Skip to main content

Surviving Fall Term Two (#1113)

Topics/tags: Overcommitment, Teaching, Grinnell

I have not mused much in the past few months. Why? There are myriad reasons. As I wrote earlier, [I was frustrated with way too many things happening on campus]((on-hiatus-2020-07-23) and found it hard to muse in a way that was positive or productive. Many things got worse. It felt that to muse would put me in a worse mood, rather than a better one. But it was also an issue of time; teaching in a seven-week term is much more overwhelming than teaching in a seven-week semester [1]. For Fall Term One, I was teaching Tutorial, which involves a lot of hands-on work with students. It felt like every two-hour class took four hours to prepare. And then there was grading, individual meetings, advising, and, of course, all of my departmental responsibilities.

But none of that is intended to be the subject of this musing [2]. Or very little. In this musing, I will reflect on the workload of the new seven-week version of CSC-151, Functional Problem Solving.

The switch to seven-week terms required one major change: Since we went from forty-two class meetings to thirty-four [3], it became necessary to cut some topics and to shrink others. I also added some in-class exam days (or exam review days), which cut the number of days for topics even further.

The switch from in-person learning to online learning required a second kind of change: We needed to rethink how we did pair programming in the course. Pair programming is integral to Grinnell’s introductory sequence. We make it part of our courses because we know it helps students learn better and because we expect it builds interpersonal skills and respect for the other [4]. Fortunately, my colleague who taught the course in Fall Term One worked out most of the details: We marked each problem with either person A or person B as the driver and the other as the navigator [6]. Of course, we also redesigned labs and identified technologies [7] to allow students to collaborate well.

Then there was the broader question of what kinds of assignments to give and how to assess students. As I wrote a few weeks ago, we decided to move toward a form of mastery grading. With a seven-week term, we wanted to make sure that students didn’t fall behind. To keep students on top of the material, we added a daily reading response. Well, we already had daily self-check problems; we just added a requirement that they turn in some of those problems. We continued the daily lab writeups, although my colleague switched from turn in one problem to turn in all the problems. That change helps ensure that both sides in pair programming participate. I also added daily quizzes (with one free makeup each) because I know that low-stakes assessment helps students learn. And there were weekly mini projects [8] to give students a chance to show off something that they had learned.

It turns out that there are a lot of moving pieces to keep working with all of that. That meant that I did work every morning before class as well as work in the afternoon. Here are some notes I took on November 16 about a typical morning.

Get in to the office at or before 7 a.m.

Reflect on the goals of today’s class. Always the best way to start. Also, make a list of what I need to do before class.

Today: We’re doing documentation. But there’s a lot to reflect on from prior classes. Students did poorly on Friday’s quiz, so we’ll need to redo it. I graded the first set of learning assessments over the weekend. How much do we talk about it? And students want to go from meets expectations to exceptional on mini-project 2 (and just start with exceptional on mini-project 3). How much time should I reserve for each? And do we do documentation as a group discussion, in pairs, or in small groups.

Depending on the status of things, I check and respond to messages on Microsoft Teams. (That’s how my students, graders, and mentors generally communicate with me.)

Today: I thought I had everything ready, so I read through the messages. One student wanted to check an answer to a learning assessment. Another wanted to set up an appointment. My graders were checking in. I needed to send some notes to my mentors. Probably something else that I forgot.

Set up (or update) the eboard. That’s my digital whiteboard, a plan for the class at the start of class and a record of the class after the class. It’s generally in text format and preserved for accessibility. In setting up the eboard, I think not only about each activity, but also about how much time I should allow for each activity. Some things get cut. Some things get pushed to ask the students to read, but don’t discuss. Some things, like the Q&A time, are difficult to plan.

Today: I’d spent a lot of time over the weekend getting the eboard ready, so I just need to glance through it.

Verify that everything is ready for class.

  • Is the quiz ready?
  • Is the makeup quiz ready? (That should be ready already, since students should take it before class. I’ve moved from Take it starting at 7:30 a.m. to Take it any time in the next 24 hours.)
  • Are tomorrow’s readings ready? In some cases, I can use a prior reading. But because we’ve switched things around, many need rewriting.
  • Am I comfortable with the lab? Can I make it shorter? As with readings, I may need to make changes because we’ve cut courses. I work on each class the prior day, but it never hurts to check again.

I’ve usually forgotten to do one or more of those the day before. Or perhaps I’ve run out of time. Or during the night, I’ve come up with a clever new approach. But even if I haven’t, it’s always good to review.

