Sunday, May 20, 2007

If I'm Evaluated Based on Your Success, I'm Going to Force You to Learn Calculus

Yes, I'm sure that the post-semester shifts to my sleep schedule and the lengthening of the days is making me slightly manic. Happens every summer. Yet, it's a sort of dirty and unfocused high, meaning that it's not going to lead to any great revelations about the structure of finitely generated algebras over principal ideal domains. Progress has been remarkably steady on my re-education about Lie Groups.

What I'm spending my time on, however, is planning my calculus class for the fall. I'm going to be teaching three classes this fall. One is completely new (a seminar that I proposed), one is new-to-me (the large-lecture Calculus Lite), and the third is nominally a repeat (honors gen-ed) but I'm planning on revamping it. Thus: taking advantage of the weeks between the end of the semester and my departure for my summer job and planning ahead.

I'm spending most of my time working on the calculus because it's fairly straight-forward. I'm making Keynote slides (so far I'm almost done planning lectures up through the halfway point of the semester), and I'm tweaking the syllabus. Quizzes and worksheets will probably be generated at the last minute.

For the first time ever, I'm having a meaningful attendance policy in my class. Sure, I've taken attendance for years. Sometimes I've offered bonus points for perfect attendance or for near-perfect attendance. Recently I've had the rule that if you miss 1/3 of the classes that you'll fail unless you have a good reason for missing that many classes. (The main purpose of the rule is to deal with the guy who has a high F average and has barely been to class; these guys always beg for Ds.)

I've decided that students will be allowed five absences before penalties kick in. Seems generous enough in a class that meets 42 times. If you missed work 1/8 of the time, it would raise eyebrows. I'm telling the students that this is broken down into three excused absences (illness, marching band, death in the family, car accident, etc.) and two unexcused absences (didn't feel like coming to class). In reality, I'm not going to chase down their excuses. The real reason for the breakdown is because many, many, many organizations on campus (usually music and/or athletics) will have events requiring their students to miss class, and they will say that it must be an EXCUSED absence. Thus, my syllabus defines what an excused absence is; this protects me from having to deal with students having their own definition of the term, often believing that they can turn in work late without penalty if they had an excused absence on the deadline.

I'm not sure what I think about having an attendance policy. This is sort of a trial run for me.

On the one hand, we keep hearing about how students are adults and how they should be allowed to make their own decisions and to live with the consequences.

I'm not sure how true this is. My students don't seem to be very adult. And the university strongly values retention. Lots of money is being spent in an attempt to keep the freshmen from dropping out. Students deciding not to pass their classes is not an approved outcome.

And I'm rated (by the department) based on how many students pass my class with a C or better. Students deciding not to pass their classes will count against me.

Some Vice-Somethingorother made a guest post on the Provost's blog explaining how he has an attendance policy in his classes and how it works well for him and everyone should consider doing it. Recently the Provost emailed the campus community that this fall we should all take attendance in freshman classes and turn in students who miss more than one class so that they can be "contacted."

Then there's the argument that students who can learn the material without coming to class shouldn't be penalized. In my experience, the number of students in this category is vanishingly small. My syllabus has an all-purpose statement that says, "If your situation requires exceptions to the policies described in this syllabus, contact the instructor to set up an appointment to discuss this," which should take care of that small number. Plus, we have online courses for students who are not suited for the in-class experience.

I'm thinking back to my own education. I'm pretty sure that in most of my classes that I went to class most of the time. The two main exceptions were differential equations (forced to re-take at Dartmouth because they wouldn't accept my transfer credit from Union College) and Complex Analysis. When I was in grad school, I struggled to attend complex analysis. I made a rule that I couldn't skip class more than twice in a row. I had to revise it to the looser requirement that I had to attend class once every calendar week. I got a B- in that class -- which if you're familiar with how math graduate classes are graded says a lot (it means that I didn't know anything about complex analysis). During the following summer I was working a full time job and also studying complex analysis full time. Spent months working on solving every problem that had been on every old qual. Since the quals were fairly consistent from year-to-year my summer of non-stop math was enough to net me a "provisional pass" (which was all I needed because I got a "full pass" on algebra at the beginning of the summer).

Would forcing me to attend complex analysis have helped? Well, I can assure you that there is no way I could have known any LESS complex analysis. (And I promptly forgot it, too. Give me any complex analysis problem and I will say -4πi and hope for the best. It's a good thing that I don't teach at a small college anymore: at such a school I might have to teach some form of analysis.)

This calculus class is being offered to students who are questionably prepared for calculus, and it does both differential and integral calculus in one semester. (It leaves out all the proofs, all the theory, and anything hard.)

So I'm using Clickers in class for participation (I'm trying to ask at least eight questions per lecture). I'm using EduSpace for online quizzes. Giving practice quizzes in recitation section that don't count for the grade. Telling the students to keep an organized binder. Asking them to spend four hours a week on written homework and to have it spot-checked by the TAs. We shall see if the micro-management approach to large-lecture calculus for the unprepared will be any more successful than the laissez-faire, hands off approach.