Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Math Autobiography

Want to know one of my favorite assignments that I have ever given my students? Want to know learn a lot of useful information about your students in a short amount of time?

I know it sounds too good to be true, but this one simple assignment could change how you teach your classes and how well you know your audience.

Last year after helping lead an inquiry-based learning (IBL) workshop in Portland, I decided to try something new in my own classrooms. One of the other instructors, I wish I could recall who, said he/she started off every class with a math autobiography. That's all I had from my notes, but it sounded interesting so I did some research on it before school started last fall.

I went home, Googled “Math Autobiography” and found this assignment (MS Word document) online written by Kathy Wellborn from Fort Lewis College.

Math Autobiography 

Purpose of the Assignment 
As your instructor, I want to get to know you as a person and as a student of mathematics. This will help me better meet your needs. It also helps our department as we work to improve our services to students.

Your autobiography should address the four sections listed below. I’ve listed some questions to help guide you, but please don’t just go through and answer each question separately. The questions are just to help get you thinking. Remember the purpose of the paper. Write about the things that will give me a picture of you. The key to writing a good piece is to give lots of detail. See the example below:

Not enough detail: I hated math in fourth grade, but it got better in sixth grade.

Good detail: I hated math in fourth grade because I had trouble learning my multiplication tables. I was really slow at doing problems, and I was always the last one to finish the timed tests. It was really embarrassing. …

Section 1: Introduction 

  • How would you describe yourself? 
  • Where are you from? How did you decide to attend Fort Lewis? 
  • What is your educational background? Did you just graduate from high school? Have you been out of school for a few years? If so, what have you been doing since then?  
  • General interests: favorite subjects in school, favorite activities or hobbies. 
Section 2: Experience with Math

  • What math classes have you taken and when?
  • What have your experiences in math classes been like? 
  • How do you feel about math? 
  • In what ways have you used math outside of school? 
Section 3: Learning Styles and Habits (specifically for math) 

  •  Do you learn best from reading, listening or doing? 
  • Do you prefer to work alone or in groups? 
  • What do you do when you get “stuck”? 
  • Do you ask for help? From whom? 
  • Describe some of your study habits. For example: Do you take notes? Are they helpful? Are you organized? Do you procrastinate? Do you read the text? 
Section 4: The Future 

  • What are your expectations for this course? 
  • What are your responsibilities as a student in this course? What do you expect from your instructor? 
  • What are your educational and life goals? 
  • How does this course fit into your educational goals? 
It was fantastic! Students took it way more seriously than I could have imagined. Some wrote pages and all wrote enough to get to know them. It made me realize that we don't give our students opportunities to share their math baggage/backgrounds/etc. with us often enough.

Students shared everything from horror stories about being shamed in math courses to their excitement about math. Some let you know what they have heard about your class and even fears they may have such as a fear of presenting or working with others. This is good to know in an IBL course, since my students are all expected to work with others and also present problems. I even learned about people who were taking the course "for fun" and others who were in it for the second or third time. It really helped me get to know my students perceived strengths and weaknesses.

The first time I did this assignment, I was surprised that almost all of my students said they preferred to work alone and considered themselves introverts. This meant that I had to help them learn how to work together and intentionally help them see the benefits of this type of learning.

I kept these autobiographies and looked back on them as the semester passed. I want to create a similar end of course writing assignment and would be happy to share it when I do. If you already have one, please share it.

I'll let you try this assignment in your own classrooms and see what you think. Please share your comments on what you learned from this assignment.

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