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I am a professor of Mathematics at a Community College. My department has adopted policies through a majority vote. The two policies I have questions about are:

  1. An instructor can only use textbooks that have been preapproved by the department. Preapproval requires a majority vote from the department.
  2. An instructor may not use multiple-choice tests for assessments in class.

I believe both policies have negatively affected my students.

For example, the majority of the instructors in my department want a single textbook to save the students money. However, I believe the textbook used is antiquated. The technology used with the book is subpar and no animations which I believe are a vital component to a calculus course. It seems ridiculous that 51% of the department vote can stifle innovation, especially considering once a teacher uses a book for awhile they are less likely to want to change as it requires more work. It seems like an endless cycle. If I am forced to use their textbook for half my career than I probably wouldn't want to switch in the latter half and would force newbies to use my antiquated textbook... and the cycle continues. In addition, at some point, OER textbooks will be all we can use if the majority of my department prioritizes cost over quality.

In regards to multiple-choice exams, I find that my students can be served better by assessing their ability to expressing answers in different forms. Surprisingly they often don't know how to do this as free-response doesn't require this. Below is a basic example of how I could use multiple choice to aid in students learning:

  1. 1/2+1/3 is equivalent to

    a. 3/4

    b. 4/6

    c. 20/24

Students are usually taught to get 5/6, but often don't realize that 20/24 is equivalent because they are simply following a process and not understanding their answer has equivalent forms. I believe using multiple-choice in these scenarios is worthwhile sometimes.

It is my understanding that as a tenured instructor, I am able to teach the class in the pedagogical manner I believe is best for my class. Wouldn't this include what textbook I use and the types of assessments I use?

Maybe I am wrong. However, if I am correct, what sources can I site to my department to sway their understanding? I want to makes sure I do not forward bad information. Thank you.

  • 3
    Have you reviewed what your contract says about these issues? – Nathan S. Dec 4 '19 at 6:33
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    I have. It states "All faculty members, regardless of their employment status, shall enjoy the privileges and exercise the responsibilities inherent in academic freedom as outlined in the AAUP's 1940 Statement as interpreted in 1970.". In reading it, it seems there is a lot of room for interpretation. – Michael McCain Dec 4 '19 at 6:39
  • The discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of certain types of books and questions has been moved to chat because it's secondary to the OP's main question. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. – Massimo Ortolano Dec 6 '19 at 8:31
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    bias-variance-tradeoff – image Dec 6 '19 at 15:06
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    You can trivially adapt that multiple choice question into one that actually tests your students' understanding more thoroughly. "For each of the following, explain why it is or is not equivalent to 1/2 + 1/3: a) 3/4 b) 5/6 c) 4/6 d) 20/24" – chepner Dec 6 '19 at 20:39

12 Answers 12

22

It is my understanding that as a tenured instructor, I am able to teach the class in the pedagogical manner I believe is best for my class.

In principle, I agree with this, and I believe that you should be able to run the course based on your considered professional opinion of what is best. But keep in mind that this is a two-edged sword! As I see it, academic freedom isn't unlimited license to do what you want; it's the freedom to try what you want, and be judged based on the results. (The same applies to academic freedom in research: nobody will stop you from working on the problems you find interesting today, but in the long run, they had better lead to publications.)

I don't know what the tenure system is like at your institution, but commonly there is some form of ongoing evaluation of a professor's effectiveness in teaching, with potential consequences if it is poor. And if you're pursuing these methods against the advice of your colleagues, some of your peers may be looking for evidence that it's not working (or may see your choice as ipso facto evidence of poor teaching).

So if you go this route, it would be wise to try to measure to what extent it is successful, in some way that your colleagues will find convincing: exam scores, evaluations, grades in this and subsequent courses, common assessments, etc. If it goes well, you'll be able to show that your methods are effective. And if it doesn't, you'll know that you need to change course quickly (and your responsiveness to evidence can itself be a point in your favor).

