Sunday, June 3, 2018

End of year celebration of knowledge

Dan Meyer started a discussion on Twitter recently about the unnecessary stress that final exams cause for students at the end of the year, questioning how much insight they really give into student learning. It’s been a helpful reminder that while I definitely agree that high-stakes final exams are terrible, I really don’t have a great system yet for wrapping up the year.

We certainly don't want students feeling like this:

But what makes for a good alternative?

It seems challenging to balance the goal of ending the year with celebration and anticipation of more learning, while also gaining information about retention and content synthesis. I want students to end the year on a high note, feeling positive about their progress and provided with the opportunity to dig deeply into a particular topic, but it would also be great to be able to identify topics from the entire year that would benefit from review and work with them to do that.

In some ideal universe where time doesn't exist and Firefly is still on the air, I would be able to do both: a meaty project in which students can shine and review and an assessment of all of the things. However, even given this bounty of time, I'm not sure that a timed, paper and pencil, silent, individual assessment would really promote the most learning and information for me and students.

So I spent a bunch time the last few weeks reading up on various ideas and here is my current compilation.

  • A group whiteboard assessment that looks at problem solving and tying together big concepts from the year, something like what @AlexOverwijk does with his classes:
    This would require careful teacher observation to untangle individual understanding and contribution to the group product, but seems like a much closer fit to what students do in class every day and therefore a more accurate picture of their understanding, as well as obviously being less stressful.
  • An annotated portfolio of work throughout the term, which would require students to find evidence of learning for previous topics, identify important connections, revise work, and identify topics that need further attention themselves. I really like this option as it puts the student in the driver's seat. However, this would be fairly time-consuming and likely need students to have been tracking their work throughout the semester. It's something I'm strongly considering for next year. If you do this, I'd love more information - directions, rubrics, advice for someone who wants to try it. How do you make this work in large classes?
  • An oral final exam in which each student has a one-on-one interview and discusses their process and reasoning for one or two problems, which @JadeMohrWhite proposed:

    This seems great for digging deep into mathematical practices and student thinking, but would only give limited content knowledge information due to time constraints. Building in class time for every student to have a 20 minute interview or so also seems a bit daunting in the end-of-year crunch, but could potentially complement a final project or portfolio assignment, during which students are working relatively independently.
  • Final individual project and group presentation. This is the model I'm trying this year in one of my classes. Students selected a topic of personal interest to them that is related to the content in the course and did research and Math work related to this topic. They were then placed into groups based on some possible common threads between projects and created a presentation that highlighted their individual work AND the connections between them, as well as how what they learned related to their Math course this year. Detailed directions are here.

    I like how positive and forward-looking the projects have been this year - it does feel like a celebration and memorable opportunity for students to shine. However, because projects are typically looking at a single topic in a great deal of depth, this way of ending the year misses out on the whole cumulative, wrapping everything up feeling that I like to have. 
  • Bring back the final exam, but have it be extremely low stakes by focusing on retention, connections, and structured so that it can only help a student's grade, not hurt it. This is how I've done final exams before - as a final opportunity for a student to show understanding of a topic from a previous unit and a place to look at cumulative retention and synthesis. It's efficient and serves that purpose well, but isn't the kind of experience I want students to take away with them as their last memory of my class, so if I brought it back, I would definitely want to pair it with one of the above ideas.
  • Edited to add:

    Take-home final exams, as described by @benjamin_leis below, seem like another way to get more comprehensive information about content knowledge in a less-stressful setting. I like the idea of removing time pressure from the equation and letting students assess in a more comfortable and familiar setting where they can take breaks and dig deeper into problems. Again, because this more closely replicates the ways that students do math in my class during the year, it should be a better assessment of what they know. I also think questions on a take-home final should be more interesting and less routine than what I would ask on an in-class timed assessment. 

I would love to know of other ideas people have for alternatives to high-stakes final exams or any feedback on these still-cooking ones. Share them in the comments or send out a tweet.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Math as a Tool

I got into a spirited discussion with Karim a few days ago about his desire for math to be an instrument to look with as much as an object to look at, which he wrote about in this blog post. Karim's concern that too many activities billed as applications of mathematics are actually structured to develop conceptual understanding rather than be a true application with a primary purpose of understanding something about the world resonated with me. However, I took some issue with his proposed solution: math teachers taking applications on more fully than they currently do.

