## Test wrapper

We are half-way into the semester and students from all three of my courses have taken at least one test by this point. In order for me to find out what they feel about the test, and the course in general, I sent out an anonymous survey a week after MATH2720 students received their test 1 score. This was done right before Wednesday’s lecture. A QR code was projected in front of the classroom. As students walked into the room, they can scan the code and still filling up the form. 41 responses were recorded so about half of the class took the survey. In Test 1, students were given about five minutes to talk with their peers right before they write the test paper and I’m curious to find out what they think about the activity. The purpose of the activity is mainly to alleviate stress. To many of these students, this is their very first in-person test since 2020 March. I understand many of them feel extremely anxious towards math tests in general. The activity offers the opportunity for students to talk it out, and to orally review the test topics with their peers. 28 (roughly 68%) of them find it somewhat helpful. I do plan to change the format a bit in Test 2: they would be able to open up the test paper, look at what’s on the test, then have a short discussion with their peers. No writing would be allowed during this period. I will do another survey afterward to see how people think of it.

I’m also curious to know which part of the course students find the most useful and the response here is so diverse that I’m having a hard time interpreting it. The number of people who find attending labs as the most useful part of the course is roughly the same with the number of people who find it least useful. So my guess is maybe some students didn’t read the instruction of the ranking question carefully: the item on top corresponds to number 1, the least useful, and the item at the bottom, corresponding to number 5, the most useful. I do feel the design of this question is a bit counter-intuitive: if something is at the bottom, I’d assume it’s least useful, but then it corresponds to the highest number so even though I did clarify what these numbers mean, my guess is some students still place the least useful item at the bottom.

Majority of the students started doing review about two days before the test and they felt the main reason they couldn’t solve a test question is due to unpreparedness. Most of them do feel their input matched their test grades and almost everyone mentioned they will practice more for future tests.

Hopefully this self-reflection activity helps students to think about how they are approaching this course. It definitely offers some valuable insight for me as an instructor though I do want to find out what happened to the ranking question.

## First week: excitement in the air

This is my first week going back to teach fully in-person after joining my current department in Sep 2020. I had A LOT of worries before stepping into my classroom on Sep 7th: how will I walk from one class to the next one (in a different building) with only 15 minutes in-between? will students remember how to sit in a room and attend lectures? Will I be able to write on whiteboard/under document camera/on my computer screen fast enough? Do I have all the adapters to connect things? Will I be able to find the mic? Most importantly will we be able to connect?

Five minutes into the lecture all these worries melted away: a technician kindly showed up right before my lecture to make sure things work, students were excited to be back in the classroom and eager to engage with their peers and me. We did a short game for MATH3120 in the beginning: I gave out popsicle sticks when students stepped in the classroom and asked them to find their group members based on the number written on the stick. They spent the next ten minutes chatting with each other and getting to know each other. I told them it’s okay if we can’t cover all the topics for the first week. I believe building a learning community is more important. I have a lot of group activities planned for the next twelve weeks for this class and I can already see them working and supporting each other.

For my other large Intro to calculus course, the classroom setting is not ideal: there’s no proper desk for students to use, just a small piece of wood they can pull out from one side of the chair that’s only big enough for an A4 notepad. The chairs could be more comfortable: only hardwood and they have to sit for 75 minutes for my lectures. I may give them some opportunity to stand up and walk around in the future. The room is very stuffy and poorly ventilated. My CO2 monitor recorded 1300+ which was far from being safe. I will try to keep all windows open and hope that helps. In spite of all of these, my students were absolutely WONDERFUL! I started the class by addressing their concerns that I collected in a pre-course survey and answering a few common questions they posted there. We didn’t exactly finish where I’d like to be but I’m happy with the pace and how engaging students were. Clicker questions certainly ignited a lot of interesting discussions though next time I need to make sure the class is searchable when it’s set up. Only about half of the class managed to access iClicker for the first class but I’ll make sure everyone can use it from next week on.

Overall I enjoyed being back to campus: there is nothing more rewarding than seeing how excited students are in the classroom and walking among them when I teach. Here’s to a wonderful semester ahead!