  • 2
    This makes sense. Interestingly enough, our older faculty are having issues in their tenure review process now days. Younger faculty are pushing group learning format while the older faculty aren’t. Faculty that have had perfect evaluations for 25 years are upset they are being dinged now. Their solution is choose faculty to be part of their tenure review that have the same views they do the traditional format is superior to group format in their classroom. Personally I don’t think one is better than the other. The right tool at the right time for each teacher is preferable in my opinion. – Michael McCain Dec 5 '19 at 4:34
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    Academic freedom is not contingent on students getting high exam scores. If a professor prefers to teach a subject one way rather than another (and, let's say, does so in good faith) - that's legitimate even if the grades are lower. – einpoklum Dec 5 '19 at 9:35
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    @einpoklum-reinstateMonica: I am not claiming that exam scores are the sole measure of effectiveness (nor even necessarily a good one). But I do think that academic freedom in teaching is contingent, in the long run, on actually teaching effectively by some broad measure. If the professor continues to insist on teaching a certain way, in spite of clear evidence that it isn't succeeding (in whatever sense), then I would call into question whether they are still doing it in good faith. – Nate Eldredge Dec 5 '19 at 16:13
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    @NateEldredge: The thing is, lower grades in and of themselves are not clear evidence that the teacher is failing. – einpoklum Dec 5 '19 at 16:29
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    @einpoklum-reinstateMonica: I never said they were! I have tried to consistently use the phrase "effective teaching". This can be measured and evaluated in many ways, of which grades or exam scores are only one possibility. – Nate Eldredge Dec 5 '19 at 16:31
40

As a current undergraduate student who recently attended a Community College I personally agree with at least requiring all professors to use the same textbook. It means that students from different sections are able to study together more easily than if the books and overall approach to course are different as I'm seeing in some courses at my current University. At least some Community Colleges allow you to change courses up to at least one week into the course with no extra fees, which means that if you find a professor doesn't suit your learning style you can change to another professor, but if you need to buy another text book that would become significantly more difficult for those students. This is especially important in a multi-course series like Calculus where its possible that you could purchase the textbook for the entire series for a fraction of the cost of purchasing the book for each course individually.

I know I'm probably in the minority regarding Ebooks as a large number of my fellow students in the time I spent at a Community College preferred them, but I always preferred a physical book as most Ebooks come with a subscription of some kind which requires renewal every semester for a significant portion of the cost of the book.

And as a final point regarding selection of teaching material, it seems that your department only requires you to use the textbook they decide is best and you are able to supplement your teaching materials with animations and MatLab objects as you see fit. This was a very successful scheme for my Calculus 3 professor as they were able to quickly show us what the concepts looked like as 3D objects in a way they would have been unable to on a blackboard.

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    +1 very good answer. for courses like calc, which often have many teachers teaching the same material, it is very important to have consistency throughout the sections. It's something that community colleges almost always struggle with when compared to universities. – eps Dec 4 '19 at 17:49
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    Since Matlab is very expensive I would suggest an open-source alternative such als Octave, etc. – Uwe Ziegenhagen Dec 5 '19 at 6:59
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    @UweZiegenhagen A student version of Matlab exists which is not very expensive. In principle I have no issues with people going open-source, but Octave does have issues. The tool isn't important, as long as it does its job well, but not all open-source tools are well designed or maintained though, so be careful if you do choose something that is not "standard". – Graham Dec 5 '19 at 11:19
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    @Graham: I had no problems using Octave for the MatLab assignments in a 2nd year Linear Algebra course (on my Linux desktop ~20 years ago). Unless Octave has gotten worse in that time, I don't expect problems for basic student stuff. Of course I was just doing the most simple things with matrices on a text terminal, not graphics. – Peter Cordes Dec 5 '19 at 14:00
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    One more thing to consider is series of courses. If I recall correctly, my university used the same text book for the entire 4-quarter Intro Calculus series – Mars Dec 6 '19 at 4:16
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It is my understanding that as a tenured instructor, I am able to teach the class in the pedagogical manner I believe is best for my class. Wouldn't this include what textbook I use and the types of assessments I use?

At least one of your questions is discussed on the American Association of University Professors’ website:

I have been asked to teach several sections of an introductory course, but I do not want to use the textbook used by faculty colleagues in the other sections. I believe it is poorly written and replete with errors. Do I have the right to assign a different textbook?

In a course for which you are the only instructor, you have the right, under principles of academic freedom, to determine the texts (and other materials) the students will be required to read. Your right in this regard is not absolute, however. The texts should be related to the subject of the course and practical concerns about availability and cost should be considered. Still, the principle is clear that the faculty member who is solely responsible for the course has the freedom to select readings for it.

Regarding assessments, I don’t have an authoritative source, but I suspect you are correct that it’s up to you to decide on your methods of assessment, assuming they are within the norm of what’s broadly considered acceptable in higher education. This AAUP web page has additional resources where you might be able to find some relevant guidance.

