I create a web site for each class that includes pages about the course philosophy, the goals, my expectations, etc. I use the same basic starting pages for all my courses, but customize them for the specific class. For example, in a calculus course, I spend time talking about the difference between highschool mathematics and collegelevel mathematics and how they can expect this course to differ from others that they may already have taken. I stress the fact that mathematics is about finding ways to use information they already know to solve problems that no one has told them how to solve before. Most of them have not thought about it in these terms before (they are used to thinking of math class as a place where they learn a set of procedures for solving a fixed set of problems). This means that their homework and exam problems will not just consist of repetitions of what we have done in class with different numbers, but will involve combining the ideas from class in new ways. Although they find this somewhat daunting, many of them have told me that they recognize the value in this approach.
An example that I use to help them understand this is the following: if I know a means of solving a problem, I could program a computer to find the answer, and in particular I would not need to hire them; the computer is cheaper, faster, and more reliable than they are. The result is that they can not compete with the computer on those terms and must find what they are better at than the computer, and that is asking the right questions and understanding the answers. These are the skills that are valuable to an employer. Their job here is not just to learn some specific mathematics, but to prepare for solving problems in life, and doing hard mathematics is a good way to practice that. Putting the issue in these rather stark (and admittedly simplistic) terms seems to strike a chord with them. I have had much better cooperation from the students since I started using this approach.
To reinforce these ideas, I spend the first day of class simply talking about the philosophy and goals of the course, and how these are reflected in the policies and expectations of the course. While it is tempting to skip this and start right in on the mathematics, the discussion of the nature of the course and its relation to their expectations seems to be a crucial element in setting the proper stage for the rest of the term. It also gives me the chance to point out what I think are the most important issues within the web site.

