Students do not always recognize the expertise of faculty who do not match their cultural stereotype of what a professor looks like. In this episode, Sarah Mayes-Tang joins us to discuss how she has used personal narratives to address these student biases. Sarah is an Assistant Professor in the Mathematics Department at the St. George Campus of the University of Toronto. She is also the author of a chapter in the Picture a Professor project, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.
- Neuhaus, Jessamyn (forthcoming, 2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
- Peterson, D. A., Biederman, L. A., Andersen, D., Ditonto, T. M., & Roe, K. (2019). Mitigating gender bias in student evaluations of teaching. PloS one, 14(5), e0216241. (A study that suggests that reminding students of bias in course evaluations may reduce bias.)
- Ogawa, Y. (2009). The Housekeeper and the Professor: A Novel. Picador.
- Borges, J. L. (1998). The library of Babel. Collect
John: Students do not always recognize the expertise of faculty who do not match their cultural stereotype of what a professor looks like. In this episode, we examine one professor’s strategies to address these student biases.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Sarah Mayes-Tang. Sarah is an Assistant Professor in the Mathematics Department at the St. George Campus of the University of Toronto. She is also the author of a chapter in the Picture a Professor project, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.
Sarah: Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to be here and to see both of you. [LAUGHTER]
John: Thanks for joining us. Our teas today are… Are you drinking tea?
Sarah: I am drinking tea. I have a…
Sarah: …I wouldn’t miss it. …it’s a chocolate mint black tea by Sloane tea. They’re a Toronto tea company.
John: Very nice.
Rebecca: I have a very standard [LAUGHTER] English breakfast today.
John: And I have a Prince of Wales tea today.
Rebecca: Oh, I haven’t had that in a while. John. We’ve invited you here today to discuss your chapter in Picture a Professor. Your chapter’s entitled “Sharing Our Stories to Build Community, Highlight Bias, and Address Challenges to Authority.” Can you tell us a little bit about this chapter?
Sarah: Yeah, sure. I think that my chapter might be the most obvious kind of strategy in this book. So a lot of the authors are sharing really inventive, or new strategies that I hadn’t thought of. Mine is all about just talking to other people about the challenges that we face when we don’t look like other professors in the academy, or at least what students might picture as their idea of a professor, what might you picture when you Google a professor? So my strategy is all about talking to people. First of all, starting by talking to colleagues, in particular, colleagues that might face similar challenges. So first of all, I should say, I’m a white woman, so I can’t speak to the full challenges that, for example, people of color might face, but I’m a math professor, and I present pretty feminine, and I teach mathematics in I guess, like a pretty serious math department. And so I certainly don’t look like what students expect when they come into a big math class. So for me, and I think for a lot of other people that I work with, it really came as a huge shock, when students started to question even my basic mathematical ability, 18 year olds dealing with probably their own insecurities about mathematics, but it was coming out as like, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. And then the reaction from my superiors who are mainly white men, would be to act more authoritative, basically act ways that were more like them. And the way that I felt was just like, there was something very, very wrong with me. I felt very ashamed. And even though I sensed that it had something to do with my identity, I knew they wouldn’t question me in the same way, if I was a typical looking professor, I also thought I did have to change something about myself. And there’s such tremendous shame in that. And it wasn’t until I, at the end of the year, whispered a little bit about it. And then another colleague said this exact same thing happened to me, the exact same thing. And the whole year, we were going through parallel experiences. And knowing that changed my life, it changed my profession. I would have left the academy if it hadn’t been for that. And then over time developing a group of cheerleaders who I could go to, and then kind of gain more confidence. My chapter also addresses being able to speak to colleagues and being able to speak to our students, because it’s important that they understand the challenges that we face, because we don’t just have white men who we teach, we teach a variety of students. And I think if we can talk about our personal challenges, and they can see that we also have faced challenges that they might be facing, then that can really be very transformative. So that’s kind of a brief summary of some of the things that I talk about.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how that unfolds in a classroom when you’re having those kinds of conversations with students in a math class?
