I started this book club in 2020 fall semester when I joined my current institution, hoping I could get to know people who are also passionate about teaching. We have read 7 books so far:
How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching
Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes
Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education: Equity and Social Justice in Education
Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education
Design for How People Learn
Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students
This semester we will be reading Grading for Growth: A Guide to Alternative Grading Practices that Promote Authentic Learning and Student Engagement in Higher Education. These book club discussions offered me the rare chance of listening to colleagues from other departments and disciplines about how they teach. I love these informal meetings, not only because we get to learn new ideas from these books, but also because we get to support each other when there isn’t any structural and institutional level support available. Sometimes we’d shift our discussions from a chapter in a book to a problem that we face in our class. Often other people in the book club would have already encountered such problems and they were able to share valuable insights to how to solve them. I’m excited to start this book: I have tried mastery-based grading in one of my courses and I’m aware it needs fine tuning. I’m hoping this book, together with all the discussions we’ll have, can give me some ideas of how to do it next time.
My most recent conference trip was to AERA in Chicago, one of the most popular conferences for people in the educational research field. Over the past 10 years, the average number of attendees at AERA Annual Meetings has been 14,967. Consider this: a three-day event hosting 10,000+ people. One might think, “Wow, that’s a great opportunity to meet others,” but in reality, it’s often the opposite. Everyone seems to be in a hurry to get to the next session. Unless you already know some other attendees, there isn’t much opportunity to make meaningful connections.
I suspect this is a common feature of large conferences. Many parallel sessions occur simultaneously in different locations. If you want to attend sessions in different venues, you need meticulous planning and the ability to walk quickly. After attempting this on the first day, I was so exhausted that I decided to stay at the venue where my presentation was scheduled. Another observation is how the keynote sessions were organized. While the size of the conference room might not be under the organizers’ control, it could have been planned differently. When we reached the keynote talk, the room was already beyond full. Later, we found out that it was actually the overflow room, with only a screen streaming the presentation. The actual room where the speaker gave the talk was packed. There was no way even half of the conference attendees could fit into those venues. I left in the end, knowing that the recording would be available later.
Putting all of these factors aside, the cost of delivering a ten-minute presentation is simply too high for me to justify another conference trip. Consider airfare, accommodation, meals, and transportation to and from the conference venue. These expenses accumulate rapidly. While my institution does provide some support for such activities, I can no longer justify the expense. As a result, I’ve made the decision to stop traveling to conferences unless there is an exceptionally compelling reason to do so.
Today marks the 7th anniversary of our move from Singapore to Canada. What a journey it has been! Little did I know our bold move on April 28th 2016 would change our lives so much. I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on what I went through, what’s happening and what’s lying ahead.
It was not a smooth path if anyone is curious. I had a very difficult time securing a teaching job when we first moved here, even though I had a full year of teaching training in post-secondary education, four years of experience in teaching in higher ed, and a Ph.D. in mathematics from a renowned university in Singapore. To Canadian institutions, these almost felt invalid as many new immigrants to Canada can relate. It took me a couple of months to finally land my first teaching gig at Seneca College (thanks to the new immigrant service at Toronto Community Employment Services) and the University of Toronto Mississauga. I considered myself lucky because it only took me a few months instead of years. I taught at a few different institutions from 2016 to 2020 until I finally received a full-time teaching job offer at the University of Manitoba. I have always loved what I do. Being able to connect with my students and share my excitement and appreciation for mathematics gives me tremendous joy. Few people are able to turn their passion into a career, and I’m grateful that I am one of them. I have learned a lot about teaching and learning from the many people I have met on Twitter, at conferences and seminars, and during casual coffee chats. I have become a better educator through the kindness and generosity of numerous individuals in higher