Intro to Proof in Four Weeks Part IV: Getting the Course Started

Earlier posts: Part I, Part II, and Part III.

The much-anticipated first day of class arrived with little fanfare. It's been a long time since I've had a schedule where I only taught in the afternoon, so there was this awkward time where I'd finished preparing everything for class and my colleagues were teaching the morning classes, but I had nothing to do. Nothing to grade. No students to come to office hours. The first test was too far away to be writing. Little did I know, about 48 hours later I would be desperately wishing I could go back to that laid back, even bored, moment.

I'm always one to expect my students to come to class prepared, and with only 20 days with my students, I knew we needed to hit the ground running on day one. We started, as I've already discussed, in the lab with \(\LaTeX\). Students had already been told to have it installed on their laptops and given some screencasts to watch. That was where I gave the students their first group assignments and their first homework assignment. I also gave a demonstration of some of the key features of Box, since W&L has an enterprise subscription and I was requiring students to use it to submit homework. Once we could all compile a \(\LaTeX\) document, it was time to move to our usual classroom to start the mathematical part of the course.

Intro to Proof in Four Weeks Part III: Teaching and Learning Activities

I've already written about the role this course plays in our curriculum and my plans for learning outcomes, feedback, and assessment. Here, I will discuss what my plans were for teaching and learning activities. Later, I'll tell you how much practice lined up with these plans.

Two hours per day, five days per week, for four weeks seems like an eternity from the perspective of lecturing. When I first started teaching, I wrote out impeccable lecture notes and went into my classroom to drone on for 50 or 80 minutes. Slowly, I started incorporating active learning to break things up, and then I brought in clickers, which created a lot of student discussion and sense-making in my classrooms. (Although I didn't realize it at the time, this was really where I started moving into an inquiry-based approach.) Today, if I stand in front of my students and talk for 10 minutes, there are klaxons sounding in my head telling me to shut up and let the students talk or work or even just think for an extended period. Thus, the idea of having two hours of class is no longer intimidating. In fact, I was so excited about having that amount of time every day for student presentations and work that I was unwilling to give up any of it for quizzes or tests!

Intro to Proof in Four Weeks Part II: Design decisions

This is Part II of a series on my experience teaching a four week introduction to proofs course for prospective math majors and minors. I suggest starting with Part I for some context.

Historically, I have not started planning for an upcoming course months in advance. A month out is generally good, as that gives me either the wind-down period of summer or the finals/grading period of fall to prepare. However, I knew that this Spring Term course was going to be brutal even if I had carefully planned. After attending the 2014 Kenyon Inquiry-Based Learning Workshop, I was bitten by the IBL bug. (In all honesty, when I attended the workshop, I realized that I had been gradually moving toward inquiry-oriented activities in most of my classes for a few years. In fact, when teaching combinatorics using IBL this winter, I went back and grabbed an activity on recurrence relations from when I was still in graduate school and only modified it slightly before using it. I didn't even know the phrase "inquiry-based learning" at that point, but it was definitely an IBL activity. That said, I am incredibly grateful for the IBL community's support in the past year.) I knew that this course was going to be IBL with a lot of group work as well as student presentations. Those decisions were made months in advance, but by late February, I was already sitting down and trying to make some decisions about my course.

Intro to Proof in Four Weeks Part I: You want me to do what?

The teaching load for tenure-track faculty here at Washington and Lee University (W&L) is 5.5 courses per year. No, we don't have anything that really counts as a half course. Instead, what the administration means is that the long-term average number of courses each faculty member teaches in a year is 5.5. (We do have credit hour valuations on courses, but they're basically all three, four, or one. In math, all standard courses are three credits.) For most of us, that means we alternate between five courses and six courses. We also have a rather unusual academic calendar. We have two 12-week terms that we treat as semesters and then a four-week Spring Term. (Math faculty tend to teach 3-2-0, 3-2-1 in alternation, although some colleagues prefer 3-3-0 in their six-course years.) Until about a half dozen years ago, Spring Term was six weeks, and students took two courses. As part of W&L's last SACS reaccreditation, the project selected for the QEP was to revitalize the Spring Term. The way this was done was to shorten the term to four weeks, have students take a single four-credit course (possibly plus a PE skills course), and aim to offer a fully immersive experience. (If you're interested in knowing more about the design and intent of Spring Term, our administration has you covered.) Originally, all students were required to enroll for Spring Term, but we now allow them to "exercise the spring option", which basically amounts to taking time to look for a job, prepare for an internship or graduate/professional admissions exam, or even just relax. This year, about one in six students exercised the spring option.