Sarah: Yeah, so sometimes it unfolds very naturally, by some prompt that might happen. Yeah, there might be an extreme example. This past semester, I had another professor, he came in, and it was like, clear gender issue. And so I used that, in the next day actually, it took me a little while to react to it. And then the next day, we had a very deep conversation about gender in the classroom. But it might be before student evaluations, that has taken me a long time to come to, but how do you address the research about what students do in evaluations? Sometimes I assign reading about mathematicians’ experiences, I try to assign readings of biographies of diverse mathematicians, and then we relate it to their own experiences. And then if it’s appropriate, I don’t want to be all about me. But if it’s appropriate, I sometimes talk about what I’ve experienced. So those are some of the ways that it comes out. But I try to make my classrooms not just about the mathematics, because that’s really where the transformative stuff happens.
John: In terms of the teaching evaluations, have you addressed that issue specifically with students in terms of gender bias on evaluations before the evaluations? And has that helped? …because there is some research that making students aware of biases tends to reduce the amount of bias that shows up in the actual evaluations.
Sarah: It’s really hard for me to say if it helps.
John: …there’s no control group.
Sarah: Exactly. So even though I teach gigantic classes, you’d think that I’d be able to do some sort of like statistical thing, I have no idea if it really helps. I do get comments, after, if I do address it. I know that some students will say, “I’m not just saying this because she’s a woman.” So there is some backlash in that. So it’s unclear. I try not to do it right before the student evaluations, but like a few weeks before. I also do evaluations throughout the semester. And yes, it’s difficult to see if it impacts the evaluations or not. However, what is meaningful to me is not whether it impacts my evaluations, I think, but again, reaching the students who might not fall into those majority groups and helping them see that some bias stuff may be going on and it’s not all in my head and that is impacting my experience, and there’s actual research behind that.
Rebecca: I can imagine that students in a math class don’t expect to talk about identity. Can you talk a little bit about the student response to some of these conversations that you’ve had with students.
Sarah: It varies. I find that students are more and more open to it. I’ve taught a lot of first-year classes. So as they go through first year, they’re more open to it. Because at first, they’re like, “I just need all the math and they find a big change between high school and university in terms of the contact hours. So like you’re wasting our time talking about this stuff. But by upper-year classes, they find it such a refreshing change, because they’ve been in so many math classes, where it’s just all content, content, content. A lot of lectures. And so I really didn’t react to any of that backlash. And it’s almost like a breath of fresh air. And another aspect of identity that I think has been meaningful, like, has maybe come very naturally, the idea of like, “Are you a math person?” …because that’s another type of identity that’s really common in our society. And even that, it certainly linked gender and race, but it’s something that isn’t directly gender or race. And so talking about how that fits into their identity has also been a key to unlocking more personal conversation and getting them to really reflect on themselves in a mathematics classroom. Yeah, and I think one of the keys is like having them watch a mathematician talk about their work and how their identity is linked to their work. And then they comment, for example, Perusall or something where they can annotate the text, and then they start to get involved in some conversations, I can bring those comments into class and then we can have some pretty dynamic conversations.
Rebecca: I can imagine teaching first-year students in math with a societal “I’m not a math person” problem. I know, I teach in art and design, so we have a lot of students that claim that identity, “I’m not a math person, I don’t do math,” and are afraid. Can you talk about some of the ways that you have reduced the fear, allowed people to see themselves as being math people, even though they’ve never seen themselves in that way? I know you’ve had some really interesting things that you’ve done.
Sarah: Yeah, I love reaching those people. And it’s a lot more difficult now in my job at a big university than it was when I was teaching at a liberal arts school, where all students are required to take a math course. So maybe I’ll talk a little bit about my experiences at the liberal arts school to start. So I was at Quest University Canada, a small school, about 500 to 700 students. It kind of started as an experiment. And so we are encouraged to do all sorts of things. And we had a lot of students who were so afraid, just as you describe, of their mathematics course. And they were putting it off, putting it off, putting it off. And I think one of the things that really traps them is the idea that everything has to build on the thing before and a lot of them got lost somewhere in early elementary school and they never recovered. And it was some sort of threat to their identity, probably some like quick quiz or something. Someone said something, and they were lost, forever. So it’s trying to show them that well, there’s actually parts of mathematics that math majors don’t see until their fourth year that you can do right now. And that’s usually how I try to approach it. So I think one of the things is just addressing that head on, talking about their experiences in mathematics and telling them we’re going to do something different. You’re not going to see numbers, you’re not going to see arithmetic even, this is going to be about shapes and space and ideas, and maybe even accessing points of connection with individual students. So I can give examples of particular projects if you’d like or particular courses.