## Summer Workshop In Mathematics (SWIM)2022

Date: Aug 15-26, 2022, except weekends

Time: 10am-3pm

Location: University of Manitoba, 66 Chancellors Cir, Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2

Introduction:

The Summer Workshop in Mathematics (SWIM) is an initiative of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Manitoba. This is an in-person workshop which will be approximately 4 hours of lectures per day for two weeks. Participants will have regular opportunities to join discussions (led by an experienced high school mathematics teacher) designed to generate ideas for classroom activities, puzzles, and games, and to solicit feedback on the challenges of various topics. Participants will improve their problem solving and reasoning skills as well as learn about mathematics proofs and the foundations of mathematics. Participants who successfully complete the workshop will receive \$123.8 which they can use to cover their parking cost.

Intended Audience:

The intended audience is early and middle years teachers (K8) working in Manitoba, and seeking to enhance their skills and background in mathematics.

How to Register:

Please fill up this form to register for the workshop.

You can read some past participant testimonials here.

Questions?

If you have any questions, please email Dr. Xinli Wang, xinli.wang at umanitoba.ca

## Refection of a seminar titled What Students Need to Know about Learning (and Why They Won’t Believe Us)

I recently attended UNH Webinar: Empower Students for Academic Success II and learned a great deal from Dr. Stephen Chew, who is a Professor of Psychology at the Samford University. In his talk, he shared some common pitfalls and choke points in learning. He also shared what could be done to address these common concerns which could serve as guidelines when I design my courses going forward.

I find it very challenging to persuade students today that multitasking is not gonna work, and distractions such as listening to music or checking your phone while studying won’t help you learn. Many of them claim they study better when they are listening to a particular type of music. I wonder whether there is any study out there focusing on why students hold this belief.

Another point that Dr. Chew raised is people are often overconfident when judging their level of understanding: often I have students approach me feeling frustrated because they didn’t perform well for math tests. They believe they have mastered the topics since they understand the examples covered in class, and are able to follow examples from the textbook. They are able to solve homework problems, even mock test questions. It must be the test! What they didn’t realize is for all the activities they mentioned, those are not assessments, but rather practice opportunities for them to gauge how well they learned. However, we don’t teach our students self-assessment skills so they have wrong beliefs about how good they are. Many of them miss an important difference between the tests they take and the practices they work on: it takes test-taking skills besides knowledge expertise to excel such as reading a question carefully, interpreting a question correctly and being able to present solutions properly in a limited time.

I know there are many debates over how valid a timed-test is to measure students’ learning, and I try to incorporate ungrading ideas in my courses to address those issues. But for many common entry-level courses, timed-tests are still the norm for assessments. It’s our responsibility to offer them continuous feedback about their learning, and teach them how to assess themselves (and sometimes others) to minimize the frustration felt by so many.

## Returning learner autonomy back to students: reflection of my French learning experience on Duolingo and what it means for course design

The term “learner autonomy” was first coined in 1981 by Henri Holec, the “father” of learner autonomy. Learner autonomy implies learners take charge of their learning. They have control of their learning and they are responsible for the decisions they make regarding their learning.

The most recent experience of me as a learner happens on a language learning platform Duolingo. I signed up to learn Korean and French in September 2020, hoping to learn both foreign languages during my spare time (I know I know. I was being extremely optimistic at that point. It turns out that I really don’t have much spare time working in higher education sector like all my other colleagues.) I’m solely responsible for my learning. There is no quiz/test/exam, just a daily reminder that I should practice for the day, and a lot of achievement badges if I do a good job of keeping up my work. Even though Duolingo keeps pushing the message about how research shows adding friends helps people learn better, so far the number of people on my friend list is 0. So how did it go after 18 months? I have mixed results to report. I dropped out from Korean lessons a long time ago because I simply don’t have the time to keep up with both if I want to make daily progress so I had to decide on which one to continue. This goes back to my motivation of why I want to learn both languages: for Korean it’s because I had some experience with it and I studied Intro to Korean when I was an undergraduate so the first few lessons on Duolingo were very easy but it became too difficult too soon. For French it’s because I want to be able to keep up with my kid who’s now in a French immersion school and I’d like to be able to read her daily one-sentence report (which is often written in French) everyday. It’s an easy call for me to drop Korean. My longest streak is 290 days, with a slightly shorter one disrupted by our summer camping trip last year. I earned 115227 XP so far and have learned almost 1000 words. I’m able to read simple words and sentences from my kid’s school reports and even able to have (very) short conversations with her teachers. I’m happy with my progress and have no plan of stopping. There is discouragement happening from time to time: my kid would mock my accent when I practice speaking, and I am still totally lost when I watch a French movie without English caption. But all in all, I’d say as a learner, I have learner autonomy in my French learning journey and it works well.

