Monday, March 23, 2009

Leading Horses to Water

In the Calculus Circus I use the clickers to check to see if the students understand the concepts as I'm teaching them. This class is not rocket science (in fact, if you are majoring in Aerospace Engineering and you take this class, it will count only as a free elective -- it won't even get you out of pre-calc), so most of the things that we do are one-step, skill-based problems. I do a few examples, and then I have them do a few. Today we were working with using differentials to approximate change. By the end, 96% of the class was getting the questions right.

So why come exam time do I have students with scores in the single digits?

Turns out that the number of students coming to class (based on the number of responses to the clicker questions) matches pretty well with the number of students who are doing well in the class. (No, I can't tell if they are the same people because the clicker software SUCKS. Don't tell my students, but if I can't straighten out this clicker mess by the end of the semester, it's going to be full credit for everyone.) I'd say that roughly two-thirds of the class shows up on any given day; roughly two-thirds of the class is passing with a C or better. (This is bad, I know. One-third of my class is getting C- or lower.)

I email the failing students. I write notes on their exams (that they never see because they never go to recitation class to pick them up). They seem to feel that merely being enrolled in calculus is enough. Their majors require calculus, so they've enrolled.

Maybe an instructional designer could come up with something flashy to get these disengaged students to show up in the lecture hall. But what I'm doing now is already working for most of the students. I'm reluctant to change teaching methods to cater to the few at the expense of the many. Right now I spend most of class time showing the students how to do the types of problems that I want them to know how to do. Expecting students to do calculus problems is an essential part of calculus. After I've done some examples, I have them work a few problems. From there we move on to the next main idea. I figure that the "showing the students how to do the problems" part is pretty non-negotiable for low-level calculus. If my students could figure out how to do math problems without being shown how to do them, they would have placed into a higher course.

But really, please come to class. I tell you everything you need to know. And if you really can't go to class, learn how to do the problems on the review sheet, as the review sheet is just the exam with the numbers changed.