Rebecca: I’d love to hear an example of a project.
Sarah: Sure. I’m a firm believer that the things that you think are going to be total train wrecks can either turn out to be the best things you’ve ever done or they could be trainwrecks. But definitely my best things have been the wild ideas. So I was teaching a course on mathematical creativity. And it was going to attract a lot of students that were totally afraid of math because they had to take it as part of a series of courses on creativity. So they got to take a social science course on creativity and a chemistry course on creativity. But they also had to take this, in their minds, terrible math course on creativity. So I was really excited to teach it. But how would you describe the feeling of creating something new in mathematics. And for me, and for most mathematicians, if you hear like these quotes about mathematics, they’re like mathematicians will say “math is like poetry. Math is like…” …they give all these analogies with very creative analogies. But most students don’t access that until graduate school, because there’s not this freedom of exploration. So I spend a lot of time just wondering, how do I feel creative? How do students feel creative? And it was really only on research that I felt really creative? So, how can I model research for students? So what I ultimately did was, I asked them, first of all, I didn’t tell them where we were going, cause there’s going to be a two-stage project centerpiece of this course. And first stage is you have to define something from geometry, but it can’t be like anything you’ve ever defined before. So one group defined, they called it like an ice cream cone shape. So it was a triangle with like a circle in it. And then we really worked on making their definition mathematically. So how does the triangle touch the circle, another group to defined a caterpillar shape in a precise way. And then the second part of the project, after they have their definition they couldn’t change was to discover as much about that object as they could. And they were only graded on how, on their journals, how much time they spent thinking about it, and how much they talk to other people. And I’m telling you, the ideas that these students had, and the level of mathematics that these totally math-phobic students did, was incredible. It was what I would expect from fourth-year students. And they were starting to use the word theorems and proofs. I said, you don’t have to prove anything, I just want you to like discover things, but they were coming to it naturally. And it was amazing. I could just gush about all the things that they did forever, like all of the discoveries that they made for themselves. And I still hear from these students about the impact that this project had from them, I don’t know, six or seven years ago now. So yeah, that’s one of my favorites. But at the time, I thought, Oh, this might go really poorly.
Rebecca: It’s amazing how the freedom to explore and discover can really open up the freedom to see yourself in a new way, or to be a researcher in a different way. As you were talking, I’m remembering an opportunity I had as an early faculty member workshop. And it was a multi-day workshop with mathematicians, and I was the non-mathematician, to help develop curriculum. And I had never hung out with math folks that much before. But it was really interesting. And we had really interesting conversations about creativity and the overlaps of our work that neither of us had recognized before. So it’s really interesting how those opportunities to have those conversations, whether with students or with colleagues can open up so many possibilities.
Sarah: Yeah, there’s so much and I’ve learned so much from my first year-students who are interested in some very diverse things, and they brought a lot to, like I was gonna say, my teaching, but like, also, just me personally, [LAUGHTER] I think they really enrich my life.
John: And you have taught some interesting classes, including a first-year seminar course in math and literature and poetry. And another one was women’s mathematics. Could you tell us a little bit about each of those classes and how you’ve used that to get students more engaged with math?
