## 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.

## 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.

## 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.