Quiz-Video Combination Instead of Lecture

November 14, 2014

Please help me understand if how much I am rationalizing here.

Here is a reminder of how I have been organizing my classes: I create learning goals for the course, and spend roughly two-thirds of the semester teaching them the content. The grading system is set up so that students have to demonstrate proficiency of each learning goal n times, where n \approx 4. The last third of the semester is spend 50/50 on quizzes and review.

I have felt a tiny bit guilty about this format for two reasons. First, I was concerned that I was depriving the students of 1/3 of the traditional instruction time. Second, I felt like a slacker because I don’t usually have to prep much for classes in the last third of the semester (also during the quizzes: I am writing this post during one of their quizzes, and I am slightly uncomfortable that they are working so hard on the class and I am not).

But I don’t feel all that bad about things now, because I realized a couple of things.

First, taking quizzes is about as active as learning gets (and maybe there are Testing Effect-type effects, especially since I purposefully spread out the learning goals on the quizzes). So students are very actively thinking about the material during the quizzes. So I am definitely giving them learning experiences, which goes a long way to alleviate my first source of guilt.

Also, I spent a lot of time creating solutions for every quiz problem. These are posted right after the quizzes so that students can get immediate feedback. This makes me feel better about my current lack of prep time—especially since I am still spending a decent amount of time writing the quizzes.

This also feels a bit better about my students’ learning experience in the last third of the semester. One of the ways I compress the material down to two-thirds of the semester is that I go lighter on the number of examples I give in the first part of the semester. However, my students probably have at least as many examples from the videos by this point in the semester than they would have gotten under a more usual course structure, and they have the added benefit of having had to attempt the problem first before viewing the solution (I am thinking about trying to make this the norm as much as possible. Ideally, things would go: try a problem on your own, try the problem with your team, see me do the problem, then try a similar problem on your own. This is a different blog post, though).

Finally, my overall impression is that the course is going well. I think that students are learning, and they are probably learning more than previous times I have taught the course.

So how much am I simply rationalizing here, and how much of my reasoning is sound?

Scheduling Large and Small

October 30, 2014

I have always known that I kind of like scheduling things. I will be department chair relatively soon, and I am looking forward to making making the teaching schedules for people. When I was a kid, I would schedule fake professional basketball and baseball seasons for fun. This is a sort of macro-scheduling, and I enjoy doing it.

What I have recently learned about myself, though, is that I hate micro-scheduling. I don’t like emailing back-and-forth to find a time that works for all people. I have embraced tools like Doodle to some extent, but I usually have to schedule one-on-one appointments, and Doodle seems like too much work for that.

I have a lot of appointments right now with my advisees to choose classes for next semester. I decided to use the Google Appointments replacement youcanbook.me, which I have written about before. This has worked ridiculously well, and it has saved me a lot of stress (Note: Neither Google nor youcanbook.me has contacted me, and I am not getting paid to write about this. I am just a simple user).

For the last several years, I have not scheduled office hours. I stopped doing this because it actually made it harder for me to meet with students. Regardless of when I schedule office hours, most of my students cannot attend. This means that I have to make individual appointments with them and still attend my regular office hours. Because I need to attend my office hours, I cannot schedule meetings during this time. So I have to schedule the meetings during times when I could have been meeting with students, which means I cannot meet with students during those times.

So I have just been scheduling “office hours” individually as students need them (which is getting to be less and less), and I hate schedule this stuff (although I like meeting with students).

So my plan is to schedule “open hours” when I plan my work day. I will use youcanbook.me, which I will post on my website and Moodle page. Students can sign up whenever they want, and I don’t need to do the scheduling, save for the random student who absolutely cannot meet with any of my preferred times. I think that this is going to greatly increase my quality of life.

Two things: Each morning, I am going to remove options to sign up for that day. This is because I don’t always re-check my calendar, and I don’t want any surprises. Also, I am going to start doing this after advising is done, since I don’t have any time between now and then anyway.

