Problem-solving rubrics and respecting student expertise

Just finished reading Nelson’s “Student diversity requires different approaches to college teaching, even in math and science” (doi: 10.1177/0002764296040002007 ). I went there looking for more information on an idea he mentions in “Dysfunctional illusions of rigor,” about teaching students how to do unfamiliar assignment types. Streepey (personal communication, unfortunately, not a longer paper) had students look at essay answers of varying quality and discuss in groups what traits an excellent (perfect?) answer should have. After a whole-group synthesis, they worked on a second question and compared their draft answers with the criteria they had developed. This had a lasting positive effect on the quality of their essays on future exams. Nelson also references Walvoord and Anderson (1998) as having students use rubrics to rate example solutions before they worked their own problems.

In both cases, the common theme is thoughtful experience: students are put in the position of making judgments using (and in Streepey’s case, developing) the grading criteria. In other words, they’re evaluating, which is a high-level activity in Bloom’s taxonomy and also one that puts them into the grading process as something other than passive recipients.
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Dysfunctional illusions of rigor

This morning I’ve been reading Craig Nelson’s “Dysfunctional illusions of rigor” for the second (third?) time. It continues to be one of my favorites, and is definitely one that I take something new from when I reread it. So much so, in fact, that it’s making me think about how counterproductive it can be to try to study too much about teaching before you have experience with it. Being a teaching assistant isn’t a substitute–it gives you some of the basic practice, at knowing your material before class and performing on command. But there’s a lack of autonomy, a freedom from responsibility for the class structure, that means you don’t really have to worry about how well various aspects of the course are working.

So, I read all of these ideas before I had taught much, and I was able to make arguments based on them to faculty I worked with during my postdoc. But it’s taken several semesters of arguing with students over what constitutes a good problem solution for me to really FEEL the idea of having them use the rubric to score some solutions before producing their own. And after a couple of years of feeling like I only have half the puzzle with active learning, I’m now very motivated to learn more about formative assessment.

There are a few readings that really jumped out at me this time that I hadn’t pursued before:
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Starting a teaching agenda

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about the idea of a teaching agenda–I’ve never thought about having one before, although there’s tons of advice out there about developing your research agenda. In both places I face the challenge of feeling like I need to do everything at once, which produces option paralysis on where to start, ambiguity about how to judge progress, and so on. Basically, I think it might be useful for me to think about improving my teaching as a long-term project, and think about where I’d like to be in five years. This post is the first stage of that.

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Just-in-Time Teaching as a replacement grading component

I’ve been thinking about Just-in-Time Teaching as I read through more of the book. It initially appealed to me as a possible alternative to two class components that I wanted to improve from last semester. The first, pre-lecture assignments on the online homework system, provided students with some points incentive to crack the book before class. But the question sequences may not have triggered a lot of actual learning–I know I found them pretty boring, when I glanced through them before clicking the button to assign. The other piece, minute papers I assigned at the end of class once or twice a week, was more interesting but also needs revision.

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Learning goals for intro physics

As the term wraps up, I’d like to look at my learning goals from this semester, and see how they stacked up in practice with my plan. I started with an ambitious set, using L. Dee Fink’s six categories:

  • Foundational knowledge
  • Application
  • Integration
  • Human dimension
  • Caring
  • Learning how to learn

(more detail on what those mean here, but let’s accept the categories for now). I filed off the labels, because my courage failed at telling 200+ intro physics students (let alone my colleagues) that “caring” was important. But that was where I started.

From my syllabus this semester, I’ll go down the list. I’ll check in about how much I did to assess these, and what I might like to do next time I teach the course.

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I think a lot about teaching, but I don’t always write about it.  This month I’ve been saving reflections more than usual, because I made a NaNoWriMo account to track various work-related writing.  Then add a bit of SuperFly Rundquist reminding me that online community can be a nice way to talk to people beyond your department walls.  Top it off with a course redesign for SCALE-UP classrooms that needs to be done for summer (ulp), and it seems like a good time to start putting things on paper.

My goals for this blog for the spring semester:

  • Post at least every couple of weeks about something teaching-related, to form the habit.
  • Discuss backward design of my intro physics course, starting from learning goals and working back to a map of classroom activities.
  • Comment on other people’s blogs!  I sometimes get sucked into reading too many things on the internet, but community is important, so I want to find a balance.
  • Practice growth mindset toward teaching.  Teaching a big lecture class this semester has been challenging, but it’s also provided a lot of opportunities to learn and improve.
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