun!

  1. The Joy of x: a guided tour of math, from one to infinity by Steven Strogatz. The topics that are touched by this wonderfully written book include numbers, quadratic equations, functions, geometry, calculus, vector calculus, differential equations, probability and statistics, group theory and prime number distribution. I especially enjoyed all the examples that stem from real life stories. You will learn how Google’s page ranking works, how many people you should date before settling down, how to look at O.J. Simpson trial from the angle of conditional probability, and so much more. You won’t be disappointed.
  2. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. It’s a well-researched book and explains why successful people get where they are clearly. I first got to know Angela’s work through one of my favorite Podcast: Freakonomics and I’m in general very interested in learning human behaviors and why we do what we do. In her book she gave perfect explanations of how being gritty is one of the most important factors that lead to success, no matter what field or industry. The good news is grit is not a fixed variable for any individual, so we can all become a little bit more gritty today than yesterday.
  3. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil. The first time I heard about this book was on a bus from Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport to Sherbrooke. It was from a colleague at the University of Waterloo and she was reading this book while we were both on our way to attend STLHE 2018 conference. What a fantastic book! Anyone who has some kind of online presence should read it; anyone who works with data should read it; anyone who ever wonders why you didn’t get into the college/job you applied for should read it. In fact, we all should read it: it offers an authentic view of what is happening with data that are linked to every one of us; how are various algorithms controlling our daily lives even without us being aware of their existence. Can we fight them? Can we protect our privacies? Can we live in an unbiased society? I don’t know the answers, but we should all be asking these questions, and be conscious of these WMDs.
  4. Messy: the power of disorder to transform our lives by Tim Harford. I enjoy orderliness a lot in my life. If I’m going traveling, I make sure air tickets, hotels, maybe even attraction tickets are all booked well in advance. Not knowing what’s going to happen stresses me out greatly. I also like my house to be in order, and I find it more and more challenging now that I have a five-year-old roaming around all the time. This book offers me a new perspective of looking at messiness in our lives and teaches me to appreciate it just enough to not get annoyed so easily any more. I also found out Tim is hosting this great storytelling podcast Cautionary Tales and is now a devoted listener.
  5. Invisible women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez. This is a book that tells us how much costs we women pay when living our lives, in terms of time, money, health and sometimes, life. I have to admit I felt so angry reading all the true stories that reveal the gender bias that put women all over the world, from all walks of like at such a disadvantaged position. The two chapters that I had the deepest connections are The Myth of Mediocracy and The Plough Hypothesis. I work in academia and I’m aware of the biases existing when it comes to student evaluations: we female professors constantly get lower scores due to our gender. And it’s sadly true that we are at child-bearing age when we are at the most critical moment careerwise. How many of us had to choose one over the other? I went through severe post-natal depression which eventually led me to leave my first teaching job. My career was put on hold for an extended period and I’m still struggling to catch up. No man (or almost none) from academia had to go through it. I grew up in a village and was a farmer myself until I left for university. The story in the plough hypothesis is too close to home: my mum spent significantly more time in the field between the time of planting and harvesting because weeding is considered women’s job; after the crops have been harvested and transported home, she’s the one who has to peel the skin of corns and remove corn kernels so they can be consumed later; she’s the one who spent hours everyone cooking in front of a traditional stove; she’s the one who looked after us. None of her work is paid. I wish it is different for the women who still live in my village today but little has changed.