My top three misconceptions about digital learning (and why I was wrong)
One of my professors once said to me that if you teach math “you’re the only one in the room who wants to be there.” Yeah. The struggle to motivate mathematics students is real. From games and candy to bonus points and puppies, I’m always willing to, cautiously, try new ways to enrich teaching and learning in my classes. As a technology fan, it took little convincing for me to consider integrating online practice into my mathematics courses… as a supplement, nothing more. After all, a few little digital learning games can always make things more interesting. What I had underestimated was the immense value and contribution of MyMathLab in my classroom.
My top three misconceptions about computerized learning (and why I was wrong):
1. Digital homework is impersonal. Reviewing, grading, and commenting on every problem submitted by every student is the best way to individualize student practice.
Why I was wrong: feedback
The premise of this argument assumes that I am able to closely examine, review, provide feedback, grade and return all student work the next class session. If the problem with this premise is not obvious to you, then you’re likely not a teacher. Quality feedback addresses each student’s individual errors and successes in a manner that promotes further thought. This takes an immense amount of time that may be better spent planning effective instruction or otherwise engaging students.
At best, this method allows students to see their results the next day. By then, they are no longer engaged with that problem, making the feedback less relevant to them. With MyMathLab, students immediately find out not only what went wrong or right but also why. In this manner, the feedback is received while students are most interested in receiving it and, therefore, more prone to using it.
Encouraging, individualized homework feedback is not sacrificed, but rather, enhanced. Along with problem level feedback, instructors can email students by criteria. This allows me to share custom messages for students who have high scores, low scores, missing assignments, etc. While this doesn’t replace face-to-face communication, it is a very effective way to connect with students. This is particularly vital in online courses.
Manually graded and devised assignments are static. With MyMathLab I am able to create customized homework assignments that focus on each student’s unique needs. Students benefit from these assignments, which push them to persist through their challenges and not spend time on concepts they have mastered.
2. The machines will take over. My classroom instruction and policies will be dictated by educational technology.
Why I was wrong: flexibility
While I enjoy this sci-fi trope in episodes of The Twilight Zone, I’ve thus far managed to avoid the takeover in my classroom. What I did not realize early on was how flexible online homework program truly is. To further enhance student practice, I add customized problems and assignments, my favorites, throughout courses I teach.
During class time, the questions I receive from students, which guide a great deal of instruction, have been elevated. Since students have practiced, received feedback and viewed examples online, they are focused on those items that are most challenging. Our student-driven reviews are a much more efficient and engaging usage of class time.
Policies and procedures are much more transparent to students. While part of the course syllabus, policies on late work, partial credit, help features, dropping lowest scores, etc. are difficult for students to remember as they vary by instructor and course. MyMathLab displays this information to students when they open assignments, making expectations clear.
3. Students will not learn the material. They will find a way to outsmart the system and get the grade without the knowledge.
This was perhaps the most alarming of concerns as it deals directly with student knowledge and learning. Since instructors control the number of attempts and amount of help given, this scenario can definitely be avoided. There were, however, significant changes in my students:
- They gained confidence. Students who were hesitant to give an answer for fear they could be wrong, now value the personalized feedback they get when an answer is wrong. Students became more vocal and engaged in class discussions knowing that, right or wrong, their contribution would be valued.
- They started asking me questions. The “ask my instructor” button allows students to send me a question about what they’re working on while they’re working on it. Rather than staying stuck, they have the option to virtually raise their hand and ask a question outside of class time.
- They stopped asking policy questions. Students log in and have access to their grades, due dates, etc. Their personal responsibility increases as they see, in real time, the effect their performance in any given area has on their overall score.
While I’m not quite ready to say any of my students have FOMO for homework, their appreciation for it has certainly grown. Watching students who had once been apprehensive explore, persist, and question as never before is truly rewarding. Not only have I observed the changes in my students, but I also participated in a user study to statistically determine student achievement. Read the full case study.
About the Author
Yolanda Manzano is a full-time faculty member at Richland College in Dallas, TX. She has been teaching for well over a decade and joined the Dallas Community College District eight years ago. During that time, she has come to rely on MyMathLab to elevate her students’ learning. Originally from the South Padre Island area, Manzano still enjoys visiting family there when she can. Her formal education took place at St. Mary’s University where she studied Mathematics and Physics and at Baylor University where she achieved an MS in Mathematics. After completing those programs, Manzano went on to study education and received an MEd from the University of Texas at Arlington. Yolanda enjoys both athletic and intellectual challenges. Her curiosities have led her on numerous adventures and she loves adding more to that list each year. In her spare time, she can be found reading thriller novels, listening to This American Life, laughing with coworkers, and adoring her daughter, Dani, and her handsome husband, Zac.