Friday, October 25, 2013

Dealing with Misconceptions, Part 2

In my last post, I dealt with ways of handling student misconceptions in the moment. In this post, I will discuss how I follow through to make the course better, both from class to class and from semester to semester. I will draw on my Transition to Proof course as the primary example.

I am teaching Transition to Proof for about the fifth time this semester. At this point, I have a good idea of which proofs will cause students the most trouble, and I have specific ideas of what attempts I am likely to see. I have built up this mental cache of ideas by noting what sorts of proofs I have gotten in the past, keeping track of the activities and problems I have used with students, and remembering what kind of effect those items had on the students.

I use this information from class to class to make decisions about whether a misconception from one class needs to be dealt with in the next class. For instance, students had some misconceptions and general confusion around the logical terms "contrapositive," "converse," and "negation." One way I deal with misconceptions is to have multiple problems that center on the same topic, so that we see the same idea come up repeatedly in different ways. In addition, for the first time, I am trying to make use of this information by creating concept questions and using interactive engagement alongside IBL. 

Interactive engagement (IE) has been around for some time, and is probably best established in physics as a mode of instruction that produces significant gains in students' conceptual understanding. More recently, some evidence has emerged that IE has a significant impact in students' understanding of calculus as well (Epstein).

The concept questions I have created are short, multiple-choice or true-false questions that attempt to elicit students' misconceptions, so as to create a space for dialogue that leads students to confront the error in their thinking, and therefore come away with a more robust understanding. In the case of the logical terms, I created a few items that asked questions like, "Which of the following statements is true exactly when the statement, If A, then B, is true?" Or, "Which statement has the opposite truth value to, If A, then B?"

I have been using the questions by projecting them at the front of the class (and making them available for students to view as a Blackboard quiz or Google Form), asking students to answer each question, and then discuss their answers with a partner. Then we go through solutions as a class, usually by having a student explain their answer verbally, but sometimes we may draw a diagram to assist in the explanation. This has led to some good discussions, and has allowed us to zero in on specific issues students are having, without having to prove another theorem or proposition. It's relatively quick and focused on the issues students are having. 

In a recent class, there was disagreement about which choice was an equivalent expression of the definition of one-to-one. Because there were a number of students holding each opinion, there was a lively discussion among students, in pairs or small groups, attempting to decide which option was correct. The room was abuzz with mathematical discussion. As a whole class, I called on students and found three different answer choices that students thought might be correct. Eventually, a couple of students were able to remind the class of what we have learned about the contrapositive, and thereby convince the class of the correct option.

These kinds of discussions are exactly the kind of interactions that let students overcome misconceptions and solidify their understanding of key ideas from the course.

How else do you follow up to address student learning issues?

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