I’m teaching a noncredit problem-solving class again this semester, and, whereas the fall’s had to be basically a Putnam* class because the Putnam was administered at BSM** about 9 weeks in, in this class I have more freedom to pick nicer problems.

*A math competition for undergraduates with fairly unoriginal problems.

**The only place outside North America where it is, which they’re proud of.

Today, Saturday, was the first day of the class. I held a doodle poll to determine the day and time, and, to my slight surprise, Saturday was the most popular choice.

Like last semester, I had trouble deciding how to deal with the fact that the class gets a huge range of skill levels and backgrounds. For the mini lecture I gave for the first third of the class, I tried leaving some bits as questions for the audience, to keep the better-backgrounded people interested through a lecture that’d’ve been too easy for them to follow straight through. (Questions with time to think and write, since I don’t normally see questions for which the teacher expects a quick response work well whether I’m the teacher or a student.) Unfortunately, I initially aimed way too high, as I figured out by the time I, in asking gradually easier such questions, got to “So, what’s a degree n polynomial that’s 0 at 1, 2, …, n?”. (To be clear, this is my fault, not the students’—I could prepare such a lecture for any level of background, but I have to guess right.)

Fortunately, I had prepared more conservatively for the individual problem solving with minimally unsticking hints from me that was the other two thirds of the class, by including a wide range of problems on the handout, and the easier half of the problems seem to have been about right. (I’ve overshot completely before, like in last semester’s first class, and even undershot completely once at IdeaMath.)

Also, I’m reminded of how hard it is to find out from students whether a class was almost great, adequate, or somewhere in between: comments like “it was great”, comments like “it was fine”, little suggestions for improvement (which I always try to ask for), and the sudden necessity to leave partway through class are all possible responses from students with opinions anywhere in that range (and even outside it), although the earlier responses are a bit more correlated with good opinions. (I’m guilty of this too as a student; it’s hard to give useful feedback.) Two of the twelve students did quietly leave early, which worried me, but one of them came back half an hour later, and another called the initial lecture that I thought had gone poorly great, so I’m not sure what to think, except to allocate more time to the individual problem solving that I think went much better.

Finally, random act of kindness: one of the Napfenyes waiters recognized me as a friend of someone who’d left her credit card there two days ago and gave me it to return to her.