We had a long chat over Twitter about it, in which I argued that perhaps Math teachers aren't in the best position to fully develop authentic applications and investigations of the world in which math is a tool. This does NOT mean that I don't think Math teachers should only teach concepts and never delve into applications. Of course, Math is both a subject onto itself and a tool for better understanding the world. And of course, for all students, understanding and engaging in its use as a tool makes Math more relevant and is a vital part of their education. My argument is primarily that when we shove all math applications into Math class and ask Math teachers to shoulder that full load, that inevitably means teaching less math and very likely, also results in these applications being less authentic and deep than they can be. My counter-solution is that more applications should be happening cross-curricularly in order to harness the expertise of multiple teachers and approach real world applications in the interdisciplinary way they are actually approached in the real world.

For example, I think teaching a lesson on wage inequality using math to analyze and form a quantitative basis for the discussion is awesome. However, the discussion that I am going to facilitate as a Math teacher in Math class is not going to be as deep as the discussion that an economics teacher would be able to lead on this topic. It's not because I don't care about wage inequality, but because my area of expertise is mathematics and their area of expertise is economics. They're going to have a rich understanding of historical trends and societal pressures and opposing views on this topic that even if I were to spend significant time prepping (keeping in mind that I have three preps every day and want to do application problems from a variety of fields and disciplines in each of them), I would not be able to achieve. Imagine how much more powerful this same lesson would be if we spent a Math class learning different ways linear models allow us to find "break-even" points for situations and then students went next door to Economics/History/Civics class and looked at how these models have been or could be applied to look at wage debates in our country. If we go even further outside the standard school model of siloed subjects, the Economics/History/Civics teacher and I can join forces and teach a lesson together in which the math and its application are interwoven.

It's not that I don't want math to be applied. It's that I want to see math applied deeply, across various subjects, as much as possible, as a joint project between disciplines rather than a few question prompts crammed in at the end of a math lesson. I want to harness my strengths as a teacher of math in its pure form, as well as a tool that is uniquely powerful exactly because it's so abstract and generalizable, rather than dilute what I am able to accomplish by trying to do it all. Why do applications of Math have to be taught during Math class?

If your answer to that question is: "because teachers from other disciplines won't do it," I think that accepting that would be a huge fail on our part as Math teachers. Here are some concrete things that I think would help if you are a math teacher:

- Ask your school's science, history, economics, psychology, etc teachers what topics they are teaching in the next month and if they would like you to come visit their class and co-teach a lesson to include math related to this topic.
- Ask other teachers at your school if they would consider creating a joint assignment that students would turn in for both classes (or turn in one part to one teacher and the other part to the other teacher) that would allow for a more in depth investigation.
- Are there classes that all students at a particular grade at your school take or a field trip that they all go on? That might be a great starting point for a cross-curricular project that involves Math and one other discipline.

Here are some examples of cross-disciplinary application projects I have liked:

- Students in a History class taken by all 10th graders were analyzing racial relationships in colonial times. They read an article called, "Social Dimensions of Race: Mexico City, 1753," which looked at how perceived racial differences were the basic criteria for social differentiation and employment in Mexico City in the 1750s. In my Math class, we used the data in the article to run a chi-square test of independence to see the level of independence between race and employment. Students then came back to History class the next day to discuss the ramifications of this analysis.

- Students in a Math 3 class created original art using Desmos and a variety of functions and conic sections, which they also worked on during their art class and which they had to analyze from an artistic as well as a mathematical perspective. 

- Students in Math 2 who were studying histograms, box plots, measures of center and variation, and outliers picked topics of interest in a country in which their world language was spoken and used the Gapminder global data set to analyze this topic over time in that country. They then wrote a paper and presented their findings to their world language class. 

