I got a little frustrated while grading quizzes yesterday, and wrote a post about my frustrations. I asked for feedback, and boy did I get some. Some of the comments were more or less supportive of my approach. Others were not.
After reading the comments about my teaching approach and taking some time to think about the situation, I’ve reached the conclusion that the folks who wrote comments and blog posts that thoroughly trashed my approach are probably right. I’ve got to go teach the first of my sections in a little while, so it’s time to see what I can do to fix the problem. I know what I’m going to try. There’s not much time for pre-class feedback on this approach, but I’m still interested in getting feedback – there’s still a lot of the semester left, and I’m trying to screw up as little as possible.
I took a good look at the quiz, and at what the different questions were asking. I didn’t actually plan this out, but as it turns out, two of the questions – the definitions – give me some idea about whether people looked up and understood those terms. Most (90%) didn’t. Two questions give me some idea about how well people understood the technical side of the lab, and how well they could use their data to predict future outcomes. Most (85%) did very well here. The last question let me assess how well people were able to connect theory with the experiment. About 2/3 of the students did well there.
I also looked at the lab reports that were turned in right before the quiz. About 15% of the students failed to correctly follow directions (as in, didn’t attempt to graph things they were told to graph, didn’t describe things they were told to describe, etc.) Most of the rest did follow directions, and most were able to do the graphs correctly, but most weren’t able to record observations very well (a lot of important information was missing).
This tells me, I think, several things:
- I had hoped that looking up the definitions would encourage learning through reading. That obviously did not work well.
- Most of the students are able to understand what is happening in the lab well enough to make predictions about future outcomes. This is very good, and very important.
- I didn’t do a completely bad job at explaining the connection between experiment and theory (2/3 did get that), but I didn’t do a really good job either (1/3 didn’t make the key connection).
- I’m probably doing OK with the assignment descriptions. 15% is higher than I’d like, but it’s not insanely high, and it is a course that lots of people use to fulfill a gen ed requirement – lots of them don’t really want to be there.
- I didn’t provide enough guidance on recording observations.
Here’s what I’m going to try:
- Start off the class by going over the diffusion quiz. I’m going to be open with them, and explain that I think that there were two problems. I think part of the problem was that people didn’t do the reading, and/or didn’t ask for help. Another part of the problem was with my teaching. I’ll apologize for that, go back over the material that people missed, and talk about how to make sure that the problem doesn’t re-occur.
- I’m going to clarify my expectations on reading the material, and remind them that I don’t actually attack students who ask for help.
- I’m going to go over good observational procedures again, and be much more specific about why it’s important, how to determine what should be recorded, and how to organize and record observations.
- I’m going to be much more careful about making sure that I am being clear enough with my expectations and explanations.
In the future:
- Consciously design quizzes so that the questions will let me assess both how well the students do and how well I communicated key concepts.
- Go over the pre-lab handout with a non-scientific eye, and try to note areas that might be confusing to non-majors
- Talk to low-scoring students about their problem areas even if they don’t come to office hours.
More suggestions for the future are particularly welcome.
Some concluding thoughts:
I don’t want to dodge responsibility for my own failings, but I think that this situation, more than anything else, illustrates the problems with our current method of training people to teach at the college level. At present at most institutions, there is no method, no system, and no effort made to train graduate students in teaching skills. Like the vast majority of grad students I know, I was given the schedule of labs and the description of each lab, and was drop-kicked into the teacher’s chair.