Running a Class Journal

For several years I have run an IBL Euclidean Geometry Course. You can find some of my thoughts about IBL courses in general, and about this course in particular, in other posts on this blog.

An important feature of the course is the class journal. I am writing an article about the rĂ´le this plays in teaching students proof writing, so this post will serve as a first draft of my thoughts. I welcome comments and criticism, as that will help me write a better paper, and be a better educator. Also, my digital homey Bret Benesh asked for a blog post about exactly this subject.

As with all of my blogging, I intend to ramble on freely. Buckle up.

Context

Most the students in my course are in a preservice teaching program that leads to certification for grades 5-12. Most students are getting their first college level introduction to what a mathematical argument is and how to write one coherently.

(This will be changing soon. We are instituting a new course that will explicitly teach proof writing and argument making. Though it won’t be a formal prerequisite, we will advise most students to take that course first. I intend to keep the introductory feel of my course for the time being. I am sure some students can benefit from extra layers of this type of course, and it is simpler to make a course harder than it is to make it more accommodating.)

I run the course as an instance of the Extreme Moore Method. So class time is dominated by student led presentations and discussions of their work. They spend a lot of time outside of class finding and constructing arguments. During class meetings, they defend their work, at the chalkboard, to their peers. This is all excellent training for how to work as a mathematician, but it doesn’t cover the skill set involved in carefully writing up results.

As the process of writing is an essential one, and a big part of what characterizes academic work, that needs to happen, too. This is where the journal comes in.

Basic Set Up

When a presentation is concluded, the student will get feedback from the class about the quality of the argument and its verbal exposition from the discussion that occurs. When the argument, or some portion of it, is accepted as correct and valuable to our class progress, the presenter is responsible for writing up the argument in the form of a short paper. This paper is due by the next class meeting.

This paper then is “submitted” to our class journal. It is refereed, and when accepted, published.

Details

The Submission Process

In the past, students have used whatever word processing system they wish. Most students used Microsoft Word because they are familiar with it. As the course focuses on planar Euclidean geometry, there is not a great need for mathematical symbols, so Word is sufficient. In fact, I like that using Word encourages students to write with English words instead of mathematical symbols. Someone always figures out how to make a figure in GeoGebra, export it, and include it in a Word document, so I let that person be the class expert.

A student paper is expected to conform to the general format and style of a mathematical research paper.

At this point, the first submitted drafts usually come in on paper. In the past I have tried a class wiki, and submission of pdf by email.

The Referee Process

At the beginning, I am the sole referee for the journal. I mark up the papers much like I would when reading any other paper, and then make a short referee’s report. These are returned to the author. I try to return them by the next class period.

Of course, all papers are eventually accepted. This differs from standard journal practice, but I don’t see how to avoid this.

Some papers require several runs through the referee process. At some point, the changes required become very minor and the paper is deemed as “accepted with small changes” and the next version gets put in the queue for publication.

A few weeks into the semester, students who have proved themselves as competent authors are invited to become referees. Some care must be taken to train the students about how to do this, and some students have to be coached more than others about appropriate professionalism when acting as a referee. I try to monitor this work closely the first time through.

When I have a stable of student referees, the nature of my work changes. I act much less as a referee and more as an administrative assistant—shuffling papers and keeping things moving. Students then are engaged in the work of writing and evaluating writing.

The Publishing Process

Every two or three weeks I find enough papers have collected in the publishing queue that I can bundle them together to make an issue of a journal. (Four papers seems to be a minimum.) I have required papers to be turned in as .pdf files, so I can just bundle them together with the LaTeX pdfpages package. (I have designed a cover page that I can slap on top of each issue with a little graphic.)

I distribute the journal electronically: it is posted to the course web site. But as a treat, I print a copy of the issue for each author with a paper appearing. I hand these out at the beginning of a class meeting and say congratulations to the authors as I do so.

Students get a kick out of seeing their work in print, so this provides a little reward and motivation.

To Be Continued:

I promised to go to the local pool with my kids this afternoon, so I’ll just stop writing now. I look forward to your questions and comments. I do plan to write a little more about this issue, so look also for my next post: The Journal: What About Next Semester?

Textastic

Originally Posted 01-15-2012

This is a simple test of Textastic, an iPad app for editing code. It should let me sync with my dropbox account, hence post to this blog.

Textastic has support for various types of code, and includes a preview feature that should handle the markdown used to write these posts. Let’s check.

this is a heading

this is an itemized list

  • item
  • item
  • item

a smaller heading

more text, with a link, and some emphasis.

Let us see how that looks. (hits preview button)

Well, that was not so bad. Typing on the iPad is not fantastic (I still don’t like the compressed touch-screen keyboard so much), but in a pinch I can use this. If I thought to invest in a bluetooth keyboard, I could see this being a serious tool.

UPDATE: I found that the interface for moving files back and forth was very easy to use. I think my only concern at this point is the capability to do cut-and paste to include the MathJax code on posts with LaTeX. Speaking of LaTeX, I wonder if that is an available language? It is! And the cut-and paste is not too bad. Here is a test of using math e^2 - 3 \neq \pi.

Small Progress

Originally Posted 12-30-2011

Well, I have lots of small items on my to-do list, and not many of them are getting the strikethrough treatment.

But I did manage to update my professional web page. I first made this version in the early fall as a way of productively procrastinating before fall term began. I decided to try something new, so the page is made with the Sphinx utility for writing software documentation. Sphinx was made to do the documentation for Python, and is also used by the Sage Mathematical Software project.

It seemed like a fun experiment. The thing is, the whole operation requires using reStructuredText files as input. I had to learn a new markup language. So, yesterday’s “tweaks’’ to the ol’ web page took a bit of time, as I had to reacquaint myself with some reST syntax. The biggest hurdle is that reST doesn’t pass through html tags to the browser—everything has to be done in a proper markup. The most challenging bit was making a Google+ profile button. You can easily get the code for such a button from a quick Google search, and it comes as an html anchor/image combination. I had to rip it apart and retool it into reST structure to make it work.

Incidentally, this is one of the things I like about using Markdown for this blog. I know a little basic html, and Markdown just passes that stuff along. So, I can put the same button here without any effort at all.

What’s Going On Here?

Originally Posted 12-18-2011

I find that it helps to organize my thinking by writing. Until now, I would write only for myself, and the product would sit unread, even by me.
Today, I will change that a bit. I will write to this blog, and let it sit, unread, in public.

I am a mathematics professor, and my immediate concerns are the three new courses I am constructing for next term (starting Jan 9), the mathematics research
projects I have simmering, and the grant I am going to be writing for next fall. I expect that most of what I will say in this space will
have to do with these topics.

Re-appropriation Committee

This blog was originally a classroom log that I used to communicate with students. Now, I am turning it over to a general purpose discussion space for issues related to teaching. In the next few hours, I’m going to start moving posts over from another platform. I know I can move the posts, but I am a bit worried that the comments won’t come along. We’ll see…