So what? As an educator, of course the next question I ask myself is how can I give my students learner autonomy? Could it even be given? When you examine how students are taught today, you’ll quickly notice there is not much room for them to exercise autonomy, sometimes not at all. They can’t decide when to attend classes because there is a timetable for each course they take; they can’t decide on what they learn because the course syllabus often lists out the topics covered for the course; they can’t decide on how to demonstrate their learning because tests and exams are usually planned and they have to take those to earn a grade. So we really can’t blame students too much if there isn’t enough internal motivation shown. Is it possible to give them some learner autonomy back? Yes! And I happily report that students attending my current MATH2150 class have some freedom regarding when/what/how they learn. They can also decide on how much they want to learn based on what goal they have in mind. The whole course has 22 learning objectives (LO) in total. To earn a specific letter grade by the end of the semester, they need to master a certain number of LOs. There is some flexibility in what they want to work on, and when they want to demonstrate their learning. All my lectures are recorded so if a student needs to be away due to any reasons, he/she can still catch up. Though they would miss in-class discussions and presentations from their peers which I think are the most valuable component of the course. If you want to know more details of how this course is run, take a look at my course syllabus. Each LO is tested multiple times throughout the semester in multiple formats(both written and oral tests are available). Students can opt to submit exercise solutions or compile a solution manual based on other’s submitted work using LaTeX. They can also use GreenCard to get extensions for their work when they deem necessary. No questions asked.

Do you believe your students should have more autonomy? What are your thoughts?

## Course design reflection: community building, self-reflection and restructuring tutorials

It’s hard to believe we are in the 5th semester since the pandemic started in 2020 March. I’m still teaching online for this fall semester, and I’d like to take a few minutes to reflect on my course design choices this fall, and share with you what worked, and what didn’t so far.

Even though we are only less than a month into the semester, I can tell the class has bounded well and the attendance has been very high. I usually have 90+ students attending synchronous sessions with me on Wed and Friday on Zoom, which has never happened in the past few semesters. Usually if I get half of the class, that’s considered well-attended. I hope we can continue this trend.

The only concern I have is I don’t know what exactly happens when students work in their groups. I won’t be able to monitor all 16 groups at the same time, though they do submit individual work after each group discussion and I can at least see whether authentic learning happened by looking at the work, and reading through their self-reflections. I made sure each submission has a self-reflection question at the end, and I have received a few messages from students about how much they appreciate it. It’s important to give students the space to pause and think about how they are learning and doing math, and I plan to keep the practice going forward.

## Come and work with me in 2021 fall!

I’m doing an education research project titled “A Pilot Investigation of Interteaching in an Undergraduate Mathematics Course” in this fall, and the following positions are available for University of Manitoba undergraduate and graduate students.

Teaching Assistants:

1. TAs are expected to be online with me every Wed, 10:30-11:20 to facilitate group discussions.
2. TAs need to have online learning experience in the past year. And if they worked as TA and/or facilitated students’ learning, that’s a plus.
3. TAs must know the course MATH2720 and its topics well. They should have completed this course recently with a decent grade.
4. TAs need to have excellent communication skills, so they can work with students effectively.
5. TAs’ weekly workload is 2 hours: 1 hour for preparation, and 1 hour for synchronous online facilitation. They will be attending some paid training sessions with me in the last two weeks August.

