Evaluating Learning

Student assessment

Students were assessed by short quizzes in class. Several papers were graded: two individual efforts and a group effort. Group presentations were made, and the instructor devoted some effort to assessing contributions to the presentations. The instructor also attempted to assess contributions to class discussions.

A three-hour closed book final exam was given. The exam and the grades on the exam are available here. Student performance on the exam was very good. The grade distribution was higher than in almost every calculus course I've taught. Course grades are also discussed on the Web page cited. The grades given should be considered in company with the stated majors of the students. This information is available here.

Course assessment

The standard student evaluation forms, "The Student Instructional Ratings Survey," primarily request information about the students' perceptions of the instructor's teaching effectiveness. These surveys were given near the end of the course. In addition, a series of questions about both the mathematical and social aspects of the course were asked at both the first meeting and the last meeting. The questions and results of all three assessments, for two semesters, can be seen here. These assessments were answered anonymously.

The evaluation results are displayed and discussed at the Web link just cited. Instructional experiments frequently result in good student evaluations (a sort of Hawthorne effect?). The students liked the course. The differences in the pre- and post- test are interesting. Happily, scores on the "objective" questions (testing some math knowledge) increased sharply. There were changes in the scores on the additional questions (about some of the social issues discussed in the course) but these are harder to interpret.

My thoughts

I enjoyed teaching this course. I previously avoided courses directly concerned with quantitative skills because I didn't like the material usually taught and thought most students didn't like the courses. I still believe that's generally true, but teaching this course has encouraged me. Challenging material can be taught with some success if its relevance to students is clearly demonstrated. "Even" liberal arts students satisfying quantitative skills requirements can find learning math interesting and even enjoyable, and I can feel the same about my teaching them.

Sustaining change is problematic

Continuing this course in the manner I created it has been nearly impossible with other instructors. I spent large amounts of time on the course and did not follow a text. Other instructors have since taught the course, and I have been told several times, "I covered much more [math] than you did." The point of the course to me was knitting together math and society, not heroically pulling students along into more cryptography. Below is a quote from my Web notes on lecture #28, which reveals my ambitions for the students:

I told the students that I could imagine they were trapped (in an elevator? at a cocktail party?) with a professional cryptographer and with a staff member from a Congressional committee on communication, and that they were to try to understand and contribute to a conversation about the issues raised in this course.

The people who taught this course other than me, and the person who is scheduled to teach it in fall 2004, don't want to grade essays and monitor class discussions. There's little desire to wade through Web pages covering copyright or the privacy of email. Following a textbook is much easier than trying to blend social and technical ideas. I have audited some of the classes given by my successors, and, sure enough, these are math classes: lecture, with less student involvement than I think is optimal, especially for the type of students in this course. But, as I wrote above, at a major state research university, "hiring and promotions are primarily based on scholarly promise and achievement, with appropriate attention given to teaching and service." Thus, especially for junior faculty, the amount of time and attention which can sensibly be devoted to teaching is limited. Also, I have observed that mathematicians are generally among the most conservative academics pedagogically. So ... more work is needed.