Does anyone have any experience with this? Any tips?

Three Benefits of “Accumulation Grading with Tagging”

October 15, 2014

So I decided to give my grading system a name: Accumulation Grading (or Accumulation Grading with Tagging). I just sick of writing “this grading system” or “how I am grading” all of the time.

Here are three benefits that I am seeing from this system. One has been mentioned before here (at least in the comments), one I anticipated, and one I only realized this week.

First, I suspect that there may be some sort of a metacognitive boost with this grading system. Students are forced to reflect on what they have done, and this may be helpful.

Second, grading is much easier when students use different approaches. In a very real way, I am just grading whether their “tags” are legitimate (the are correct, relevant to the problem, and point to a specific part of the solution where it is relevant). This means that students can have wildly different solutions with completely different tags, and they will both get appropriate credit. This hasn’t happened a lot yet, although I imagine it could.

Finally, my new realization is that this grading system may do away with a lot of fighting over grades. For example, a colleague recently complained that when students are asked to “graph functions” in Calculus I, many students were doing so simply by plotting points. My colleague did not want to give them credit, since he intended for them to find intervals of increasing/decreasing/concavity/etc. The students were not happy that they did not receive credit.

This is not an issue in Accumulation Grading with Tagging. Students are welcome to simply plot points to graph a question, but they run into an issue when they start to tag their work with the relevant learning goals (there are none). But nothing is marked wrong (because it isn’t wrong), so there is no real disagree to be had between student and teacher.

Update on Student-Claimed Learning Goals

October 8, 2014

I am halfway through the semester where I am using a new grading scheme for Calculus I. Here is a rough summary of the scheme:

  1. I give the students a list of learning goals. These are much finer than I have done in the past, which means that there are many more of them.
  2. I give students quizzes in class.
  3. For each quiz question, the student solves the problem as best as she can.
  4. Here is the important part: after solving the problem, the student reviews her work and determines which learning goals she has met.
  5. She indicates exactly where she met each learning goal. If she does not claim a learning goal, she does not get credit for the learning goal.

Basically, the students are forced to reflect on what they did in order to get credit for their work.

I just completed my midterm grades, and I would like to report on them. But I will first summarize where we are and describe my assessment of the course prior to seeing the grades.

We just finished off differential calculus. We will cover all of integral calculus in the next 2.5 weeks (I accelerate the schedule), and then we will move on to the review-and-quiz portion of the semester (we have quizzes for the entire class on Tuesdays and Fridays, and we review for the quizzes on Mondays and Wednesdays).

I have been simply thrilled with both sections of Calculus I. They discuss ideas, ask questions, and generally are willing to try whatever I throw at them. This has been a really fun semester. In contrast, I have heard that the other Calculus I classes have been struggling.

The good news is that my midterm grades reflect this. There are only three students who are presently in danger of getting below a C, assuming students continue on their current paces (one drawback to this grading system is that literally every student technically has an F right now, due to the fact that none of them have demonstrated any ability to work with integrals. But this is simply because they haven’t had a chance yet. But my original point for this parenthetical statement is that any student who starts slacking off is in danger of failing).

I am pleased and relieved about this. I certainly had considered that having the students claim credit for relevant learning goals could have been a disaster, but this not the case; the students have had minimal trouble with this.

One reason why they may not have had trouble is that I have been specifically referencing learning goals when they come up in class and then posting the slides to the CMS so that students can find where each learning goal is introduced. I also have been highlighting the relevant learning goals in the daily assignments (Example: “For Wednesday: We will discuss Learning Goals C4 and B9. Read 2.4 and 2.8. You should be able to do Preliminary Exercises 1 and 2 of 2.4, Exercises 63 and 65 of 2.4, and Preliminary Exercise 1 of 2.8.”).

So I am very happy and relieved at how the first half of the semester has gone. I really think that the focus on the learning goals has helped students learn how to talk about calculus. I will keep you all posted.

