Category: What Do My Students Really Know?

# What Do My Students Really Know? Part 2

During the second semester, I only assigned homework using Delta Math. This worked well for several reasons, with the most important one being that it gave me better insight into what my students actually understood than pencil-and-paper homework ever did.

The Delta Math homework I assigned surprised me right off the bat. The image below displays one student’s results on the first assignment of the second semester. Many students had similar results.

This assignment consisted entirely of review material. We had assessed linear functions at least once in December, and for the most part, students did fine. I knew that students would be a bit rusty after Winter Break. That’s why we completed this assignment. The surprise came from the misconceptions I saw in student responses.

Although I could only see their answers, I found it relatively easy to determine their misconceptions. Unsurprisingly, I saw all of the classic slope mistakes.

- Writing slope as an ordered pair instead of a ratio
- Subtraction errors, especially with negative numbers
- Putting the change in in the numerator instead of the denominator
- Mismatching and
- Forgetting to simplify (not exactly a mistake, but Delta Math marks this wrong)
- Misinterpreting as either or as

These aren’t new mistakes. I’ve seen them many times, and we’ve corrected them together many times. We said “vertical divided by horizontal” at least ten times each class period every day for a month. And the students *got* this! Like I said, students did fine when we assessed linear functions in December.

So why did so many students continue to display these misconceptions? I’m not naive. I realize that students master the material at different rates. But how could so many of them who *had* mastered the material make these mistakes? Why did they return to misconceptions that they had overcome a month earlier?

One explanation is that students managed to know the material well enough to pass an assessment, but they did not develop the robust understanding necessary to maintain their skills even a month later. That’s the explanation I originally subscribed to, but I think it lacks something important. Many of my students *did* understand slope. Throughout the fall, they worked hard to connect proportional relationships, steepness, and lines. They built a solid conceptual foundation. They thought mathematically. They solved problems. I think what they lacked – and this is on me – was a proper emphasis on procedural fluency. Sure, we had plenty of opportunities to practice and to develop that fluency, but rarely did they have the “Uh oh, I’m wrong!” moments that Delta Math gave them. My Delta Math assignments required students to get a certain number of problems correct to get credit. You just can’t fake a right answer. That’s what I like about Delta Math – it holds them accountable.

The other major advantage of Delta Math over pencil-and-paper homework? I can look through as many assignments as I want to in a relatively short time period without having to carry papers around. I have a bit of a problem with keeping papers organized, so moving homework online and avoiding paper altogether saves me some serious time and energy. The obvious drawback is that I cannot see the work that the students did. In the examples above, it’s relatively straightforward to identify misconceptions without seeing the student’s work, but that certainly won’t always be the case. I think, though, that simply being able to see that a student struggled with a problem type may be enough, especially given that some sort of intervention would need to take place anyway.

I’m not sure yet what homework will look like in my classes this year, but it seems like I’ll want to place more emphasis on procedural fluency. Perhaps such an emphasis earlier in the year will lead to better understanding all year long. I hope 2018-19 is the year I finally figure out how to make homework work for me and for my students!

# What Do My Students Really Know? Part 1

My two Accelerated Math 1 classes have been working with sequences. They have completed some investigation problems to develop vocabulary and to grapple with the characteristics of different types of sequences. We have built definitions of explicit and recursive formulas as well as of arithmetic and geometric sequences, and as a class, we came up with explicit formulas for both of these types of sequences. Their work has impressed me, especially given that we’ve done all of this using function notation, which is totally new to everyone. Students don’t even seem particularly troubled by some of the more challenging problems (such as figuring out missing terms when given two specific terms or determining the term number for a far-off term) that have frustrated some of my past classes. I know that they need more practice, but overall, I’m pleased with their progress.

For practice, we completed a matching activity in which students had a card with either the formula for a sequence or the sequence itself. They had to find the student with the matching card. I designed the sequences to be fairly similar so that students really had to think about which sequence went with which formula. It wasn’t enough, for example, to notice that the first term of the sequence matched up with the formula because multiple sequences had the same first term. My students handled this activity pretty easily.

I wanted to try something similar with Desmos, so I made this Polygraph activity. It features eight numerical sequences and eight explicit formulas. I expected students to ask questions like: “Is your sequence arithmetic?”; “Is the common difference positive?”; and “Is the first term negative?” Although I certainly saw questions like those, I noticed that many students used imprecise language and pursued a line of questioning that lacked a logical progression meant to eliminate possibilities. Their work surprised me and has made me wonder what they have really learned. Here is some of their work along with my commentary.