Today: There are two versions of the documentation lab. I was going to use the newer one. But it leaves out some things I like. I decide to create a hybrid. I managed to do that much more quickly than I expected.

Today: I hadn’t reviewed the readings for tomorrow. Am I happy with them? Do I have time to look over them? Sure. Okay, the unit testing one is one that’s gone through lots of readings. I don’t see any obvious things to improve. It even has one of the old stories I use with regards to unit testing. The other one is a new reading that a colleague wrote last term. We have a different style. I should probably make some changes. We also disagree a bit on how you respond to a debugging hypotheses.

And there’s always a moment of panic. Do I have all the quizzes ready (makeup that’s due today, today’s quiz, makeup for the previous day’s quiz that’s due tomorrow)?

Today: Severe panic. I can’t find one of the quizzes. Oh, that’s because I misnumbered it. Great job Sam! Oh well, I’ve fixed it before class.

Then there’s the technology. I have to make sure that I have DrRacket up and running and without any student work loaded. I need to make sure that I have assignments on Gradescope for students to submit their lab writeups and reading self-checks. Since I share a screen during class, I should make sure that I’ve put the public materials (such as DrRacket) on one screen and the other materials on another.

Today: I forgot to set up the places on Gradescope to submit. I didn’t realize until the end of class, when people started asking. about them.

Publish the eboard. Verify that it’s published. I develop on my local machine and publish to my web server.

Today: That was straightforward. It usually is.

Start the class in the Class Meetings channel on Teams.

I started class at about 7:59 a.m. I generally try to start earlier.

It’s a bit more nerve-wracking than it sounds on paper.

But it’s not as nerve-wracking as the other work. In addition to rewriting (and, in some cases, writing) readings and labs, I had to write quizzes, makeup quizzes, learning assessments, and sample learning assessments. What did I write? Let’s see if I can figure it out.

  • I wrote 19 quizzes
  • I wrote 18 makeup quizzes
  • I wrote 88 learning assessments
  • I wrote 34 sample learning assessments
  • I rewrote or wrote 25+ readings
  • I rewrote or wrote 20+ labs
  • I rewrote or wrote 5 mini-projects

That’s one reason I was busy. Or is that more than two hundred reasons I was so busy?

And then there’s the grading. Fortunately, I have graders, who covered most of the readings, labs, mini-projects, and mini-project redos. I still did some of them, but that wasn’t much compared to the quizzes, makeup quizzes, and learning assessments. How many of those did I grade? (I didn’t keep track of labs, readings, and mini-projects. [8])

  • 636 quizzes
  • 123 makeup quizzes
  • 1606 learning assessments.

I also spent a lot of time on Teams answering student questions. But that’s among the best parts of teaching, particularly when you see (or intuit) something click in a student’s understanding.

Will things be better next term? A bit. I won’t have to make as many changes to the readings and labs. I’ll still have to make some because I’m making more changes to the subjects and some things need to be improved. I won’t have to write as many sample learning assessments. I’ll have to write some because I’ll have slightly different learning goals. Since the class is now at 3 p.m., rather than 8 a.m., I’ll be able to review the readings self-checks before class so that I know what students are confused about. I’ll be better at writing learning assessments, so perhaps there will be fewer LA makeups. And I’ll have a few more students in the course. I’m anticipating a busy Spring Term One.

What about musing? Spring Term One doesn’t start until February. Perhaps I’ll get a daily musing done. Or a bi-daily musing. Something like that.

See you online.

[1] At least I found it that way. Others may feel differently. Perhaps I’ll muse on the differences. Perhaps I will not.

[2] How often do I write that, or something like that? At least 20% of the time.

[3] There could have been thirty-five, but I refused to hold class on the day after Thanksgiving.

[4] We do not know that it builds interpersonal skills or respect for the other, since we do not formally assess those issues. Nonetheless, we hear from our students that our approach helps build community in the department [5].

[5] We also hear that we have some work to do. To be honest, we know that we have some work to do.

[6] By we, I mean that my colleague rewrote most labs for Fall Term One and I rewrote them again for Fall Term Two.

[7] I think we looked at six or so different arrangements for the class. I will admit that I would not have chosen Teams. My colleague did, and it was the right decision. I also know that my students also needed to figure out some fallbacks, such as Google Meet, when Teams failed to work properly for screen sharing.

[8] My colleague called them demos.

[9] I didn’t keep track of these, either, but I could look them up on Gradescope.

Version 1.0 of 2020-12-26 .