Mutt vs Gmail Revisited

October 2, 2014

I used to use Gmail; I thought about switching to Mutt last summer. I decided to try Mutt for the summer to see what happened.

Something surprising happened.

But first, I will briefly compare Gmail to Mutt: I like that they are both heavy with keyboard shortcuts. I find that I am get through my email really quickly with both applications.

Gmail (unsurprisingly) has a strong advantage when it comes to searching through old mail. I will eventually install something like Notmuch to make the searches faster.

Mutt has a big advantage in composing emails: vim is really awesome, and I prefer using it whenever I write any text.

Gmail has a slight advantage in convenience, since it is browser-based. However, I have an ssh app for my iPad and Chromebook, and I have a Mac at home, so Mutt is awfully easy for me to get to at home. If I am stranded someplace with only a Windows machine, I might be at a bit of a loss (I don’t know how to get the equivalent of a terminal in Windows without installing something like PuTTY), although I do have access to a website that acts as a terminal. So this is basically even.

Here is the surprise: Mutt indirectly makes me much more productive.

I was not expecting this. Here is the deal: I like staying on top of email, so I have my email open all day. But Gmail is in a browser, so checking email leads to checking Feedly…and Google Plus…and other distracting websites.

When I check my email with Mutt, I just look in the terminal, and when I am done with email, I go back to work.

This was not intentional at all. In fact, it took me a while to notice that I was spending a lot less time on the internet wasting time.

So Mutt is staying.

This has been enough of a positive over the past four months that I am going to try (and likely fail) at Cal Newport’s latest suggestion: don’t web surf during the work day.

I am a person who functions best when rules are black-and-white. I can be good at complete abstinence from things, but I am generally bad at moderation. I think this could work for me, and I am looking forward to the increase in productivity (especially since I keep to a strict work schedule).

The only things I need my browser open for are Google Calendar and Google Tasks. The latter I can take care of using a text file (I did this this summer already, and it worked fine). I can probably get by with looking at my calendar each morning and then immediately closing it. In other words, I think that I do not need to have my browser open at all during most of the work day.

This means that I will have to do all of my Feedly-checking and G+-checking (and, sadly, checking espn.com for NBA news) after my wife has gone to bed. I think this could work. But we will see.

Three Different Meanings of Mathematics

September 12, 2014

I “overheard” an exchange on social media that can be summarized like this:

Person A: I teach mathematics using an IBL-style.
Person B: I could never learn mathematics that way, even though I am good at mathematics.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this exchange, and I have found it helping me immediately in several ways. I guess this means that I might ramble a lot in this post. [Edit 20 minutes after first posting: this is probably not new to most people, and I have had similar thoughts before. But this was a bit of an epiphany for me for some reason I cannot explain.]

First, while Person A and Person B are both talking about “mathematics,” I think that they mean two different things. In fact, I think that there are (at least) three meanings for the term “mathematics” with respect to teaching.

The first meaning is what I call “application of existing mathematics.” [Edit 20 minutes after original post: mathematics that is often described as “procedural” belongs in here, although I suspect there might be more]. This comes in two flavors: the application to mathematics, and the application to outside fields. In a stereotypical “traditional” mathematics classroom, this is what is mostly meant by “mathematics.” For example: in a calculus class, finding the derivative of x^2+\sin x is an application of several existing bits of mathematics (the Power Rule, the Sum Rule, etc) to a mathematical problem to get the answer. And almost any sort of word problem fits this description.

The second meaning is what I call “understanding existing mathematics;” I think a lot of people would say this is about understanding concepts. In a Peer Instruction class (at least, in a PI class that operates in a similar way to how I do PI), this is what is mostly meant by “mathematics.” For example: in a calculus class, asking students how many tangent lines can be drawn at the point (0,0) of f(x)=|x| might be an example of that. To answer this, students need to understand the existing notion of tangent line to do this. Another example would be getting students to understand the \delta-\epsilon definition.