Sarah: Sure. So both of them are at the University of Toronto, I will probably do it as U of T at some point, which is not University of Texas for American listeners. And in part they were written to try to attract students who might not traditionally sign up for a math course, all of our first-year courses are massive at U of T, except for these first-year seminars, which are capped at, I think, 25. So really, students’ opportunity for a small class experience. So the math of literature and poetry, I think some of the seeds were planted, actually, by one of the students in that math creativity class. She was a poet, and she identified herself as a poet as a first-year student, and she was also very afraid of math, but she kept finding linkages. And she said, “You know, I think this can help me with my poetry.” And I am totally not a poetry person at all, or I certainly wasn’t, I’m maybe more now. And so that started to get me thinking about like, maybe if I combine math with like a poetry course, I could engage some other students. And she’s one of those students that I still talk to you and she just got her MFA in poetry and still using her math. So I talked to her actually, in developing this course. She helped me a little bit on the poetry side, also a key part in the math and literature and poetry is I had a TA from English because, again, I’m not a specialist. So I needed someone to help me and she was wonderful, a PhD student in literature. So I think another source of inspiration that was also integrated into it was that I had taught novels previously and seen how novels helped students relate to mathematicians or see themselves as mathematicians. I was just amazed at like how much empathy they had for the characters. So we read novels like about mathematicians, like the Housekeeper and the Professor, a really great Japanese novel in translation. And then there was mathematics from novels. So for example, one of our key novels, or a story, of the Library of Babel by Borges and you can actually ask, what is the shape of this library? What could the topology of it be in mathematical language? So then that was a key for investigating topology.
John: Was a library closed or open?
Sarah: Yeah, [LAUGHTER], exactly, that sort of question. We can start to narrow it down. So that was the math in literature and poetry course, in terms of content. The woman’s mathematics course is still kind of growing in my mind. It’s been in the works for a really long time. I just like us to center it almost like an experiential learning course, where the object of study was the university or like the mathematics in our university itself. And so as a result of both history and modern mathematics, and all sorts of things, I decided one of our units was going to be on data visualization, which is a little bit more number focus than I often have in first-year seminars, but people are often surprised that like Florence Nightingale was not just a friendly nurse, she was [LAUGHTER] an amazing data scientist. And she was really one of the first people to bring some of these amazing data visualizations, and she’s an amazing statistician, all these things. And there’s also a lot of women in this space currently. So their project was like, well take some data about the math department, maybe, or students in the math department and find an appropriate visualization for it. And they generated stuff that we really haven’t seen, like, what does it look like in our departments to have 13% woman faculty. You can say it all you want, but to actually see it with like the people, it is actually pretty startling to me. And then another project with that course, was we worked with a university archivist, and went into the university archives. So our university has a long and storied history, we hold ourselves up as a great research university. So we have many illustrious women in the past who have studied here, but people don’t know about them. And since I would say, we have a pretty bad situation with women in our department now, people kind of assume, after this archives project, I would go around and I would ask people, “When do you think the first woman president of the math student union was?” and people would say, “Oh, there’s never been a woman president. Like, are you kidding?” Because that’s the way it looks like now. But the answer is actually 1910 or something. And there were strong women, like way back when. And so students went to the University Archives, they looked at student records, they looked at faculty records, they looked at photos, and they told some stories from that. So that’s a project that’s gonna continue for a future class.
Rebecca: Sounds really interesting, and a great way to get students engaged with many different mathematical ideas, but also really engaged with this idea of identity related to disciplines.
Sarah: Yeah. And another thing that it did is it also helped them see themselves as part of the university because it was the first semester of the academic year, they were first-year students, and so it helped them see themselves as part of the community.
Rebecca: We don’t, in our curricula, look at the history of our university as part of what’s informing our work or informing the students. And so I can imagine that that’s a really unique kind of experience that could happen in any discipline, that would be a really interesting opportunity for students to just better understand their traditions that they’re coming out of.
Sarah: And I think our university archivist wants to work with classes, like they’re so excited to see, especially first year classes, get us to coming there and being part of that aspect of the university. I’m always a big fan of all of our librarians and I know that you guys are too,
Rebecca: You should see my notepad right now. It actually says “go see our archivist” because him and I had a conversation about a project we could do with my class. [LAUGHTER]
Sarah: Yeah, they’re wonderful.