The questions about negative numbers make sense on the surface, but all decreasing arithmetic sequences will have negative numbers eventually. Is it important that this student was referring to the first three terms without saying so? Had I been the picker, I may well have answered “yes” to that question even if my sequence only displayed one negative number. Substantial mathematical background allows me to focus on this sort of nuance. How do I help students refine their language to remove the ambiguity that I see? Or am I seeing an issue where one really does not exist?

Does the formula for a sequence count as a sequence? Should that first question be worded as “a numerical sequence” to avoid confusion? Would count as having a negative? Does using “over” instead of “greater than” present a problem?

Although I’m happy to see “arithmetic” used correctly, the word “decimals” worries me. I’m not sure that “decimals” has a firm definition in my students’ minds. These students seem to be referring to numbers containing a decimal point, which makes sense, but I wonder what they think of . Does that count as a decimal? Perhaps a better question would ask about non-integers.

Sure, these questions get the job done with minimal ambiguity, but I’m not a huge fan of the final two questions. Without a need for vocabulary like “common ratio,” I suppose it makes sense to ask these questions. Maybe I need to force students into choosing between two geometric sequences with the same first term. But would students then simply ask about “the number in parentheses” or something similar?

Ah! Here’s a misconception! Seeing multiplication in the equation led the picker to call it a geometric sequence. This is why I love Desmos activities – concrete evidence of students’ understandings and misunderstandings that I can immediately work to address.

Another opportunity for improvement on my part! The two sequences remaining after the first three questions differed in two regards – their first terms and their common differences. A possible revision might be to change the highlighted formula to . This would even make a question about subtraction useless, so it should elicit a question about the common difference.

Lots going on here. Plenty of great vocabulary here (e.g. “explicit formula” and “common difference”) as well as some great questions about odd and even numbers. I’m particularly fond of the question “do you add to get to the next term.” Sure, I’d love to see “arithmetic sequence” show up in that student’s vocabulary, but it’s hard to fault a student for a description that just works.

Just a fascinating line of questioning here. Only one of the three visible sequences has *exactly* two negative numbers, but the students here only considered the visible terms. Why did the guesser asked about negative numbers anyway? Wouldn’t asking if the sequence increases (or decreases) be simpler? And to follow one interesting choice with an even more interesting question…wow! Why does this student bother including the word “arithmetic” in this question? Both of the sequences are arithmetic. And why ask if it’s adding instead of simply asking if it’s increasing? This sort of specificity doesn’t really add anything other than the risk that one of the students miscalculates and leads the other astray. I wish I could have been inside this student’s head!

So much to say about these… One student was extremely curious about the starting number. What does that say about that student’s understanding of sequences? Several students asked about function notation rather than asking about formulas or equations. How about the student who asked about positive numbers, even numbers, double-digit numbers, AND the number ? Yes, these questions got the job done, but what do they really tell me about my students’ understanding of sequences?

As you can see, my students used all sorts of vocabulary. They used lots of different math terms, but they didn’t use as much of the sequence vocabulary as I expected. On the one hand, I’m proud of their ability to use what they know and what they’re comfortable with to find success. But I wonder what this all says about our work with sequences. This Polygraph activity certainly differs significantly from the work we’ve been doing. Students need to do more than just perform calculations and interpret numbers. Polygraph forces students to wrestle with sequences in a unique manner and to draw distinctions between sequences represented numerically or as equations. Perhaps in the face of such a challenge my students retreated to the most natural language. Perhaps their understanding of sequences isn’t what I thought it was. Perhaps the numerical sequences and explicit formulas I chose did not lend themselves to the sort of questioning and language that I had hoped for.

So what does this all mean for my teaching and for my students’ learning? I actually feel like I’ve done a better job with sequences than I ever have before. So much more of our work this year has involved thinking through and solving problems. But maybe I haven’t gone far enough in including rich, meaningful tasks. Or maybe this was just a necessary step on the path toward mastery. As we continue working with sequences and eventually use our sequence knowledge to develop linear and exponential functions, I look forward to further probing my students’ understandings and challenging them to engage more deeply with the mathematics.