This article describes four activities which can help students develop a more professional attitude toward their coursework: looking directly at their expectations, revising goals after a test, finding applications of the course in their chosen field, and preparing a résumé.
Background and Purpose
St. Cloud State University serves approximately 13,000 students. Since most students are self-supporting, the job ethic is very strong. The state pays 2/3 of tuition costs, expecting in return at least an eight-hour day of classes and studying from students, but most students maintain part-time and even full-time jobs (often at night). Worse than the effect of this on studying habits is the fact that our students often associate greater value to their jobs, and this can translate into excuses for missing class or turning in assignments late. Over the years I have found that some of these attitudes can actually be turned to a learning advantage especially when one explains education situations in terms of jobs. For example, the student who complains that a take-home exam is too difficult will understand my point when I ask how a boss would react to the sentiment, "the job is too difficult."
The assignments described here (which I might call PATs, for "Professional Assessment Techniques") are designed to take advantage of the situation, and to encourage students to think of themselves as pre-professionals in the educational environment. My work with PATs preceded my discovery of Angelo and Cross's Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs, ) and the assessment movement, tracing back to a Writing-Across-the-Curriculum faculty development workshop in the early 80's, during which I became interested in using exploratory writing assignments to enhance learning . Angelo & Cross, however, helped me to think more systematically about using student writing for classroom research and for shaping learning. Some of the techniques I use are explained in .
I use some combination of the following assignments in a variety of courses. I tell the class in advance of an assignment how many points it will count.
1. Examining Teacher/Student Roles.
Assignment: List (overnight) ten characteristics of a good teacher and ten characteristics of a good student.
Findings. The combined list for the teacher tends to be highly diverse, mostly featuring friendly qualities such as "smiles a lot, understands when we don't get something, is available, doesn't assign too much homework." In fact, this list inevitably sounds like the preferred qualities of an instructor on faculty evaluation forms, raising the question of exactly what comes first. The list of features of the good student, however, is by comparison very short and incomplete. A good student "smiles a lot, asks questions, is helpful to others, tries to come to class as often as possible, keeps up as much as possible." I have never received the response, "reads the book." After compiling and reviewing these two lists, I draw up my own expectations, and in the next class we spend a half-hour comparing our lists on an overhead projector. I highlight comments that strike me as interesting.
I wish I could say that this exercise is enjoyable. Rather, coming at the beginning of the term, with our expectations on a collision course, it's more likely to cause students to feel that they are being "set up." But I don't expect this exercise to enhance my popularity. It is instead intended to let students reflect on their own learning objectives, and in particular, to make some expectations extremely clear; e.g., "to come to class as often as possible" is not acceptable. ("How would that sound to your boss?") More congenially, throughout the course, I can remind them, for example, that "good students ask questions."
2. Revising Goals.
Assignment: (a) Resubmit your exam with revisions and corrections to anything "in red." (b) Complete the Post-Test Survey. (c) Review your initial goals and create five new ones, based on your experiences in this class to date.
Some questions I use for the Post-Test Survey:
(1) How prepared did you feel for this test?
(2) Did you do as well as you expected?
(3) Was the test fair?
(4) On what questions did you make your mistakes and why? What did you feel were your weak areas? Be explicit.
(5) How many hours per day do you actually study?
Findings: Many industries and academic institutions, including my own, ask for goal reports. While many teachers set goals for their classes and expect the same from students, there is value in having students ASSESS and REVISE their goals. Students write five learning goals at the outset of the course; then after each exam they submit a folder consisting of corrections to their tests, the Post-Test Summary, and a revision of their goals, based on the test performance. I consider the revising process an important part of student self-assessment. It is gratifying to see goals become more specific over time, with instructor feedback. For example, a typical goal from students at the outset is, "to get an A." I may write that this is my goal for the student as well, but HOW shall we achieve it? For example, how will we know when the work will produce A's on tests? Subsequent goals become more sophisticated one student amended this goal to "During this class I wish to obtain better study habits by organizing myself and the notes I take. I see from this test that I will probably have to study longer on certain things that I do not understand in class and go to the tutoring sessions if it is necessary for me to do." Perhaps this student is learning to write longer sentences, but he is also becoming more aware of his share of responsibility in learning.
I also collate responses to selected questions on the Post-Test Summary and show them on overhead projector. If 24 students felt the test was fair, while four did not, reasons can be discussed. Occasionally I compare study patterns of some anonymous A-students with those of low performers. Test performance is generally a private thing, and when tests are opened up to discussion, students become very curious about what their peers are saying. Any tendencies of students to regard themselves as victims of the test, the teaching, or the book dissolve in the more serious discussion about what we can all do productively to improve learning.
The folders draw me into the students' lives, and I find myself making extensive comments. Learning flows from engagement. Red-flagging a rationalization exactly when the student is engaged with it provides the best opportunity for catching the student's attention. Many students will claim to have made "careless" mistakes, which allows me to discuss why these are nevertheless a problem. Or I might flag an excellent student, demoralized by an exam, whose goal is now "to settle for a C." The interactive format allows me to respond to issues and questions the students themselves have raised, and thus provides coaching in a more personalized framework.