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    Good find! I note that the right is qualified by "course for which you are the only instructor." So this applies only if there are no other sections of this course number that are taught by other instructors. The paragraph after the one you quoted states "in a multisection course taught by several faculty members, however, responsibility is shared among the instructors for identifying the text(s) to be assigned to students." However, it also grants you the right to use whatever supplementary materials you want (e.g. YouTube animations). Is OP the only instructor for this course? – shoover Dec 4 '19 at 20:01
  • In this case, no. There are other instructors. Interesting that it applies when you are the only instructor. Is this per semester? What if I teach it in the fall and someone else teaches it in the spring? Dropped or failed students will still have to buy a new textbook. Cost to these students is being used as the central argument against use of different textbooks in a multi sectional class. – Michael McCain Dec 4 '19 at 20:38
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    @Michael I think it’s pretty obvious that “only instructor” means “only instructor that term” and not “only instructor ever”. But I would advise you to be careful about interpreting this FAQ in an overly literal or legalistic manner. Academic freedom isn’t a legally defined term, and AAUP aren’t the one central authority that gets to define what it means. A certain amount of common sense will always be required in these discussions. Academic freedom is a lofty idea but in the real world there are lots of practical details you’ll have to consider including cost, convenience to the students etc. – Dan Romik Dec 4 '19 at 21:48
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    Bottom line: ignoring practical issues, at least in a philosophical sense you are correct that you have the freedom to assign a textbook and other reading materials of your choice. Whether you really want to insist on exercising that freedom is a different question. – Dan Romik Dec 4 '19 at 21:52
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    @MichaelMcCain Interesting that they're using cost to the students who drop and retake the course as the central argument. I would think a more relevant argument would be wanting to ensure that all students who take the course in a given semester are being taught the same material. – shoover Dec 4 '19 at 23:45
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Textbook selection

The AAUP's 1940 and 1970 statements are referenced in your contract, but the AAUP doesn't go around fomenting revolution. Mostly it documents the best practices used at relatively enlightened institutions. They know they can't make a pronouncement that is completely at odds with common practice, because then they would just be perceived as irrelevant. Even their web page, which isn't referenced by your contract, only goes so far as to say:

Still, the principle is clear that the faculty member who is solely responsible for the course has the freedom to select readings for it.

So the reality in terms of pure legality is that you don't have a leg to stand on, if you're only one of many faculty teaching this course.

If you chose an OER text, then you would have both the moral high ground and practical options. Your practical option would be to say to your students something like this: I don't like the text that the department has chosen for this course. I don't recommend that you buy it. It's the official text for this course only by department policy. I recommend that you instead use OpenStax Calculus [or whatever OER text you think is best]. The homework problems will all be problems from OpenStax Calculus [or from a PDF file you distribute, or whatever].

Problem solved.

What you actually say you want to do is something different. You don't like the less expensive text chosen by your department (which you complain "prioritizes cost over quality"). Instead, you want a commercial text that contains animations. I have to say that I'm entirely on your colleagues' side here. The animations are probably worthless frippery. You're free to disagree with me, and with your colleagues, but that freedom doesn't extend to forcing your students to pay an extra $50 or $100.

Multiple-choice exams

Your colleagues sound awesome. I would love it if my department had this policy against multiple-choice exams. The purpose of this policy is clear. They want students to receive meaningful human feedback on their work. They don't want instructors to take the easy way out and avoid ever picking up a red pen.

Your educational justification for multiple-choice exams rings pretty hollow. If you want your students to reduce all fractions to simplest form, just tell them that, and grade accordingly. This is what I do. I don't feel that I even need to announce it. If a student writes the answer to their problem as y=3xy/(3/(1/x)), then I simply write on the exam with a red pen, "simplify," and take off some points.

  • Thank you. I never said my preferred text was more expensive. It is actually less expensive by quite a bit... at least $70 including the physical text. Their concern monetarily has to do with students having to drop the course and take it again or series classes like Calculus. They may need to purchase a new textbook. – Michael McCain Dec 4 '19 at 22:19
  • In regards to MCT, I am far more concerned about the fairness of other methods of assessment being ignored. For example, practice tests are used to limit which information to study. Students often repeat the pattern of the reduced number of questions in the practice exam to fake their way through an exam. Some instructors make exams that only contain previously assigned homework questions. Some instructors give large amounts of partial credit and some give easy tests. Multiple-choice has been singled out as e negative method of assessment in my department. I see a problem in the logic. – Michael McCain Dec 4 '19 at 22:29
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    +1 for caveats on multiple choice exams. They are devilishly difficult to get right and even hard to define "right". The incorrect answers need to explore some incorrect thinking paths, but to get to that is a lot of work that most won't be prepared to do as it takes time and refinement. Feedback on their work is a key element of education. – Buffy Dec 4 '19 at 22:44
  • BTW... you missed my point. Consider, a calculus class. I expect my calculus students know how to manipulate their answers algebraically to match an answer say in the back of a textbook. After all, they did make it to calculus. I find students often don't know how to do this because their previous teachers didn't focus on this. Your blanket statement about MTC seems short-sided. And I agree, my colleagues are awesome. We just differ in opinion sometimes... but that's ok. : ) – Michael McCain Dec 4 '19 at 22:47
  • This assumes that there are purposes of the exams that go beyond assessment. This may or may not be true. – Scott Seidman Dec 5 '19 at 18:10
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I have in the past been both the (junior) instructor wanting to innovate amongst dinosaurs, as well as the coordinator of a multi-section course where there weren't clear policies on this matter, and I was trying to navigate student and individual faculty member expectations.

