Friday, May 8, 2015

Finally! A Win! How I expressed my concerns and students actually listened.

I had a Win yesterday! A capital 'W' Win! It kind of made my day and thought I'd share it with you all.

This term I am teaching an alternative pathway mathematics course. Traditionally students are expected to take anywhere between 1-4 remedial mathematics courses, for which they don't get college credit. These courses are not college-level (below 100-level), so they get credits for taking them but they don't apply to degree programs or requirements. For each remedial math course a student takes their chances of failing (and subsequently) dropping out increase. So to help non-STEM students get around these courses  (which are frequently focused on STEM students) many colleges and universities are trying these alternative pathway courses. Many other organizations and publications have talked about this trend.

One of the instructional methods in the course is group work. There are a number of times in a class where I or my co-teacher might say "Let's have you all work on the next question as a group." I find this to be a great way for students to learn from each other, develop their communication skills about mathematics, and help build a learner-centered classroom. The drawback has always been their propensity for getting off-topic. Giving them space for talking through these questions has turned into a space where they can talk about everything else.

Yesterday I started a topic and I could already feel the wheels coming off. Students started chatting (albeit quietly) and it was clear they were not on-topic. I could also feel myself start building up with anger and frustration. From previous experiences I knew I could not just say how I was feeling, but I needed to put into context of what students were doing, and what I expect them to. So I laid it out to them in something like this:

I really enjoy how we can talk about many different topics in this course, and it is really rewarding for me. But this class (as a whole) has a habit of getting off-topic. I know this course is structured a bit differently and it allows you all to talk through questions. This is very different than my other classes where the focus is on lectures and I know exactly what will happen next. So what I would like today is for all of use to be a little more focused, and stay on-task. Again, I love talking to you guys, but we have material to talk about today.
After that, they paid attention, focused on the material, asked some great questions, and I even received some praise from my co-teacher someone I look up to. A capital 'W' Win!