My argument is that projects like these are inherently more relevant, authentic, and motivating to students than any applications I could find and facilitate on my own. And then I can put more of my time into teaching pure math ;)

Sunday, July 9, 2017


My school is committed to having students reflect on their learning, both in terms of math-specific development and student habits*. The research is pretty strong that reflecting on learning is a huge component of solidifying understanding. As John Dewey wrote, “We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.” Reflection as a skill is something that we intentionally cultivate and assess, but I am always working on making it a more integrated component of my classes and something that students value and appreciate.

Here are some ways that I've worked on doing this over the past few years:

Start of year reflections: establishing relational aspects of class and setting goals

We spend the first two weeks of each course working on open problems and having students read, watch, and discuss ideas that we think are important to setting the tone for the year, establishing classroom norms, and getting buy-in for learning through problem-solving

Reflections that emphasize content: after each lesson/assignment and after taking an assessment in order to correct course

We want students actively thinking about their progress in the course, returning to their goals, reflecting on their learning, and fine-tuning strategies in order to make progress.
  • At the start of most classes, students summarize the main topics from the last class and homework assignment and reflect on their understanding through this Desmos Activity Builder.
  • After most assessments, students reflect on their work in the class, both in terms of content learned and the development of their mathematical practices and student habits

Reflections that emphasize practices and habits of learning: projects, homework, note-taking

Things I still need to work on/think about

The reflections were mostly created based on perceived need and don't necessarily spiral and build on each other as clearly as they could. I'd love to spend time going through the prompts and making them more specific - thinking about which mathematical practices should be cultivated at the start of the year, which ones later on, and which ones should be spiraled back to at later times. This would also help make the reflections shorter and more specific, encouraging deeper and more thorough responses. 

I'd love to hear about others' experiences with reflections so please comment or tweet at me with questions or feedback.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Formative Feedback

I've been thinking a lot about feedback lately. It started with this tweet:

@mpershan was kind enough to respond with an email and sent me down a rabbit hole of articles and blog posts about the usefulness of feedback. Since Michael was the inspiration for this journey, it's only fitting that I try to imitate his style of writing out loud to try to organize my thoughts on this topic (sorry, Michael - reading this back after I've finished the blog post has shown me that you are inimitable. Also, I should probably avoid writing blog posts at 11 pm in the future).

The central question we discussed was: what is the purpose of feedback? Clearly, it is only useful if it changes a person's thinking. Does pointing out a mistake do this? Does categorizing the mistake do this? Does indicating a student's level of understanding of a topic ala Standards-Based-Grading do this? Do questions do this better than statements? Do students need to reflect on the feedback or do another problem related to the feedback received or implement it in some other way in order to get more benefit from it? Written vs. oral? Immediate vs. delayed?

Feedback while kids are working in class:

This is the type of feedback I think I know how to do the best. When kids are working on a task, either on their own or with someone else, I am usually able to ask questions, point out features of their work, or connect them with other students' thinking so they can make progress, identify and correct errors, and clarify their own ideas. The one blind spot that I think I still have in this area is when a student thinks about a problem in a way that is really, really different from methods I understand or have seen and thought about before. This doesn't happen very often, but when it does, I'm really stumped. I can help them verify that their answer is incorrect. I can ignore their method and show them a way to think about the problem correctly or point them to another student in the class with a different approach. But if I don't understand it, I can't help them resolve the cognitive dissonance of their incorrect approach, which means that my work is not complete.

But in general, this is the type of feedback that seems to pay the most dividends. The kid is right there with their work, we can have a conversation, I can see if they are able to implement my feedback and give more or of a different kind, as needed, or ask them to work on a related problem. This is really the best case scenario in feedback world for me.

Feedback on homework:

Things start to get real hazy real quick when I'm looking at a kid's work outside of class and my feedback is now provided in written form or via a conversation with them the next day. Will they have time/inclination to do anything about my feedback? Without the option of a conversation, I have to make a guess, which I suspect is often not great, about their thinking and the amount/level of information to provide back and how to do that in a way that opens thinking rather than closes it. Honestly, I don't have any evidence that students get a ton out of the written feedback on their homework assignments. I've thought about building in class time to have students read the feedback on their assignment from the previous day and do something with it (since homework is turned in digitally and feedback is provided digitally, I have no idea how thoroughly students would be reading my feedback otherwise), but it seems like I could just use this time to talk to students of concern about their work or have the class do a problem related to an issue that I saw on many papers. We already go over homework questions in class before it's turned in and the answers are provided in advance, so presumably, they know if they are understanding the material. If I'm very concerned, I would rather email a student or talk to them in class or ask them to work with me outside of class. Spending lots of time writing comments and then flinging them into a black hole of ??? doesn't seem like the best use of my limited time. But not providing feedback on homework also seems wrong. So I'm at a bit of an impasse here. I've moved some of my homework grading (especially for bigger projects) to in-person conversation and in an ideal world, I would be able to do that for all of my grading, but time with students is a precious commodity.