education whom I have had the privilege to know over the years. I will always be grateful for their sharing of knowledge and wisdom. At one point, I was teaching at three different institutions in a single semester and had to commute an average of three hours per day to get to my classrooms. Here are a few unforgettable moments: once, on my way to an 8:30 am class, I had a flat tire while driving on the 401 and had to stop at a Costco Tire Center, leaving my car there in the hope that they could fix it. I barely made it to class on time, and in the evening, when I was finished, I was told that they couldn’t fix the problem but had pumped in enough air so I could drive home. It was pouring rain, and I could barely see the car in front of me, making that drive truly terrifying. Another time, during the final exam period, I was scheduled to invigilate at the UTM campus when a snowstorm hit GTA. Terrified of driving on the 401 in such weather conditions, I decided to take the shuttle bus from St. George campus. However, when I arrived at 6:30 am, I was informed that the next bus wouldn’t leave for another half hour. Fearing that I wouldn’t make it to the exam venue on time, two undergraduate students who were also taking the exam and I decided to share an Uber to avoid being late. Needless to say, it was a stressful and terrifying ride through a whiteout. Looking back now, I realize I could have informed my colleagues that I might be late since there was a large team of people invigilating the exam. However, for some reason, I didn’t consider it as an option back then. There have been many joyous and memorable moments since I started teaching in Canada, but these experiences have left a deep impression on me. I’m not someone who is used to sharing struggles and challenging moments, but I’m learning to do it more. If you are reading my post and find it resonates with you, know that you are not alone. Even though I didn’t have a stable position, I was still able to complete a few projects that I’m really proud of. I co-wrote a few papers with people from OISE at UofT about active learning and learning communities. I also took a few online courses to learn about Universal Design for Learning and Indigenous culture in Canada. Additionally, I adapted an open textbook and became a strong advocate of OERs, all of which helped me reshape my own courses and teach better. Now that I have a stable job, I am able to plan better and conduct educational research projects that span over a longer period of time. I’d like to thank the following individuals for supporting me and guiding me to where I eventually am in various ways since April 2016. Tania Koraian (Toronto Community Employment Services): as the very first person who helped me with my job hunting in Canada, I’m forever grateful to your help and encouragement. TCES is amazingly helpful for new immigrants! Rosa Cortez (Seneca College): thanks for believing in me and connecting me with people at Seneca College. Jeff Mccarthy (Seneca College): thanks for being my mentor as I’m looking for my first teaching position in Canada. Stojanovska-Pocuca, Frosina (Mohawk College): thank you for sharing your passion about math teaching with me and always excited about my ideas when it comes to math teaching. Jenni Hayman (Conestoga College): thank you for introducing OERs and open educational practices to me. It has changed my own teaching philosophy and reshaped me as an educator. Rubaina Khan (University of Toronto): thank you for being such an amazing friend in both Singapore and Canada. Your dedication to better engineering education is truly inspiring! Amy Lee (LMU Munich): thank you for being an amazing collaborator and sweet aunt to my little one. You are such a strong woman that I’d always look up to you. James Slotta(University of Toronto): thank you for sharing your educational research expertise with me and welcoming me to ENCORE family. Ann Gagné (University of Toronto Mississauga): thank you for being who you are! Your brave fight for a better higher education for all is appreciated by many of us. I feel so fortunate to know you and call you my friend. Sheryl Darlington (The Compass Foodbank): thank you for accepting me to The Compass family. What you are doing is life-saving! Brian Mcgoey (The Compass Foodbank volunteer): thank you for listening to my struggles over that breakfast by the lake and sharing your thanksgiving dinner with us all. Mee Park (loving neighbor and auntie to my daughter): you are an amazing person and I’m so glad we got to know each other.
This is the very last week of 2022 fall semester so it’s a good time for me to do a short reflection about how it went. From the frequency of my posts in the past half a year, you can probably guess this is a very hectic semester for me. It’s my first semester going back to teach in-person since I joined the math department here in 2020 August. Many adjustments and way-finding (in literal sense) had to be done before I’m finally comfortable with equipment in lecture theatres, seating arrangements in smaller classrooms, the printer and scanning machines etc. I don’t know how other new hires survived their first semester. If you went through it, you know what I’m talking about.