To the other answers, I'd add there can be real benefits to consistency in textbook choice between sections, especially if the course material in any way underpins material taught in follow-on courses. You can say not only "remember X?" but also "...it's covered in section 3.4 in [...]" without whines of "but my prof used a different book and we didn't cover this" (even if it was covered, just differently). And students will tend to "shop around" which section of the course to register anyway, and you don't want to add textbook choice and test format as another one for them to overindex on.

As others have said, your academic freedom isn't absolute and you should respect the policies of your department in this, and work from within to change them if it's important.

However, you also don't need to slavishly adhere to a poor textbook. Enrich the class presentation with animations if you want. Find (free) web resources to point the students to as extra reading. Do your multiple choice quizzes as ungraded self-assessments (or something like that). And if your pedagogical choices generate better learning outcomes, use that to build the case for change at the department policy level.

7

The rights/privileges of tenure are highly varied, but rarely if ever does this permit carte Blanche to conduct your classroom in any way you see fit. Even at the most prestigious research institutions tenured professors are subject to departmental rules and regulations. Especially if those rules are democratically realized, it is not advisable that you go rogue.

My advice is to respect your democratic process and lobby for changes or even a trial run using the appropriate forum.

  • This is good to know. Thank you. – Michael McCain Dec 4 '19 at 6:34
  • Asking for a trial run of something different sounds like a good way to get it approved. Lobby for something temporary to reduce the perceived threat to the status quo. – Mad Physicist Dec 4 '19 at 21:51
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Regarding the textbook: academics have a freedom which textbook to choose for a class, but the freedoms of individual academic may have to be steered or controlled by the Department. The simplest example is when a professor publishes their own textbook and recommends it to students for an exorbitant fee. Students feel obligated to purchase the textbook not only for academic reasons but also to please their professor and improve their chance for a better grade. This is a typical (textbook) case of conflict of interests, and such recommendations have to be carefully assessed by Department.

Individual academic freedoms can not change the laws of physics, neither they can serve as a universal solution to any problem. If you want to set up a very expensive or dangerous experiment, you are free to do so, but you still need to find external funding and/or obtain health and safety and ethical approvals. Similarly, if textbooks are too expensive for students and/or for the University/College library, academic freedoms will not buy those books, unless you want to donate enough copies to the library.

Regarding the multiple-choice questions: They may be perfectly fine in the area of mathematics that you teach. However, if one lecturer uses such quizes, and students find them easy, this may form an expectation on their side that all lecturers have to do the same. The academic expectations is a part of academic culture which is shared by everyone in your University/College. It is quite important to maintain a consistent and fair approach throughout the whole curriculum. You are still free to suggest your model of assessment, but since your teaching style affects the expectations of students and hence the way they engage with other lecturers and subjects, it is appropriate for your colleagues to have a say about it. If you share the benefits of your approach with them, perhaps, they all will be happy to adopt your method.

4

My own thoughts:

It is very common for departments to adopt a single calculus book. This has disadvantages, as you pointed out. But it also has a number of advantages. For example, there is consistency if students need to switch from one section to another, and there is consistency between Calc I and Calc II. Also, as you pointed out, it can save students money.

If you want to persuade your department to change, here are some suggestions:

  1. Take the financial concerns seriously; for some students, a $200 book might mean an extra 25 hours at a part-time job.

  2. Find ways to incorporate animations and/or technology into your class, with the existing book. If your teaching is particularly effective, they might be willing to listen to your calls for change.

  3. Don't complain that the current book is "antiquated"; just because a methodology is new, doesn't mean that it's better. Instead, look for studies or evidence showing the merits of your approach.

On the multiple choice exams, you might have a lot more leeway. The policy is probably there to prevent faculty from writing exams which are all multiple choice (and which would take very little effort to grade).