Feedback on assessments:

This type of written feedback seems to go better than homework. I think that there are a few components that have made it more successful:

  1. Students perceive assessments to be more summative and take feedback on them more seriously. They know it's a check of their understanding that will more directly be reflected in their grade (grades as motivation.... laaaaaame, but I'm not sure how to get around this... I have to produce some sort of grade at the end, and I like homework to be purely for feedback so that leaves assessments for grading). As a result, they read comments more carefully and are more motivated to figure out their mistakes and learn from them so that they can show more understanding on the reassessment.

  2. I separate the feedback and grading parts to help students focus more on the feedback initially. When I grade assessments, I only write comments/questions (and try not to say too much since I know I'll be there in person to continue the conversation). I record their SBG grades on the assessment in the online gradebook only a day or so later, based on the research that showed that when students receive written comments and a grade on an assessment, they basically ignore the comments and only look at the grade, and that this is not helpful for learning. Getting back their assessments with comments only helps to keep the conversations on concepts and learning only, not on grades, as well as encourages students to work together with less comparison to others. 

  3. We spend class time correcting quizzes, usually in groups that are either assigned randomly or by common error types. The quiz corrections are an assignment that is collected, they are not for "earning back points" (I don't actually understand what that means), but they are required in order to reassess. I ask students to analyze their error (did they misunderstand an aspect of the concept? execute a procedure incorrectly? make a careless mechanical error?), as well as redo the problems on which they made errors. Based on my thinking around this issue, going forward, I'd like them to also state what they plan to do to make progress on the issue identified. Michael seemed to think that identifying the type of error is not particularly helpful to students, but I think that when followed up with a "next step," it is maybe more useful?

  4. I think that more students actually know what they should do to make progress with assessment feedback. They've done a lot of work with the concepts being assessed. They can talk to peers to understand other approaches, they can talk to me, we can schedule a meeting outside of class to work together, they can refer to online resources organized by content topic to review a concept or procedure, they can do practice problems from homework assignments and previous reviews related to this concept so the feedback is both more closely connected to a concrete goal and to ways of reaching that goal. 

So my main questions right now are:

  1. How can I make feedback on homework more useful in helping students change their thinking?
  2. Are there ways to improve both my in-class and assessment feedback?
  3. How can I move more of my feedback to conversation and away from enigmatic notes that try to strike just the right balance of tantalizing hint/information-giving and hook to motivate kids to want to look at their homework again and rethink their approach, but that mostly get ignored or scanned quickly and not attended to? Did I mention that writing tons of feedback on homework assignments takes a lot of time???
  4. Are there aspects of feedback that I'm not considering?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Using Canvas to coordinate written feedback

Yesterday, @druinok asked for suggestions on providing more written feedback to many students quickly.

It turns out that we both use Canvas, an LMS, at our schools. There are a lot of features about Canvas that are not the most user-friendly, but in terms of giving feedback to students quickly and easily, it's been really helpful. Here's how I use it:

  1. All work that I collect from students passes through Canvas, including work that is not graded, but is just for feedback. I create an assignment with either a link to a pdf for problem sets or to a Google doc for projects/written reflections

  2. Students complete the work either in their Math notebook or in a Google doc (for projects/written reflections). But all work is submitted digitally. The student's view has an electronic submission button. Most of my students have the Canvas app on their phones and can submit by snapping a photo of their written work. Those that don't have the app take a picture with their computer camera and submit it via the web version of Canvas. I remind students to submit their homework to Canvas after we go over homework questions in class.

