What specific things seem to work in my classes to reduce stress and help students learn:
1. My goal is to minimize homework wherever possible. There are some who believe that an Advanced Placement course must assign killer homework. Homework is given only when it is necessary to support learning.
2. For most homework, students have more than one night to complete an assignment. Homework is generally accepted for full credit anytime within the typical two-week unit section. I tell students which days we’ll be going over homework, and why it will be advantageous for them to have it done by that time, but if they can’t do it by then, I’d rather have them do it later than copy blindly from a friend or not do it at all.
3. I minimize memorization. My classroom walls are filled with posters that give key relationships and formulas. Why memorize material that is literally at their fingertips with their smart phones, textbooks, and computers?
4. Students are encouraged to do as much homework as possible in study groups and with friends. There are some major assignments where teams are highly recommended.
5. When I ask a student a question in class, I offer students the option of simply stating “pass” and I go to other students. It doesn’t hurt their grade and it doesn’t alter what I think of them. I want students to know that I am not trying to embarrass them, or catch them daydreaming, or show them up in front of their friends. I am interested in hearing what they think. If students pass every time I call on them, that is not a problem for me or for them. I tell them I’ll continue to call on them, and I’d love to have them respond when they are ready.
6. I probably give eight or nine tests a semester in Calculus. I automatically drop the lowest test score when I compute their overall grade. Anyone can have a bad day feeling sick or overwhelmed. If they fail a test I let them know I still expect them to learn the material and I will work with them to see that they can master the ideas. After each test, the students correct the test including paragraph reflections on why they missed the problems they did and what they learned from their test.
7. Every student question needs to be honored. When a student is brave enough to raise their hand and ask a question, that question needs to be respected. A student asking a question probably represents many other students who are similarly unclear. A student question gives me clues to how effective my teaching has been and how I need to approach an idea from perhaps a different perspective.
8. I try to layer in review throughout the course. Topics like logarithms and derivatives are not easy. We circle back, time and again, to revisit these ideas.
9. I allow students unlimited time on every exam. If they are willing to work through their lunch or come in after school, that is fine. Even though the actual Advanced Placement test is timed, it hasn’t seemed to be a problem.
10. When things aren’t going perfectly on a lesson, and when the class time is ticking down, I can feel an internal pressure to speed up. I have to fight that feeling. Instead of speeding up, I slow down. Instead of raising my voice, I lower it. Simplify, simplify, simplify. If I don’t quite get to where I wanted to be when the bell rings, so what? So what if I haven’t covered the examples enough to assign homework? Give them a night without math homework. As long as I am keeping up with my overall pre-planned movement through the required curriculum, I am in good shape.
11. Perhaps most importantly, always focus on meaning. The more I teach, the more I find myself quietly facing my students and asking questions like: “What actually is the meaning of the concept of limit in calculus? Think about it, and try and formulate a clear statement of what this means? I know you can now do problems involving limits, but what does it all mean?”
For me, these steps seem to work. Each class is different, each year is different. What works with my highly motivated Advanced Placement Calculus students is not completely appropriate for my ninth grade Algebra I students. Some of those students need to feel more academic stress and need more homework practice rather than less. I am not saying every teacher in every situation should do what works for me.
Individually and collectively, as parents and teachers, what are we doing to our children? Are there ways to accomplish our important educational goals of high levels of learning and achievement without extracting such a tremendous human cost?