The third meaning is what I call “creating new mathematics,” or “doing mathematics” (when I say “new mathematics,” I mean that it is genuinely new to the student, not new to the entire community of mathematicians). I imagine that this is mostly meant by “mathematics” in a good IBL classroom. Students need to engage in the actual process of how mathematics is done by mathematicians, which includes dead ends and wrong answers (but also includes successes).

[Disclaimer: I am not trying to put a value judgment on these three meanings, although I am probably failing given that I am using the term “do mathematics” for one particular meaning. But I do happen to think that all three are extremely important. I also am probably talking in absolutes more than I should; please insert your own nuance.]

So it seems to me like that conversation actually was:

Person A: I teach students how to create new (to them) mathematics using an IBL-style.
Person B: I could never learn how to apply existing mathematics that way, even though I am good at applying existing mathematics.

I am guessing that Person A does teach students how to apply existing mathematics, but that it is secondary (or tertiary) to teaching students how to create/do mathematics.


  1. Do any seasoned IBL instructors want to comment on the accuracy of my claims?
  2. Am I missing any other meanings?
  3. Anything else?

Doceri vs. Explain Everything

September 4, 2014

I create a lot of screencasts for my classes. I have evolved to mainly using screencasts to provide solutions to quick questions, of which I have roughly 400 this semester. Because of this, I can save a lot of time if I can import my PDF file of quiz questions to my screencasting software so that I do not need to re-write the questions.

It is not convenient for me to create videos at work. I have a Linux box in my office, but it is a bit unreliable for screencasting, and I do not have complete control over it to make it reliable. For instance, I had screencasting in my office figured out a year ago, but now my Wacom Bamboo tablet has stopped working. I do not have the permissions (I don’t think) to fix this, since we have a central Linux administrator (I also don’t immediately have the know-how to fix this tablet issue, although I think I could figure it out).

Another alternative is to use a Windows machine elsewhere on campus, but I don’t really like leaving my office.

Instead, I decided to start screencasting from my iPad at home after my family has gone to sleep. This has a number of advantages: there is comfortable furniture, I can see what I am writing on the iPad (as opposed to the Bamboo tablet), and there are tasty snacks.

The main issue me was deciding which screencasting app to use. I have toyed around with Doceri previously because it is free, but I was concerned that it did not support importing PDF files. I had heard great things about Explain Everything—it supports but I was wary of committing to a $2.99 price tag. I am merely a consumer of both Doceri and Explain Everything; neither company has paid me anything to write this post.

Because I have 400 videos to make, I decided that importing my PDF quiz file was important enough to spend $2.99. The file imported well, and I was able to create a couple of screencasts.

But the problem came in when I started uploading the files to YouTube. It was taking Explain Everything roughly 10 minutes to upload a two minute video. Because I have 400-some videos to create, it is simply unacceptable to spend 500% of the time I spend creating the video in uploading the video.

So I went back to Doceri. It turns out that there is a very easy work-around for import PDF files in my situation. I can open my PDF quiz file in Dropbox, take screenshots (press and hold the power button, then press the home button) of the questions I want to do, and then I can import the screenshots easily into Doceri from my Pictures app.

The great part: Doceri takes about 10 seconds—rather than 10 minutes— to upload a two minute video. This has worked extremely well—I was able to create 35 videos in two hours last night (as opposed to the roughly eight videos I would have been able to create with Explain Everything).

I was so happy with Doceri that I paid them $4.99 to remove the watermarking on my screencasts.

[Edit: Andrew Stacy and Dale Buske reminded me that I meant to write about the Explain Everything Compressor. This is a $15 app for a Mac (not the iPad) that does the compressing for you so that you can continue to make screencasts on the iPad while the Mac compresses. I was very close to purchasing it, when I decided to give Doceri another chance (Robert Campbell was very encouraging here). The bottom line: I get to save $15 and avoid having to use two machines by going with Doceri. Additionally, I found some reviews saying the compressor was mediocre, and I didn’t want to spend $15 on something that doesn’t work well.]