John: Often, archivists are working in rooms all alone by themselves. And in fact, ours do work in the basement. And the opportunity to engage with students is good for them, as well as for students. That sounds like a really engaging project.
Rebecca: I’m ready to sign up for all of these classes. So I hope you have room.
Sarah: You are welcome to come and even speak and spread your wisdom, I would love that. [LAUGHTER]
John: Speaking of room… you also have taught some introductory calculus classes with up to 3000 students in them and you transformed them into an online environment along with a colleague during COVID. Could you tell us a little bit about how that course was structured and how it changed when you went to remote teaching?
Rebecca: It sounds so daunting.
Sarah: Oh, okay. So COVID for everyone has been really, really tough. And especially that I always have to go back and think what year was that? 2020 to 21 academic year…, everyone had it really, really tough. So we all like deserve, like hero badges or something, and I’m ready for a break. So I think we all need to catch up on our rest still from that. But I was fortunate because before the pandemic was on anyone’s radar, we had already arranged kind of a transition point in my job where I was going to be going from coordinating this gigantic introductory calculus class to not coordinating it. And the new coordinator, my colleague, Bernardo Galvao-Sousa, he was going to take over it. We were going to have a one year overlap, so he could kind of see how I did it and just like everything was gonna go normal and then he was gonna take over. So that overlap year was to be the 2020 to 21 academic year. So it was fortunate that we were both able to work on it, I don’t know how it would have happened otherwise. I had already been in a period of transforming this class, it had been basically the same from no one really knows, like, as far as anyone could remember, it had been the same. And I was basically brought on and hired at University of Toronto, to bring it to the 21st-century. So over the past three years before that, I had been changing it completely. And then, of course, we went online, which required it to be rethought because you can’t teach a course for 1000s of students the same way. So what was the course like before? Well, we have a lot of rules in our university for first-year courses, in that they have to have a midterm, they have to have a final exam worth a certain weight, there were three one-hour lectures a week, one one-hour tutorial, kind of the whole structure was pretty traditional. But I had been introducing some innovative projects, we were shaking things up in how we did them in tutorials. And the whole curriculum was really modernized. So I’ll give an example of one aspect of the course, the applied communication task, and how we transformed that aspect of the course, to put it online and still give students hopefully as good of an experiences as they could online. So applied communication tasks were this word project. So first semester, they were three separate projects, second semester it was one project, they were applied, and they were about mathematical communication. And I’m a big believer that I don’t really invent many new ideas, I just kind of like look at the needs of my students in my place and try to adapt things from elsewhere. So I had talked to every department that took my students after so this was like a calculus course for science students. And so they were going, the majority to life sciences, but they were also going to chemistry, they were going to physics, some are going to earth sciences. And then some are going to psychology and some at some other smaller departments, not smaller departments, but smaller portions are going to other departments. I guess economics was another big one. And I talked to them about like, what skills don’t students have that they should have from calculus? And one of the big themes was that students were afraid, they were just afraid to approach math in new context. So they could solve all the problems that were traditional, but they couldn’t if they saw a scientific paper, and there’s math, they were like, “I’m not familiar with this math, what do I do?” So I really took that as inspiration like, well, we should have students do that very thing. So as an aside, I put questions like that in exams, like, you know, take problems from scientific papers, give them information and put them on exams. But then also, in the second semester, have them find a scientific paper that has a mathematical model. And ultimately, the goal is to communicate something about that scientific model. Now, what form should that communication be in? Well, one common form that scientists use is a scientific poster. And the advantage of that is that it could be kind of an event, it can be kind of a grand finale for the course in tutorials. So we had a bunch of mini-poster sessions with about 100 students each. And so each of the posters presented models. They got into groups, kind of halfway through the semester, they combined some of their papers, but that took them through the experience of talking to a librarian and having to deal with databases. It got them through finding what’s important and what’s not. Well, I don’t understand… really this is way over my head in terms of math… what can I say from this model, and so all those skills like that, and then also the kind of