Rethink of assessment in a pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

A summer that will never be forgotten

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

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

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

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

Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection of my experience moving teaching online

It’s been crazy in the last three weeks when every college and university in Ontario suddenly moved teaching and learning online due to COVID-19. I remember my last face-to-face lecture (which only lasted for less than 3 minutes): it was Friday, March 13th and I have Linear Algebra from 1-3pm. I arrived at my lecture theatre before 1pm and the TA who has been working with me for this semester told me all lectures will be cancelled from that afternoon on. I had a few students who were already in the room and I had to tell them to go home. I stayed on for a few more minutes, just in case anyone who came in late and didn’t know all classes are going to be cancelled till further notice. Back then I didn’t know that would be the last time I talked to my students in person till I don’t know when.

I didn’t even have the opportunity to go back to my office. I headed home right after. I thought grocery shopping might be a good idea so I went to a nearby supermarket. I was utterly shocked by how packed the place was so I left without leaving my car. That’s the starting point of self-isolation and social distancing.

We had the weekend to come up with a plan to move things online. There are still two weeks of teaching before final exam kicks in. I remember frantically emailing colleagues, talking with them on Slack and just refreshing university website to get a vague idea of how to carry one. Eventually here’s what I did for the courses I taught.

  1. MAT223: we have a team of 4 who teach this semester and we eventually divided up the content. This course has already been using a flipped classroom model so content wise it’s relatively easy to shift to remote teaching. However I feel the chemistry we were able to build when students come together and work on in-class activities is lost. For the week that I worked on, I provided PDF worksheet and solutions. I did not make videos, and ran online sessions as Q&A asynchronously. I’m aware how few students were there with me compared with in-person sessions.
  2. MAT202: we almost finished delivering lecture content so that’s good news in this situation. There are two of us who are teaching this course and we both run our online sessions more like drop-in office hours and did not require students’ attendance. Recordings were made and shared later on.
  3. MAT135: the course coordinator made video lectures for the rest of the semester and I helped with the subtitle. It took a lot of time for me to edit the auto generated subtitles from YouTube ( and I’m sure for him to make the videos as well) but we all knew it’s necessary work for accessibility reason. I would not recommend sudden shift from in-person lectures to video lectures if you don’t have sufficient time.
  4. Office hours: I have been running my office hours in two ways since a year ago: in person and online using Zoom. I simply shifted those in-person sessions to online. I’m glad I have experience holding office hours with Zoom and attendance didn’t vary much.

I also ran a survey with my class asking the following questions when we are two weeks into this “new model”:

  1. How are you? How is your family doing?
  2. What are the main challenges for you when teaching and learning switched to online mode?
  3. What could be done differently to improve your learning experience given the current circumstances?

Majority of my students are doing well, and they have been extremely understanding of the work we are doing. I also received so much encouragement and thank you’s which really warm my heart. The main challenge students have in common is staying motivated. It’s hard for them to stay motivated when they are in isolation, with no interaction with us and their peers. Going forward this will be my main focus when redesigning my courses (I assume school won’t be able to open doors till a long time from now).

UofT has been offering ongoing support for faculty members and instructors. I find the drop-in sessions organized by TLC really helpful: they helped me stay connected with colleagues and having the opportunity to talk to a few fellow instructors really made a difference for my mood, thus my teaching. Everyone is anxious, not knowing what’s coming and I came to peace with the fact that I can’t stay as productive as I used to be. If you’re reading this post, hope you and your loved one are doing well. If you are a student of mine, you know I’m only an email away; if you are a colleague from HE, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @xinli_w: I’m always happy to talk.

my OER journey

Hello everyone! This is Xinli saying hi to you by Lake Ontario, one of my favorite spots since we moved to Canada three years ago. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share a small part of my life and my journey with open education resources with you all. I look forward to connecting with many of you and continuing my OER journey along with all the wonderful people in this lovely community.

I was born in a small village in the northern part of China; I’m a proud first-generation university graduate and ph.d. I’m very fortunate that I graduated debt-free thanks to the low cost of public universities in China and generous scholarship in Singapore. My first encounter with OER happened in 2009 when I was preparing to become a doctoral candidate in mathematics. We were asked to pass an oral exam consisting of three courses in mathematics. One of the courses I chose was Fourier Transform because it’s closely related to my Ph.D research topic but the course was not offered by the university so I had to study on my own. I found Stanford University Professor Brad Osgood’s course on YouTube: The Fourier Transform and its applications and got myself ready for the exam, and subsequently for my future research thanks to his generosity in sharing his lecture notes, teaching and wisdom. It’s only years later that I realized I benefited from open education resources. I took Jenni Heyman’s Making Sense of Open Education in 2018 which is the starting point for me to become a member of the family of OER advocates. Our students today face many challenges while completing their post-secondary education: the financial burden is a reality for many of them. Can we do something to help them? Open Education Textbooks and Resources might be the answer many people are looking for.

I became an OE Fellow with eCampusOntario in 2019 and have been working on adopting OERs in my daily teaching practice: I introduced GeoGebra, an open math visualization tool to my linear algebra class in order to help students understand math concepts better, and adapted an open linear algebra textbook with built-in H5P elements. These interactive problems can help anyone who’s reading the book self-assess whether they have understood the topics in the book.

You can find it here: https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/linearalgebrautm/

I’m grateful that I had the opportunity of working on this project, with the wonderful team from Pressbooks and look forward to more collaborations in the future.

Learning Strategies

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

                         

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

Presentations at RTL and CMS winter meeting 2019

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

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

Active Learning Design for Calculus II

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

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

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

2019Fall/BMTH100/120 Mathematics of Finance, Humber College

After teaching part-time at Seneca College for almost three years, I decided it’s time to move on due to the commute: we moved to where UTM is, and I find it very challenging to travel to Seneca on a regular basis. Usually, one-way travel takes me at least one hour, and being stuck in traffic along 401 makes it worse than it already is. I did enjoy my teaching at Seneca very much, and my teaching there reminds me a lot of my previous institution in Singapore: Singapore Polytechnic. Even the structure of the buildings on Newnham campus is almost the same with SP: all the buildings are connected through bridges and tunnels. My guess is at both places, the building structure is to accommodate the harsh weather: Canada’s winter is too cold for people to walk outdoor; while Singapore is too hot to walk outside.

I’m fortunate to start teaching at Humber College right away: this semester I’m teaching a course that I used to teach: Mathematics of Finance. For those who are interested in taking a look at what we do, here are the slides. A major learning objective for this course is to teach students how to understand a real-life scenario/story and translate it into mathematical language. After that the can use a financial calculator to find the solutions. Most of my students agree that this course, surprisingly, is not so much about mathematics, but rather about comprehending the stories.