I hadn’t read anything about this being an issue with Explain Everything; I imagine that it might be because Explain Everything has greater editing capabilities, so it stores more information. But this is not a feature creating quick and dirty screencasts.

Assessment Idea for Calculus I: Near Final Draft

August 18, 2014

Sorry about the two month hiatus—Dana Ernst sucked me into a great research project about games with finite groups.

I previously wrote about my plan for calculus I. Basically, it is this:

  1. I give the students a list of learning goals. These are much finer than I have done in the past, which means that there are many more of them.
  2. I give students quizzes in class.
  3. For each quiz question, the student solves the problem as best as she can.
  4. Here is the important part: after solving the problem, the student reviews her work and determines which learning goals she has met.
  5. She indicates exactly where she met each learning goal. If she does not claim a learning goal, she does not get credit for the learning goal.

This basic idea has not changed; I have decided to go for this to see how it works. I have made a couple of changes since last time, though:

  1. I change my learning goals (see below for a list).
  2. I am only requiring that they demonstrate mastery of each learning goal four times, rather than the six that I previously had. There just is not enough time to assess that much, considering that I try to give my students at least twice as many attempts as is required. I am able to cut from six to four by scaling down homework: I previously required at least three demonstrations on a quiz and up to three demonstrations on homework, but I have changed this to requiring at least three demonstrations on a quiz and up to one demonstration on homework.
  3. I change my quiz template to include a margin on the left side. This is where students will write their code for each achieved learning goal. They then need to circle exactly where the learning goal is met, and connect that circle to the code. This should make the quizzes easier to grade and easier to read (less messy). I think that I am not going to require that this be done in a different colored pen, either.

I think that is mainly it. I have included drafts of my learning goals and syllabus (sorry for being three weeks late on this, Robert) below. Please see my previous post to get an idea of what students will do with their quizzes.

As always: feedback is welcome.

View this document on Scribd
View this document on Scribd

Assessment Idea for Calculus I: Feedback desperately wanted!

June 25, 2014

I am planning an overhaul of Calculus I for the fall. I used a combination of Peer Instruction and student presentations in Fall 2012, and I was not completely happy with it.

So I am starting from scratch. I am following the backwards design approach, and I feel like I am close to being done with my list of goals for the students. Here is my draft of learning goals, sorted by the letter grades they are associated with:

View this document on Scribd

I previously had lists of “topics” (essentially “Problem Types”). These lists had 10–20 items, and tended to be broad (e.g. “Limits,” “Symbolic derivatives,” “Finding and classifying extrema”). This list will give me (and, I hope, the students) more detailed feedback on what they know.

This differs from how I did things in the past, in that I used to list “learning goals” as very broad topics (so they weren’t learning goals at all, but rather “topics” or “types of problem”). Students would then need to demonstrate their ability to do these goals on label-less quizzes.

The process would be this:

  1. A student does a homework problem or quiz problem.
  2. The student then “tags” every instance of where she provided evidence of a learning goal.
  3. The student hands in the problem.
  4. The grader grades it in the following way: the grader scans for the tags. If the tags correspond to correct, relevant work AND if the tag points to the specific relevant part of the solution, the students gets credit for demonstrating that she understands that learning goal. Otherwise, no.
  5. Repeat for each tag.
  6. Students need to demonstrate understanding/mastery/whatever for every learning goal n times throughout the semester.

Below are three examples of how this might be done on a quiz. The first example is work by an exemplary student: the student would get credit for every tag here (In all three of the examples, the blue ink represents the student work and the red ink indicates the tag).

View this document on Scribd

The second example has the same work and the same tags, but the student would not get credit due to lack of specificity; the student should have pointed out exactly where each learning goal was demonstrated.

View this document on Scribd

The third example (like the first) was tagged correctly. However, there are mistakes and omissions. In the third example, the student failed to claim credit for the “FToCI” and the “Sum/Difference Rule for Integrals.” Because of this, the student would not get credit for these two goals (even though the student did them; the point is to get students reflecting on what they did).