  3. In grading mode, I see the photo each student took, mark the assignment Complete or Incomplete, and type written feedback. If the assignment is graded, I indicate their level of proficiency and sometimes comment on the specific objectives graded (we use Standards Based Grading so students don't see points, only learning objectives and levels of proficiency).
  4. The system is quick - I can go through all the work submitted by students, type or copy and paste comments, and click on levels of proficiency if I'm grading the assignment. Students see the feedback on individual assignments and can also look at feedback from past work, chronologically or organized by learning objective.

  5. I love the fact that students have access to all of their Math work in their notebook at all times - there's no longer the loss of time in turning it in, waiting for me to write feedback, and then getting it back, accompanied by the inevitable loss of someone's work and of me lugging piles of papers back and forth from school. There's no longer a question of whether something was turned in or what the feedback on that work was. We can both always easily see a chronological record of the feedback given over the course of the year and track progress. If I ever create a portfolio system for summative assessment, all of the student's submitted work is already digital and organized.

  6. The one drawback that I wish Canvas provided is the ability to annotate directly on student work. If I want to draw a student's attention to a particular problem, I have to write a note that says, "In question #2, look at..." instead of just circling question #2 on their paper. When students upload their files in pdf format, Canvas has an internal marking system that activates and allows you to annotate, highlight, and type directly on the page. But for most students, this would add an extra step of converting their picture to a pdf and uploading it in that format, and I would rather make homework submission as simple as possible. So for now, this is my system.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Task Makeover

We've all been there... you find a task that seems awesome. You start reading it and you get excited. There are so many different strategies that can be tried. There's a visual and algebraic aspect to it and a chance to try specific examples, make generalizations and predictions, test them, and build and justify a model. You spend a bunch of time exploring the different paths you think students might take, how you're going to give them feedback and what you'll assess with this task, how it fits with the rest of your curriculum, how you'll structure individual work time, collaboration and class discussion, how you think the lesson will flow, and how much time you plan to give to each component. Mostly, you're excited because you think it will be engaging and fun for students and will also bring up really interesting and important math ideas and practices. You introduce the task in class, eyes aglow with that special teacher light reserved for days like this, rubbing your hands in anticipation for the awesomeness about to unfold.

Except that it doesn't. At all. Kids seem confused. Then, frustrated. Heads start to go down onto desks along with pencils. Silent think/work time becomes sad, frustrated time, then out-loud complaining time as you slowly realize that this task is bombing and how. The kids you'd especially hoped and planned to engage, the ones who only sometimes engage, are the first ones to go. You try to rally the troops, but it's a lost cause, and you end the class demoralized and humbled. X years into this thing and every day still has the potential for catastrophe and epic failing (you may or may not be exaggerating the dramatic nature of the experience, most kids probably shrugged their shoulders and went on with their lives, but it was a hard 30 minutes for me, dammit!)

Where do you go for solace and a sympathetic ear? To the Math Twitter-Blog-o-Sphere, of course!

Thanks to the advice and thoughtful questions of all you fine folks, I was able to reflect on the task design and recognize that the sheer wordiness and immediate jumping into very abstract ideas was a huge turn-off for many students.

Students had been doing so well with open investigations that even though it had been a little while since we had done one, I had completely abandoned the normal structures that coax kids who are not super sold on this Math thing just yet to try things, engage, take guesses, get a foot in the door, and progress towards increasing abstraction and formality at their own pace.

Fortunately, I had another class the next day with which I had planned to try this task. Back to the drawing board.

I started with a story. It's my birthday, but I'm really, really obsessed with all things square. My entire party has a square theme. Of course, I demand a square cake and that all pieces served to guests are perfect squares too. I can have my own party and eat the entire square cake myself. I can be a bit more generous and have a party for 4 since I can cut the cake into 4 perfect square slices. I can be even more generous and throw a party for 7 by cutting the cake further. 

This was a natural segue to asking students what they noticed and wondered, which brought out all the key features of the problem that in the earlier version were laid out in many, many words. Namely - is it possible to throw a party of any size if the slices must be square (but don't need to be of equal size)?

