INTRODUCTION:  This fall, I taught one section of Survey of College Mathematics, the lowest level course for which students at my college receive general education credit for graduation.  It is a course I often call “Math Appreciation,” because it is designed for students going into majors that don’t require a great deal of math, but yet gives the student a sense of how math is used in a wide variety of settings outside of science and engineering. Students in the course are at very diverse points in their lives.  One student might be in the first semester of college, another relieved to be in a credit level math course after a year (or more) of developmental work, a third poised on the edge of graduation and “all I need is this math course.” 

PURPOSE: For all of these students, I felt that an activity that would help develop self-awareness, as well as improved self-management and interdependence (at least in terms of working with me), would be valuable. I adapted the concept of weekly journals into a series of writing prompt responses. 

SUPPLIES/SET UP: I developed a very short introduction to the writing prompt response activity, including how and when the writing could be submitted. (The introduction and a list of prompts I used are appended below.)  This introduction was available at the first class meeting; other prompts were distributed weekly throughout most of the semester.

DIRECTIONS:   On the first day of class, along with the syllabus and other course information, I distributed the writing prompt introduction. I informed the students that they would be writing to me each week of the semester.  They were allowed to email their responses, bring them to class and turn them in, or bring them to my office, as long as it met the deadline.  I provided the first prompt at the end of that first class, which was on Tuesday, with a deadline of noon Friday of that week.  I deliberately chose NOT to have the writing prompts due on a class day, because I wanted them to be involved in managing their time and making their own decisions about when they would like to turn in the writing or send it to me. Each writing assignment was worth a maximum of 5 points, counted as a required part of the grade for the course (essentially about 9 percent of their course grade overall.)

As the semester went on, I generally used prompts which required them to write about how they felt they were doing in the course, how they thought I was doing in teaching the course, and occasionally how they saw a topic we were discussing as it connected to the “real world.”  I responded to each writing assignment, either by writing on their papers and returning them or by responding to email I received.

OUTCOMES/EXPERIENCES: For the most part, students were comfortable and willing to participate in the writing prompts. About a third of the students used email, another third brought assignments to class to turn in, and the rest dropped them off at my office.  However, early in the semester, several students had difficulty getting into the routine of turning in this writing assignment in addition to the content work they were also doing.  The first few weeks only 80% came in on time.  As a result, on several of the first prompts, I gave the students the option of responding to the question:  “If you didn’t turn in a writing response last week, discuss what happened and why.”  There were some flippant “I forgot” kind of answers, but the most common reasoning was that they just weren’t used to writing in a math class!  As we moved on into the term, however, I could see the students checking in with each other for the papers to be turned in on the class day before deadline, and encouraging others to complete the assignment if they hadn’t yet done it.

I really enjoyed having the opportunity to communicate one-on-one with the students, hearing what they were thinking and doing, and in some cases getting a heads up on a situation that needed some intervention. 

At the end of the semester, I wondered if I would see a relationship between those who completed the prompts and grades in the course—I did not.  A couple of students did every prompt and still failed the course; others did only 60% of the prompts and earned passing scores.  On the other hand, out of 29 students who began this course, I had 28 come to take the final, as opposed to the more typical 22 or 23 I would usually have, and all but six earned passing grades in the course. I can’t of course attribute that solely to the use of the writing, but subjectively I think it helped students to stay involved in the course.

The time involved in record-keeping and writing back to the students was minimal; sometimes I just wrote “Great insight!” or “Thanks for the feedback.”   On top of it, it was a way for me to accomplish some results without taking any class time to do it.

The second-to-last prompt I gave asked them to evaluate the use of the writing responses for this class, and the replies confirmed that, at least for some students, I had met my goals for this activity:

  • The writing prompts did help me this semester because thanks to them I was able to analyze my progress in the course. It was a good evaluation and also a good way to see my weaknesses in the course.
  • To me the Prompts helped me in some way to show my concerns to you because sometimes you are busy or the students don’t have time to stay a few minutes after class, etc. So I think the prompts really help to know the students.
  • I think that doing the writing prompts helped me keep things in perspective. They also made me associate what we are doing in class to real life. It also was comforting to be able to give a bit of feedback.
  • I think the writing prompts helped in this course because it helped build a relationship with you (the professor). I don’t know about with the other students, but with our emails you got to know a little bit more about me then you would have just dealing in class. It kind of gave the opening for a little bit of one on one communication.
  • The prompts have got me to think about my grade, my goals, and applications of what we are learning in class…out of class. All positive, also good way to communicate ideas between you and the students.

