Reflections at 1/3-term

Each of the past several weeks has started with “write new post” high on my to-do list.  With 90 students in 3 classes, working on new sections for the second semester of Active Calculus, and the usual laundry list of life and work, the weeks have flown by.  Here are three things I’ve been thinking about regarding the teaching of calculus at the end of week 5 in a 15-week semester.

1.  In my two calculus II classes, I have 60 students.  We meet 4x a week in person, and I provide a substantial out-of-class workload that includes reading, WeBWorK exercises, team homework exercises, graded lab activities, and exams.  I expect students to work 8-12 hours a week on assignments related to the class.  A short anonymous poll I conducted this week revealed that well over a third of respondents say they normally spend 4-6 hours a week or less on work for my course.

2.  Geogebra and Wolfram Alpha are awesome.  Long live free software.  In calculus 2, we’ve been using a mix of Maple, Wolfram Alpha, and Geogebra to support our technological needs.  For single variable calculus, there’s no question to me that a combination of Wolfram Alpha and Geogebra is more than sufficient to replace a traditional computer algebra system.  Added bonuses:  both run in a browser, have limited syntax requirements for use, and are genuinely intuitive to use.  I see my students doing good things with each of them to aid their understanding and computation.  And again: they’re free.

3.  Mike Caulfield continues a great discussion of Massively Open Online Courses over at hapgood.us.  In one of his many posts, he notes that in a recent survey of students taking a circuits and electronics course, 80% reported taking a similar course previously.  80%.  Mike has a great point here:  MOOCs may prove to be an outstanding way for students to refresh or expand a topic they’ve studied in the past.  He wonders, like I do, how well they can function for introducing students to new material for the first time.

Connecting (3) back to (1), I would say:  if working face to face with my calculus students 4x a week and giving them meaningful graded assignments to complete on a regular basis leads to only 4-6 hours of outside work, it’s clear to me that many students are working to minimize their workload for my course, or at least to minimize it in light of other commitments they are choosing.  Imagine if such a student were one of 26,000, with name unknown to the instructor, and not paying a dime for the course.

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