Thursday, January 23, 2014

One Small Change = Big Difference in Student Learning

Background:  My calculus class has been going pretty well these last few years.  Last spring I redid some videos on the lessons that students struggled with and that made a big change for that chapter in how student did on their test.  Their learning of the material greatly increased; my test proficiencies for that chapter increased from 58% to 100%.  I define proficiency as the number of students that are at 80% or above on their assessments. 
But over the last four years, I have noticed students’ grades typically dropped in the second half of the class.  On average, students who had below a 94% at the half-way mark would drop on average 3.57% in their overall grade.  Students who had above a 94% at the halfway mark would drop on average 1.35% in their overall grade.  I figured it was because the last half of the course was significantly harder (volumes of revolution, integration by parts, and doing calculus on transcendental functions) and initially dismissed it as something out of my control because of the difficulty of the material.  

The Change:  This fall when I taught the class, I decided I would require students who were below a 97% in the class to do “daily problems” and turn them in every day.  The daily problems were three or four questions that student needed to turn in before school every day except on test days.  This is different from my normal assignments that students do where they have access to the solutions manual and can always check their work, but for these daily problems there was no solutions manual for them to use to see if they were right.  Students would turn these daily problems in before school.  If they got them all right, that was great.  If not, then they would get the problems back and have to do corrections before the end of class.  If students did not do the problems or did not get the correction problems turned in, then they had to “hang out” with me during their lunch and do calculus. 
This change did a couple of things.  It was a reality check for the students to see if they really did understand the material without looking at the answers and for me to know which students were struggling with the material or which students I needed to work with more to help them understand the material.  This was a good check for understanding for the students since this class does not have quizzes and is based mainly on their tests grades and final.

The Results:  So, what are the results of this one small change?  Well, 80% of the students found the daily problems helpful in understanding the material better.  But better yet is what happened to students’ grades from halfway through the class to the end of the class.  Instead of student grades dropping by 1.35% to 3.57%, the students’ grades actually went up by 0.25% to 0.56% even though the material was significantly harder.  Another great thing that happened was the number of “A’s” rose significantly from 43% to 76%.  The number of “B’s” dropped because a lot of students went from the “B” range to the “A” range.  This change also kept a couple of my “B” students from dropping into the “C” range.
Calculus has a difficult reputation, even among math teachers. When I shared my findings with a colleague, he replied, "And Faulkner’s Calc ain't no cakewalk.  Wow.”  His reaction certainly helped validate the positive impact this small change has had. 

Since I am a data-guy, here is the summary data of the big changes:

Fall 2013
Prior Classes
Change in grade if <  94% @ halfway
Change in grade if > 94% @ halfway

This small change impacting students also had an impact on me.  I was reminded that “change” doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking or a massive “re-do”; small things can also greatly impact student learning in more ways than I could have imagined.  I was reminded once again that the journey is all about continuous improvement, for students and teachers.

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