When Statistics Is Like a Wedding

Today was the first day of spring classes here, and I’m back in the classroom after 12 months of doing other things. I’m still doing most of those other things, too, but I’m excited to be teaching undergraduates again. What follows is a brief summary of some of the things I doing this spring in the course.

  • Something Old – The course is Math 216: Statistics for Engineering, and it’s the fourth time I’ve taught the course. It’s the first time in four years, but I have a stash of lesson plans, problem sets, and other course materials from 2008 to draw upon this spring. Also “old,” at least as far as my teaching is concerned, is the use of a course blog for sharing course info with students, which has been my practice for a few years now in lieu of Blackboard, and social bookmarking as a learning tool, which I experimented with in my cryptography course back in 2010. This time around I’ll be giving students specific bookmarking assignments (e.g. “Find an example of data visualization.”), but my rational for social bookmarking is the same as it was last time.
  • Something New – I have 75 students in this course! That’s more than I’ve had before in any of my courses. (My previous high was 56, I believe.) So while the course is familiar, teaching a class this big is new territory for me. I have two great TAs (former linear algebra students of mine) which helps, but this many students will be a challenge, particularly since this is also the first time I’m teaching while also directing my teaching center. I’ll need to muster all my time management skills for this semester.
  • Something Borrowed – Let’s give some credit where credit is due. I’m having my students read their textbook before class and respond to pre-class reading quizzes on the course blog, a process inspired by the just-in-time teaching approach by Gregor Novak, et al. During class, we’re using clickers to facilitate peer instruction, as popularized by Eric Mazur. I’ll try my best to motivate those discussions by posing interesting, challenging problems to my students, thus creating “times for telling” as described by Daniel Schwartz and John Bransford. And later in the semester, my students will complete projects asking them to apply statistical tools to “real-world” problems of their choosing, an assignment I picked up from John Mackey when I took over a course for him at Harvard. Also borrowed (and new, for that matter) is the use of Pinterest as a social bookmarking tool in an academic setting, as suggested by Amy Collier.
  • Something Blue – I’m stretching here, but go with me. The cover to my textbook, OpenIntro Statistics, is bluish. It’s the online, free, and open textbook I’m using this spring. I’ve not used an open textbook before, but statistics is so commonly taught and there’s so much material on the subject available online, I didn’t think it was right to have students spend $150 on a (not open) textbook. OpenIntro Statistics is free for the PDFs, and only $9.02 for a print copy from Amazon. This element of the course is also borrowed, from Mine Çetinkaya-Rundel via the Center for Instructional Technology blog at Duke University.

How do all these parts fit together? I used Prezi to create a roadmap of sorts to the course activities. Check it out:

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