2016 - 2017 Year In Review: PreCalculus

Overview

This was the first time I taught a true PreCalculus course in six years. At my current school, the course serves the following functions:

  • Preparing tenth grade students for IB mathematics SL or HL in their 11th grade year. Many of these students were strong 9th grade students that were not yet eligible to enter the IB program since this must begin in grade eleven.
  • Giving students the skills they need to be successful in Advanced Placement Calculus in their junior or senior year.
  • Providing students interested in taking the SAT II in mathematics some guidance in the topics that are covered by that exam.

For some students, this is also the final mathematics course taken in high school. I decided to design the course to extend knowledge in Algebra 2, continue developing problem solving skills, do a bit more movement into abstraction of mathematical ideas, and provide a baseline for further work in mathematics. I cut some topics that I used to think were essential to the course, but did not properly serve the many different pathways that students can follow in our school. Like Algebra 2, this course can be the swiss army knife course that "covers" a lot so that students have been exposed to topics before they really need to learn them in higher level math courses. I always think that approach waters down much of the content and the potential for a course like this. What tools are going to be the most useful to the broadest group of students for developing their fluency, understanding, and communication of mathematical ideas? I designed my course to answer that question.

I also found that this course tended to be the one in which I experimented the most with pedagogy, class structure, new tools, and assessment.

The learning standards I used for the course can be found here:
PreCalculus 2016-2017 Learning Standards

What worked:

  • I did some assessments using Numbas, Google Forms, and the Moodle built-in quizzes to aid with grading and question generation. I liked the concept, but some of the execution is still rough around the edges. None of these did exactly what I was looking for, though I think they could each be hacked into a form that does. I might be too much of a perfectionist to ever be happy here.
  • For the trigonometry units, I offered computer programming challenges that were associated with each learning standard. Some students chose to use their spreadsheet or Python skills to write small programs to solve these challenges. It was not a large number of students, but those that decided to take these on reported that they liked the opportunity to think differently about what they were learning.
  • I explicitly also taught using spreadsheet functions to develop student's computational thinking skills. This required designing some problems that were just too tedious to solve by hand. This was fun.
  • Differentiation in this course was a challenge, but I was happy with some of the systems I used to manage it. As I have found is common since moving abroad, many students are computationally well developed, but not conceptually so. Students would learn tricks in after school academy that they would try to use in my course, often in inappropriate situations. I found a nice balance between problems that started low on the ladder of abstraction, and those that worked higher. All homework assignments for the course in Semester 2 were divided into Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 questions so that students could decide what would be most useful for them.
  • I did some self-paced lessons with students in groups using a range of resources, from Khan Academy to OpenStax. Students reported that they generally liked when I structured class this way, though there were requests for more direct instruction among some of the students, as I described in mu previous post about the survey results.
  • There was really no time rush in this course since after my decision to cut out vectors, polar equations, linear systems, and some other assorted topics that really don't show up again except in Mathematics HL or Calculus BC where it's worth seeing the topic again anyway. Some students also gave very positive feedback regarding the final unit on probability. I took my time with things there. Some of this was out of necessity when I was out sick for ten days, but there were many times when I thought about stepping up the challenge faster than I really needed to.

What needs work:

  • I wrote about how I did the conic sections unit with no-numerical grades - just comments in the grade book . The decision to do that was based on a number of factors. The downside was that when I switched back to numerical grades for the final unit, the grade calculation for the entire quarter was based only on those grades, and not on the conic sections unit at all. The conic sections unit did appear on the final exam, but for the most part, there wasn't any other consequence for students that did not reassess on the unit.
  • Students did not generally like when I used Trello. They liked the concept of breaking up lessons into pieces and tasks. They did not like the forced timelines and the extra step of the virtual Trello board for keeping track of things. This Medium article makes me wonder about doing this in an analog form if I try it in the future. I also could make an effort to instill the spirit of Scrum early on so that it's less novel, and more the way things are in my classroom.
  • I should have done a lot more assessment at the beginning of units to see what students knew and didn't know. It sounds like the student experiences in the different Algebra 2 courses leading to PreCalculus were quite different, which led to a range of success levels throughout. Actually, I should probably be doing this more often for all my courses.
  • Students could create their own small reference sheet for every exam. I did this because I didn't want students memorizing things like double angle identities and formulas for series. The reason this needs work is that some students are still too reliant on having this resource available to ever reach any level of procedural fluency. I know what students need to be fluent later on in the more advanced courses, sure, but I am not convinced that memorization is the way to get there. Timed drills don't seem to do it either. This challenge is compounded by the fact that not all students need that level of fluency for future courses, so what role does memorization here play? I have struggled with this in every year of my fourteen year career, and I don't think it's getting resolved anytime soon. This is especially the case when Daniel Willingham, who generally makes great points that I agree with, writes articles like this one.

Conclusion

This course was fun on many levels. I like being there to push students to think more abstractly as they form the foundation of skills that will lead to success in higher levels of mathematics. I like also crafting exercises and explorations that engage and equip the students that are finishing their mathematics careers. We should be able to meet the needs of both groups in one classroom at this stage.

I frequently reminded myself of the big picture by reading through Jonathan Claydon's posts on his own Precalc course development over the years. If you haven't checked him out, you should. It's also entertaining to pester him about a resource he posted a few years ago and hear him explain how much things have changed since then.

2 thoughts on “2016 - 2017 Year In Review: PreCalculus

Leave a Reply