Students immediately had gut reactions and strong opinions. Some were ready to look for patterns right away, but for most, an opening question of: can you make another arrangement that we don't already have on the board? sent them on their way. 

Students quickly determined that they could make 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, etc pieces and that they could always add three to the number of pieces by cutting one of them into 4 and add 8 to the number of pieces by cutting them into 9.

There was another breakthrough when a student presented a convincing case for 6 pieces (as well as 11) and others realized that they could always add 5 more pieces by putting another layer on the outside.

This was the class I'd been hoping and prepping for when I found this task. Engaged, arguing, changing their minds, kids working past the end of class and needing to figure this out. 

Take-aways for me? Don't assume that kids have graduated past scaffolds that help them get started and build up to abstraction. If you're going to take them away, be aware and think deeply about how to do that carefully and thoughtfully. It's hard to reclaim a class that's lost its confidence so pay attention to this part.

I went back to the first class and tried again. With the reformulated question, things went much better. One of the students who had struggled the most the first day came up with a great organizational chart (that she said was inspired by Pascal's triangle) for tracking possible party sizes. 

She did have to amend it when another student came up with the 6 and 11 square versions since her version only assumed you could have perfect squares and add either 3 or 8.

Next step for both classes - helping them transform the patterns and ideas they have into more formal written explanations and justifications.

Monday, February 13, 2017

More ideas on working with students who really, really don't like mathematical exploration

As I've blogged before, the area in which our program has perhaps received the most criticism is in the challenge that open tasks, labs, mathematical explorations, and group problem solving pose for students who crave a more structured, algorithmic, and predictable approach. I met with a student (new to me this semester) last week who told me that she was incredibly frustrated with her current Math class (I am the teacher) because in her prior Math class, homework was 1 through whatever odd and both homework and quizzes were repeat versions of what the teacher had shown students in class. She had found this prior class soothing and comfortable and was an excellent student in this environment, whereas now, she felt that every facet of class was constantly asking her to figure out problems she hadn't seen before and she never knew if she really understood or felt like she was on solid, comfortable ground. She was worried that her confidence was slipping and that she wasn't learning as well as she had in the more traditional environment.

My initial internal reaction was to try to convince her that my pedagogy was sound, that it would indeed be better for her long term to struggle and make sense of novel situations, apply and stretch herself, learn how to tinker and problem solve rather than regurgitate algorithms repeatedly, but I felt that this would be minimizing her experience and negating her sense of her learning and mathematical identity. She had clearly stated that things make sense to her after she is given a method and does a lot of similar problems - only then does she believe that she is able to generalize and form an underlying concept. This isn't how our program is designed and I absolutely believe that it is better for most students to experiment and play first, forming conjectures and identifying patterns before coming to or seeing more formal methods (if needed), but maybe it's not better for her. At the very least, if she is convinced that this is the wrong way for her to learn, then it will be very difficult for her to interpret her experience otherwise, thus creating a self-perpetuating cycle. 

So I'm trying something new, and I'm not sure how well it's going to work. Every week, I'm going to email her a list of concepts that we will be working on next week, along with resources either in the textbook or online for her to see these concepts explained and practice problems for her to work on. A preview, if you will. Class will then not be a time for her to explore and invent, like it is for other students, but a time for her to generalize and prove the patterns that have already been revealed and practiced. In exchange, she has agreed that in a few weeks, she will again try exploring a new topic and be open to coaching by me in order to also get better at this way of learning. 

I'm hoping that by engaging in good faith, I am able to bridge the divide in expectations and meet this student at her current level of need and that she is able to grow over time in the mathematical habits of mind that I believe are just as important as, if not more than, content knowledge. It is certainly possible that she will continue preferring doing math in predictable and routine ways, following a pattern shown to her by someone else, on mathematical autopilot. I really hope that I can convince her that she can be successful and that it's worthwhile to engage in math in a different way than she has in the past. But it's okay if that's not where she is right now. I have a whole semester to build a relationship of trust and forment and celebrate moments of mathematical success for her.

Have you had students who actively and eloquently resisted your view of math or ways of teaching? What are some ways that you've made progress over time in their willingness to go there with you? Are there students who never changed their minds? Any and all advice welcome, as always :)