Additionally, the student incorrectly took the “antiderivative of the polynomial,” which caused the entire solution to the “problem of motion” to be wrong. Again, the student would not get credit for these two goals.

However, the student does correctly indicate that they know “when to use an integral,” could apply the “Constant Multiple Rule for integrals,” and “wrote in complete sentences.” The student would get credit for these three.

View this document on Scribd

I like this method over my previous method because (1) I can have finer grained standards and (2) students will not only “do,” but also reflect on what they did. I do not like this method because it is more cumbersome than other grading schemes.

My current idea (after talking a lot to my wife and Robert Campbell, and then stealing an idea from David Clark) is to require that each student show that he/she can do each learning goal six times, but up to three of them can be done on homework (so at least three have to be done on quizzes). I usually have not assigned any homework, save for the practice that students need to do to do well on the quizzes. This is a change in policy that (1) frees up some class time, (2) helps train the students on how to think about what the learning goals mean, (3) force some extra review of the material, (4) provide an additional opportunity to collaborate with other students, and (5) provide an opportunity for students to practice quiz-type problems.

My basic idea is that I will ask harder questions on the homework, but grade it more leniently (which implies that I will ask easier questions on the quizzes, but grade it more strictly).

I have been relying solely on quizzes for the past several years, so grading homework will be something that I haven’t done for a while. I initially planned on only allowing quizzes for this system, too, but it seemed like things would be overwhelming for everyone: we would likely have daily quizzes (rather than maybe twice per week); I would likely not give class time to “tag” quizzes, so students would do this at home (creating a logical nightmare); I would probably have to spend a lot more time coaching students on how to tag (whereas they now get to practice it on the homework with other people).

Let’s end this post, Rundquist-style, with some starters for you.

  1. This is an awesome idea because …
  2. This is a terrible idea because …
  3. This is a good idea, but not worth the effort because …
  4. This is not workable as it is, but it would be if you changed …
  5. Homework is a terrible idea because …
  6. You are missing this learning goal …
  7. My name is TJ, and you are missing this process goal …

Summer Plan

June 11, 2014

My family and I agree that things work best when I work pretty strict hours—I work 7:45 am to 5 pm during the school year. I do very little work at home. However, I need to do a lot of prep work during the summer to make this possible. Because of this, I work a lot in the summer (we allow for 6 weeks of vacation for the year, so the default mode for the summer is “work”), although my hours are now 8:15 am to 5 pm.

Here is my plan for the summer:

  1. Take care of all of the annoying paperwork-type-stuff that needs to be done. This includes some work that I do every summer: updating my CV, updating websites, and reading and summarizing course evaluations. I also have some jobs that are particular to this summer, such as determining which mathematics courses should be considered for transfer credit at some neighboring colleges. (I am happy that I have already done this entire item).
  2. Do some reading about redesigning general education requirements. My college is considering restructuring these requirements, and my main goal for the summer is to try to determine (along with my other committee members) some sort of reasonable process for this. Fortunately, this is paid work (mostly).
  3. Plan my geometry (and prob/stats/graph theory) course for elementary education majors for the fall. This is also done, largely because I taught this course in the spring. I kept detailed notes (I am grateful I did this), and I mainly updated this course by building in more feedback. In particular, I wrote all of my quizzes for the semester, created solution videos for each quiz, and updated my examinations.
  4. Plan my calculus course. I am planning on using Team-Based Learning, which I learned about from Eric Mazur in this video. Again, planning includes (in chronological order) creating all learning goals, creating all assessments, and creating all class activities. When the semester comes, my main task will be briefly reviewing the plan, adapting that plan based on the students’ needs, recording what actually happened (and how I might improve things next time), meeting with students, and grading.
  5. Do research. I have 3–4 papers that I need to write up, and I hope to re-start work on two projects that have been on hold for too long.

Finally, one benefit of working during the summer is you can be amazingly productive. I am often the only person here, and I can be very productive in such an environment.


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