communication. And it also combined oral communication where they have to talk about their poster and written communication, they had to write about their poster and they really worked on different drafts of different parts of their poster, and they have to read. First semester, the projects prepare them for that. They had a project that was focused on written communication, that was writing a proposal to their city council based on population projections from their hometown. They had a reading task and that’s changed a little bit over the years. So that’s what it was. What we did online is we basically kept the same projects, except instead of having the sprinkled in the tutorial, like every second or third tutorial was about the project, now we knew that they’re at home, they do not have any resources, any people around, we really need to make these be focused tutorial and make the structure very, very, very clear. Because otherwise, this really complex project is just gonna get completely confusing. We structured the first semester in that the first three tutorials were focused on writing. And the second three tutorials were focused on reading. And the third three tutorials were focused on oral communication. And then within that, the first tutorial had the same structure, the second tutorial had the same structure. And the third tutorial had the same structure. So they kind of had something much more predictable. And there was like a lot more evenness, and we didn’t try to give them as many skills as we did in the in-person, we cut down the expectations, we trimmed as much as possible. And then something similar in the second semester, we trimmed a lot, we focused a lot, we didn’t aim as high on the exams, in terms of all of those questions from scientific papers. We didn’t have exams, instead of exams, we had three different types of quizzes, the fun type was reflection quizzes, which had them reflect on their learning sometimes, or maybe conduct some sort of experiment at home, and then use that and make a model or something to like, go on a walk, this was in the deep COVID In the fall of 2020. And so like go on a walk, if you can’t go on a walk outside, go on a walk around your house and find something to model. So some people are modeling bird chirps or whatever. And then you create your own scientific models. And if you have two to three thousand students spread around the world, obviously, cheating is a huge concern. So we tried as much as possible to make it interesting. And for me, like, yes, academic integrity is big, but it was the perception of academic integrity amongst the students. Like we really wanted to keep them engaged.
John: So how did you assess and evaluate all those quizzes? Did you have a large team of TAs?
Sarah: We had very limited TA hours actually. So I think that’s another part of big course stuff that we don’t talk about a lot. It’s actually something I’ve been writing about, I’m just not sure where to send it because we don’t talk about it. It’s like management, like how do you manage a large organization? So we have about 50 people. How do you distribute your resources, and we have very limited resources. So we wanted to do these quizzes, we want to them very well, we have very few TAs and we still wanted TAs to teach tutorials. What are we gonna do? So what we ended up doing is redistributed our instructor resources. And normally students would be in classes of 200 in person. And we had them in classes of 400 online, because we figured the difference between an online class of 200 and an online class of 400 was not going to make a big difference. And technology, I can go into all the technological challenges. Now, the technology is all there. But August 2020, breakout rooms for this large of groups, impossible. So we had to do all these Zoom, and it’s crazy stuff. That’s how we managed is we had instructors who were like just in charge of quizzes. And that’s how we did it. And then every third quiz was kind of the automatically graded kind.
Rebecca: I think it’s important to bring up some of these logistics or project management skills the faculty have to have, especially when coordinating such big courses. And I appreciate that you’re sharing some of those things, because you’re right, we don’t talk about it. Just like we don’t talk about those same experiences that we have as young female faculty in the classroom or whatever kind of identities that impact our experiences.
Sarah: Exactly. Yeah. And both of these are the things that really keep me awake at night. It’s not the actual teaching, it’s the “How am I going to possibly grade?” [LAUGHTER] Or like, “How can I negotiate with my chair for more hours per students?” Or “What are you going to do with that one TA who’s behaving inappropriately with students?” It’s all of these extra things. Very, very, very different if you’re doing even a class to 500 versus a class of a few 1000 is quite different because you can’t see it all.
Rebecca: Yeah, managing an equitable experience is a really different kind of thing. It just keeps scaling up. So finding that equity piece is a challenge.
John: But it is impressive that you did those reflection quizzes at that scale, because that’s something I’ve wanted to do, but have been a little reluctant to do in a class of 400 that I teach in the fall. And now this is suggesting maybe I should do some of that. [LAUGHTER] Providing the feedback is the main concern that I have.