Research Assistant:

1. We are planning to hire either 1 RA, for 10 hours per week, or 2 RAs, for 5 hours per week, for 4 months from Jan to Apr 2022.
2. RAs are expected to collect data in the form of: student work submitted to crowdmark/UM Learn, students’ online discussions, and survey responses.
3. RAs are expected to conduct oral interviews online and transcribe the conversations.
4. RAs are expected to clean the data, perform data analysis, and write reports of what they have analyzed.

Feel free to email xinli dot wang at umanitoba dot ca for more details.

## 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.

## Reflection on my 2020 fall course design

Reading Week is finally here. I can take a deep breath and slow down a bit.

I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on and share what works from my 2020 fall semester teaching, and what improvements are needed. My focus has shifted to building a learning community since the pandemic started in 2020 March. I believe being able to connect with students and offering them the space and opportunity to work with each other is more important than content covered for a course. At this point I think almost all of us have realized it’s not realistic to cover as much as what we used to do. The challenges that come with online teaching are not trivial to overcome, and I’d like to invite everyone to ponder on the question of what matters the most to you when it comes to student’s learning experience. For me it’s community: an inclusive community where I can reach everyone and offer multiple ways for students to engage with each other and with the course content.

About a week before 2020 fall semester started, I posted a welcome message to my class and shared the course syllabus, textbook information and how to join the online discussion forum and the social annotation tool hypothes.is. The message included a short survey form which helps me understand my students’ learning needs. Granted it’s a lot of information for students to take on. To make it more inclusive, I also made an interactive H5P presentation.

This presentation covers all the information in the course syllabus, with a few short built-in videos: my self-introduction, video of how to annotate on the open textbook we use, and an overview of Piazza, the discussion forum that we will be using. Hyperlinks in this presentation will lead them to the sign-up pages so once they go over all the slides, they are ready to start the semester. I also posted a thread of “introducing yourself” on Piazza. I started the thread by introducing myself, and ended my post by asking a question so the next person who responds will start by answering that question. Everyone follows this format and within a few days, a majority of the class have introduced themselves. It is the very first post students post which gives them the opportunity to get used to posting, and to get to know each other.

Once semester started, students slowly took control of the discussion forum and hypothes.is: they are answering each other’s questions in a timely manner so all I need to do is to clarify some common misunderstandings. Part of my course assessment structure is called “community building action (CBA)”: whenever students contribute to the community’s learning, they earn a CBA point. The contribution mostly comes in the form of posts, questions and answers on the discussion forum and Hypothes.is. They earn CBA points while helping each other learn. By the end of the semester, all 120 students enrolled in Piazza and there are 827 total posts, 3482 total contributions, 229 instructor’s responses, 724 students’ responses and response time is 11 min in average. There are also many fantastic discussions happening on Hypothes.is. Making these platforms available for students not only help them learn, it also helps them gain a sense of belonging. Students can post anonymously so they don’ t need to feel embarrassed if they are asking a trivial question. The number of emails I received from this course is minimal thanks to the discussion forum which is a happy side-effect that I’m keen to keep.

Another element I introduced to my course is oral exam. We have 3 scheduled term tests, and if a student is not feeling well on the test day, or missed a test due to any personal reasons which they do not need to disclose to me, they can opt for an oral test instead. This option is also offered to those who took the test but felt they did not do as well as they expected. In total I ran 35 oral tests, for a class of 120 students. Having this option in place reduced students’ anxiety of test taking and makes the course more inclusive.

The last piece I want to mention is offering a variety of assessments in the course. For multivariable calculus, we have CBA, weekly check point (a set of MCQ/TF questions that students complete before each week’s synchronous lessons), assignments and tests. In the end-of-semester survey I conducted, students expressed the gratitude of having a variety of assessments in this course. In my other course, MATH 2030 Combinatorics, we have weekly quizzes and presentation. A student could make a short video of any topic that was covered in our course and post it on the discussion forum to earn some bonus points. 20 out of 46 students submitted videos and the whole class benefited from watching and learning from them.

To summarize, in order to build an inclusive learning community, start early to reach out to students, and be present, both during and after synchronous sessions, listen to students and offer multiple ways for them to demonstrate their learning.