3. Getting into the real world.
Assignment: Go to the library and photocopy a page, from an ADVANCED text or journal in the field of your major interest, that includes some calculus. Document your source. Write a 1-page explanation about what the mathematics is saying, in language that will be understandable to another student in this class. (Anyone doubting calculus will be used in his or her field should look at an advanced statistics or economics text.)
Findings. A universally expressed goal among students is "to understand where this material will apply!" Nevertheless, the examples from applied fields in a calculus book never seem to have an impact. Possibly these examples go by too fast, or seem rigged, or they are not the type to be on tests. In this writing assignment, students explore the section of the library devoted to books in their chosen field; usually they have not been to this section of the library. They must choose a page that includes some calculus (perhaps use of the integral) and explain, as best they can, the background of the problem being discussed, as well as the steps of the mathematics. Many texts will be too advanced for the students at their current level of understanding, and they may simply have to admit as much, but chances are, with some searching, they will find a page they can minimally interpret. Since this assignment takes students out of the normally sequenced learning of both mathematics and their major fields, it is probably unlike anything they have ever done before.
To help students understand what I expect on this project, I show the work of former students (good result, poor result). Most students react positively; they are proud of the level of difficulty of the fields they plan to enter. And while students may not always provide the best of explanations, they at least can witness first-hand that the mathematics in their chosen field is probably much tougher and even more theoretical than what is currently being expected of them. This assignment is also a wonderful opportunity to observe how students perceive the meanings of the mathematics they have learned. For instance, students may accept some equation in physics as a given rule or law, without any sense that the rule could be derived with the mathematics we have just studied. For example, it is a rule, to them, that total charge is the integral of current over time; it does not seem to be something about which they should question, "why?" or "how?" On overhead projector, I show all the xeroxings of the text pages, briefly explaining in what context we are seeing the integral, for example. This gives a very streamlined overview of the ubiquity of calculus in applied fields.
Since the grading for this assignment is somewhat problematic, generally I grade on effort. A more in-depth grading is not easy if one must make comments on the mathematics. The following system for giving fast but personal responses helps: since I type fast, I create a form letter on the word-processor, citing the directions; below I add my personal responses. This way it somehow becomes easier to explain where the student has succeeded or fallen short of expectations.
4. Looking Good on a Resume.
Assignment: Write a 2-page self-introduction to a potential employer presenting your activities as a student (including mathematics classes) as evidence for your potential as an employee.
Findings. At some point during the term, I spend a half-hour discussing with the class how they can build their resumes. Even at the sophomore level, some students are still coasting on their high school athletic achievements. We discuss joining clubs, doing student research, becoming a tutor, going to conferences, and setting up a file in the placement office. Many students at our institution (which is looking into its general advising policies) have never heard these sorts of suggestions before.
This writing assignment may directly impact on their jobs: our institution, for example, when hiring, first asks interested individuals to write a letter introducing themselves (with a list of publications), and on this basis, determines who should receive an application form. Since many students feel embarrassed about presenting themselves in a positive or forceful way, I usually show what former students have written as well as what I have written as letters of recommendations for students (names erased, of course). In this way, students can see that the work we do on the board, in groups, and even the very writing we do on this assignment allow me to add more information on my recommendation letters for them.
When I give this assignment, I explain that I like to tack onto my letters of recommendation some exceptional work of the student (this might be the interpretive library assignment above or a take-home exam), conjoining once again the work we do in class with the students' future jobs.
Findings and Use of Findings
The credit given for these assignments constitutes a small percentage of the grade. Students seem to appreciate any take-home work that provides balance to test grades, although they may initially be puzzled by these assignments, which tend to be unlike any they have seen in mathematics classes before. A major benefit of these projects is a heightened sense of collegiality among the students in class as they find interesting examples of applications of calculus in different fields to share, and as the goals and autobiographical material provide an opportunity for more personal interaction than math classes typically offer. Most importantly, these projects heighten student awareness of how to shape their prospects for jobs and careers, and this is a value they recognize with no difficulty at all.
For my own portfolios, I copy selected strong/medium/weak responses to the assignments to represent the range of class responses. I keep these portfolios to read for reflection and to mine for evidence of effective teaching. Whether these teaching portfolios are seriously studied by university evaluators or not, I do not know, but the massive binders I have collected over the years allow me to study how students learn, and refresh me with ideas for future classes.
Some students respond trivially to these assignments early in the term, and I may request reworkings. Generally students come to appreciate the assignments when they see the serious responses of other students. I show transparencies of much of the students' output on an overhead projector; this provides students with response to their input important in any assessment activity and invaluable in discussing "student professionalism."
 Angelo, T.A., and Cross, K.P. Classroom Assessment Techniques, 2nd ed., Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1993.
 Keith, S.Z. "Self-Assessment Materials for Use in Portfolios," PRIMUS, 6 (2), 1996, pp. 178-192.
 Keith, S.Z. "Explorative Writing and
Learning Mathematics," Mathematics
Magazine, 81 (9), 1988, pp. 714-719.