Sarah: Yeah, well, I think for gigantic classes. I don’t know however, we defined gigantic, like I guess gigantic versus the thing that you want to do. It’s often like what’s really the priority here and then what can you sacrifice, like, there’s always going to have to be a sacrifice. So I can’t provide the same feedback on a quiz to a group of 2,000 students as I can for a group of 20 students, or the classes that I had this year were in the low hundreds. And I can’t provide them the level of feedback that I had like on everything. But using peer feedback can be helpful, or just explaining to them, I can’t provide you feedback on this. If you want more feedback, you’re going to have to seek it, which is hard I know and not ideal. However, these are the things that we face, or just like deciding that the grading scale is going to be really generous and loose. I experimented this last semester in class of like 300-ish students with not ungrading, but more this [LAUGHTER] direction, letting them determine a lot more of their achievement levels, trusting them to say, “Oh, yes, I have mastered this actually.”
Rebecca: Well, now you’ve piqued our interest and we need to know more about it.
Sarah: Yeah, like, I’m still kind of thinking about how to describe it or characterize it because I started off with a structure. And then I really let the semester go on and adjusted as I saw my students change and as I changed myself. So I don’t have a lot of eloquent ways to discuss it. This is a upper-year course for group theory. And I wanted to do a lot of things that I just didn’t have the resources for. So I had to make a lot of tough decisions. And also, we are in a super grade-intensive university. And by the time they’re in like, third year, this is so ingrained in their mind. And this particular course has a very high percentage of international students, probably over 80% international students. And in my university, I think that they tend to be more concerned about grades because they have to be and somehow, just like not giving them grades on anything. [LAUGHTER] Like saying, “Okay, you’ve either mastered this, or you’re excellent on this, or you’re not there yet” was really difficult at first, a lot of them dropped the course immediately, because they didn’t understand it. They were like, “what percentage is this?” And I’m like, “Well, there is no percent.” “Well, is it 100?” I think they did not understand the concept of it at all. So I wanted to focus on oral skills, and oral skills are so hard to assess. But I want to give them the opportunity to develop their oral skills, I didn’t really want to assess them as much as I wanted to make sure that they were speaking about math and they were talking about math to other people. They could reattempt any assignment they wanted. So, they did a test, they could show me that they had actually learned the material on the test. But they had to talk to other people about it, they had to demonstrate they had spoken to other people, a lot of the main things like videos, and one group organized a mini conference on the topics for the weekend. They did a lot of amazing thing as a result of this. And the TAs provided very targeted feedback. So we’ve provided feedback on the skills that we knew students needed feedback on. So, they needed feedback on particular cognitive skills that they were not able to assess, like research has shown that they are not able to assess their own proofs, or students are not able to provide that same feedback. That’s what we assess. But we didn’t bother assessing things we didn’t care about.
Rebecca: It’s an interesting way of thinking about it. I know that I also was experimenting a little bit with ungrading this past semester, and also found that international students are the most like, “I don’t know what this means.”
Sarah: [LAUGHTER] Yeah, you have to just admit, sometimes, you don’t really understand it. Also a good opportunity for discussion for students, and talking about what that means when we don’t really understand.
Rebecca: Yeah, I think it’s good to model that.
John: We always end with the question, what’s next?
Sarah: Well, I just submitted my tenure file two days ago.
Sarah: So I need to catch up on a couple of things, but then rest. I have not had a good opportunity since the beginning [LAUGHTER] of the pandemic, so I think that that’s going to be my answer. Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
John: That sounds like a wonderful plan. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: And great advice for everybody listening. [LAUGHTER] We can all use a little rest.
Sarah: We all need that reminder.
John: And we should note that this is the first time that Rebecca and I have recorded in the same room since March of 2020. So this is sort of a return to normalcy for us.
Rebecca: Yeah. So it was nice to share this experience with you, Sarah.
Sarah: Yeah, it was so nice to talk to both of you and to see you together. [LAUGHTER] So, I know that listeners can’t see you, but I have enjoyed seeing you and speaking with you.
Rebecca: Well, thanks so much for joining us. Thank you
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.