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.

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