If you want to include a couple of multiple choice questions on an exam with mostly free response questions, your chair might be supportive. You described a sound pedagogical reason for wanting to do so; if you haven't done so already, I'd recommend proposing this to your chair.

  • In any case, I would be frankly surprised if evaluators are going to go through the tenured OP's exams closely enough to even notice if a few thoughtful MC questions are given. – Kevin Carlson Dec 7 '19 at 0:14
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Not an instructor, but I once took a course with an instructor that was in a similar situation. We were required to use the existing "standard" textbook in spite of its issues. My professor wasn't shy about his feelings for that particular text, or from letting us know we were only using it because the department required it. He gave out his own unofficial errata for the book. If you stopped by his office for help, he'd frequently re-teach something by using diagrams or examples from his personal copy of the book that he preferred. When the textbook was lacking something, he'd pass out supplementary material that he had created. All of these things were usually accompanied by a comically over-dramatic sigh of exasperation at the quality of the current textbook.

We didn't think much about any of this at the time, but there were two long-term consequences. First, the students that went through his class frequently complained to the department about the textbook. Some even explicitly asked why we weren't using the professor's preferred book since it seemed to be better. Second, students that took the course under another instructor frequently complained to the department that their friends' course was easier because they got all these extra materials and weren't limited to what's in the current textbook. After a couple of semesters, the department "decided" to go with a different textbook.

Never underestimate the power of the bully pulpit. Your department leadership might not listen to your single voice, but it's another thing entirely when complaints are coming in from many different people.

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I'll speak in regards to the textbook situation for a colleague in the Math Department where I work and also for myself. The Math department at my institution has 1 textbook for all of Calculus. The advantage as they see it is the students only need to make 1 $150 payment for up to 3 classes. Cheaper if they rent it for 1 semester. Faculty are not allowed to use other textbooks. However, they are allowed to teach their course without a book! I took Calc 2 with them and used no book. He wrote all his material (keeping it somewhat short, but to the point) and made videos of him explaining things and working through example problems that we could use a reference outside of class to assist our learning. This is a lot of setup, but once you have your material set, it won't change a lot, and you can adapt if needed. I don't suspect much will change with Calculus.

For myself, I teach a Intro to Kinesiology course that has only 1 book as well. I ditched that as soon as I read a little of it though and made my own course content. This allows me to adapt much more quickly to the changing field of Kinesiology. I can also focus on certain aspects beyond the book that I like or think is useful for the students.

I'm not sure if you're able to ditch the book, but I would suggest that; if you have time to devote to making your own material.

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This article will be of interest, it describes a grievance case on this topic. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/11/09/cal-state-fullerton-upholds-reprimand-professor-who-wouldnt-assign-180-textbook

For multi-section courses you need to do exactly what you said which is "convince my department." A faculty is a body of colleagues and you need to make your best argument just like you would about anything else. Gather evidence, organize it solidly, put it into language that makes sense. You could consider instead asking the department to open discussion of the whole issue and join a group in reviewing and evaluating many options including OER, the book you want and other materials. One thing that you might learn if you open a discussion is that your colleagues have already thought pretty hard about these policies. You could apply for a small grant to run an experimental section and you could also engage with your local teaching and learning center to come up with a way to measure whether your book is more effective. You could also scan the literature for evidence.

In terms of multiple choice questions, again, I suggest you do a literature review on this issue -- the literature on teaching calculus in particular is huge and NSF has funding many studies on this. Present the evidence and share your bibliography.

Also think about the stakeholders in calculus, which in many cases are primarily the chemistry, biology, physics and computer science departments (and sometimes others such as if you have engineering) and not mainly the math department. What do they need students to be able to do? For example, they need to be able to have students use calculus in the context of solving a chemistry problem or in biostatistics. Maybe open ended questions prepare students better for this, I have no idea, but you should consider it.

Building a coherent and effective curriculum is a collaborative and complex process. Here you are not building a whole curriculum, just modify one course.

0

All other answers are probably fantastic. But since you want to convince your department, I propose using other objective tests as examples of how MCQ based tests excel. It would undoubtedly reaffirm your statement (** I believe using multiple-choice in these scenarios is worthwhile sometimes.**)

Typical exam would be the JEE ADVANCED examination (an incredibly tough engineering examination in India for admission into IIT'S). It outright destroys MCQ'S with multi-correct answers, negative marking, partial marking, matrix/option-match questions, paragraph based conceptual questions, and in some places uses tougher tricks( similar to the one you mentioned) which strengthen the difficulty of the already relatively tough examination.

You could pick a few other papers as well( which I'd highly recommend since MCQ'S are associated with the motion of being easy)

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