Of course, there were some students with a different slant (although I would note that these comments came from two of my top students who didn’t really need my help in being successful):

  • To be honest with you, I don’t feel as though responding to the writing prompts this semester have really helped me in the course because the questions were so basic and did not really challenge me…I do not believe they were a total waste though.
  • To be honest, I don’t think that responding to the writing prompts helped me in this course. In my opinion, it helps you…collect some students’ feedback. Of course, it is a useful way for establishing a communication channel between students and instructors.

And then there was the pragmatic:

  • I think the writing prompts have definitely helped me out because it gives you extra points.  For instance you’re not doing well on tests or quizzes, you can receive these …easy points.

LESSONS LEARNED: As this was my first attempt at this plan, I had decided not to “grade” the responses; students got either full credit or no credit.  Next time I will be more discriminating about what I will accept as a completed assignment, including adding a minimum length requirement, to get them to “dig deeper.”  I will also give them an example of an acceptable writing assignment, so they have a model to follow.   I will probably use many of the same prompts next time, but expect to add some new ones and modify others, particularly to make them valuable even to students with good success strategies already.

I enjoyed how this activity got most of my students thinking and managing their assignments and how I was able to really communicate one-on-one with each student each week. I knew much more about each of them, and I think as a result they were more comfortable calling, emailing, or stopping by to ask a math question (or other, for that matter).  I was frustrated by the three or four students who just didn’t seem to care about doing it, especially when I gently nudged them to do so, but I guess no strategy works for everyone.  I also found that as I took the time each week to plan the prompt, it caused me to think about where I was in my teaching, how the class was doing, and on what areas I would want to focus my students by directing their thoughts in the writing.  This experience was probably almost as valuable as the reading of the student responses themselves!  I can’t wait to repeat this activity in my course this term.

RESOURCES: Handout and Prompts

Each week you will be asked to write a brief response to a question or statement I will pose to you.  Some will be content related, some will be about study skills or test strategies, and some will be more general.  Since quizzes and tests will be held on Tuesdays, the responses will generally be due no later than noon on Friday of each week.  The responses may be written and turned in at class, brought to my office, or emailed to me at the address on my syllabus.  I will respond to each paper either by writing on them and handing them back or by replying to email. 

Writing Prompt 1:

Complete the statement:  “I love math because…”
Complete the statement:  “I hate math because…”
Answer the question:   “What do I expect to gain from this class?”

[Note:  The rest of the prompts were given out separately each week, but I have grouped them here for reference.  There were several weeks during the semester when I missed giving a prompt due to personal circumstances, but I do not recommend that—give one every week!]

Writing Prompt 2: Describe your experiences and attitudes about using a graphing calculator, and tell me which kind of calculator you are using. OR If you did not turn in a writing assignment last week, complete this thought:

“I did not turn in a writing assignment last week because….”

Writing Prompt 3: How much time per week have you spent studying for this course?  Do you think it is enough time at this point, and if not, how could you change that?

Writing Prompt 4: What do you plan to do to prepare for next week’s exam?

Writing Prompt 5. Discuss your reaction to your performance on the first exam: Was it what you expected, better, or worse? If it was worse, can you see patterns in your errors, or identify the cause of your poor performance? If it was better, pat yourself on the back and tell me so!

Writing Prompt 6: What one thing is the instructor doing in this class that is helping me to have success? AND What one thing is the instructor doing that is causing me problems in this class OR what is the instructor NOT doing that would really help?

Writing Prompt 7: Give an example of a situation in which you have used, seen, or can find matrices OUTSIDE of this or other math courses. [Magazines, newspapers, other courses, any of these are possible resources.]

Writing Prompt 8: Give two examples of situations in which you have used, seen or can find the idea of probability OUTSIDE of this or other math courses. Be sure to explain the example thoroughly. [Magazines, newspapers, television, other courses, any of these are possible resources.]

Writing Prompt 9: Answer the following three questions; please give as much detail as possible.

Do you think that responding to the writing prompts this semester helped you in this course? If so, in what ways?
Do you think that having weekly quizzes this semester helped you in this course?  Why or why not?
When I am teaching this course next semester, do you think I should include writing prompts, weekly quizzes, both, or neither?

Writing Prompt 10: Write a paragraph to a student who will be starting this class in January, telling them what they need to do to be successful in this course.

–Deb Poese, Faculty, Mathematics, Montgomery College, MD

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