I did mastery-based grading for one of my courses, MATH3120, and by the 3rd last week, I realized there is just too much work for myself to handle for a class of more than thirty students. I’m spending in average 4-5 hours per week outside classroom to have one-on-one meetings with students. And since the frequency of tests is much more often than a typical course, it means a lot more time spent on writing test questions, printing and marking. I just didn’t anticipate this amount of time required to pull it off. Students did show immense appreciation of the course structure and many of them told me they would not have done as well if not for the re-testing opportunities. They also enjoyed being able to do presentations, either in-person or online. By this point of the semester, they have done 134 presentations in total. I’m really proud of what they achieved in such a short semester. But would I do it again for a class of similar size? Probably not unless there is significant more support available from the department.
For my other course MATH2720, we did four short tests before the final exam. I changed the test format slightly: after test paper was distributed to students, they were asked to put away their pen, read through the test papers, and talked to their peers about these questions. This discussion period usually lasted 5-8 minutes. After that they wrote the test papers individually. They welcomed this format with enthusiasm and told me how helpful it was to address stress and anxiety associated with tests. We will be able to say more about its impact on student’s learning experience once we collect all relevant data, and conduct some interviews. I probably will keep this format for future tests if time allows.
Another lesson learnt is how useful it is to have a system to give students extensions for assessments when needed. I set up an Office Form the beginning of the semester where students can ask for assignment extensions. They don’t need to reveal why they need one. They only need to submit it to let me know how much extension they need so I can update it from my end. It was used 77 times by students from two courses. With this system in place, students who traditionally didn’t know it’s possible to ask for extensions now realize it’s possible and are comfortable to use it. I’d like to believe it made my courses more equitable and is definitely something I will keep for future courses.
I have more thoughts about community support both for students and junior faculty members but that will be for another post. Wish everyone a happy December and hopefully we can all rest a bit before Jan semester is here.
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.
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!
Location: University of Manitoba, 66 Chancellors Cir, Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2
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.
The intended audience is early and middle years teachers (K8) working in Manitoba, and seeking to enhance their skills and background in mathematics.
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.
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?
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.
My focus is still building a learning community that connects students with each other and with me. In the summer I experimented with Microsoft Teams platform and found it worked well so I decided to continue using it as the main channel for communication. This fall I’m more intentional when using Teams and am able to explore more functions that Teams offer. Class Notebook was made available a week before the semester started, together with the course syllabus. Students received the link to join Teams and once they are in, they will see 10 Channels listed in the course: General, Culture Box, Introduce Yourself, Math-Memes, Pre-lecture video Related Qs, PrepGuide Related Qs, StudyTips, and Test Related Qs, Textbook Related Qs and Tutorial Related Qs. I posted the first message in the channel “Introduce Yourself” and ended my self-introduction with a question. Whoever posted after me will answer my question first before introducing themselves, and they will end their post with another question. This channel became the first contact point where students get to know each other. If you want to do something similar, bear in mind that not all students are comfortable sharing information about themselves in a public space so make sure you give your students the choice of participating or not. Since we have regular weekly discussion activity planned, after the first week, 16 private channels were set to accommodate the discussion groups. When students were first sent to Zoom break-out rooms, they did an ice-breaker activity with their TA. We borrowed a lot of ideas from Equity Unbound: https://onehe.org/equity-unbound/ and there is deliberate effort for ongoing engagement on a weekly basis whenever students work in their group. Groups were finalized by week 3 and once the bound between group members has formed, they tend to work together not only during scheduled activity, but also after class. I changed the tutorial structure of this course accordingly. Every Friday there is one 50-minute lab session and one TA who facilitates it. Instead of asking the TA to run a synchronous session with all students, I asked each group to set up their own Zoom meeting and posted the links in a shared Excel file hosted on Teams. Then whenever a group needs help, they can message the TA and the TA will join them. This has been working well: students still have the sense of working in a small group setting and the TA gets to work closely with them. We are able to address common misunderstandings by posting a message to the whole class, and the TA is open to making short video clips to clarify common mistake he saw.
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.