The Questionable Authority

My Teaching – an update

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:
Today:

  • 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.

Comments

  1. #1 Sandra Porter
    September 27, 2006

    Sorry if I was a little harsh before. I’ve just seen too many instructors who make unfair assumptions about the background knowledge and learning skills that students have when they enter a class, and then blame the students if they’re not properly equipped. Even enforcing a prerequisite course requirement isn’t always enough to ensure that students are prepared, that is, unless you actually talk to the instructor of the prerequisite course to find out if they’re teaching what you want students to know.

    Just like you:

    I was given the schedule of labs and the description of each lab, and was drop-kicked into the teacher’s chair.

    But I was fortunate. I had talented teachers all around me to learn from. And, just like you’re doing, I made an effort to reflect on whether or not the learning goals that I set for the students were aligned with the questions that I asked them to answer and the skills that I had them practice in lab.

    The ideas that you discuss in this post, the steps that you’re taking, and your concern about doing the right thing for your students show that you really do have a lot of potential in the teaching arena. Trying different approaches in teaching is a different kind of experiment, but you will find that the rewards are great.

  2. #2 brother dan
    September 27, 2006

    Know this, big brother, you’ve already taken the first, and biggest step – you’re engaging in metacognitive thought about your teaching and are taking steps to improve. There are a lot of people – all of whom should know better – who don’t do this. They suck as teachers.

    You, my brother, are too brilliant not to be good at it. Your students are lucky to have you.

  3. #3 SMC
    September 27, 2006

    As a smaller, more specific possibility:

    My current Virology instructor has what I think is a particularly civilized and effective approach to graded tests. Students can (optionally) take the graded tests and re-answer (open-book, within a week) anything they got wrong for up to half the credit they missed.

    The idea is that the exam then becomes an additional learning opportunity rather than merely a test, but doesn’t give you back so many points that you can just give it to someone else and pay them to get an “A” for you. That is “UP TO” half, after all – students are required to turn in re-worked answers before the answer key is posted, so it’s not just a matter of copying the correct answer from somewhere. This seems perfect for situations where a student doesn’t KNOW that they don’t know something (much as you described regarding the terminology).

    Obviously, this approach could also be applied to quizzes…

  4. #4 gengar
    September 28, 2006

    I really empathise with you – having also been somewhat parachuted into teaching this past year, the steep learning curve can be daunting. But it sounds like you’re making a fairly speedy ascent.

  5. #5 DRR
    September 28, 2006

    Back when I was in grad school I spent years pushing for some sort of training for all of the grad students they were throwing out there as teachers. I was amazed by the number of grad students who didn’t know how to teach, nor did many of them really care.

    Sadly, years later they still don’t have any training for new instructors.

  6. #6 Daniel Harper
    September 28, 2006

    I’m running a couple of days behind, so I just saw the original post on this topic, but as a bio undergraduate who just finished the two-course intro sequence, I thought I might have a bit of insight here.

    First off, the whole process of osmosis is fairly counterintuitive, even to “sciency” types. I know that it took a bit of fiddling with it to really make the whole process “sink in” for me — understanding that it’s the water concentration, not the solute concentration, that determines eventual solute concentration was key for me. Biology students around here are very often pre-med types, who are used to having to memorize long lists of organs or to be able to trace the flow of blood through the body or whatever, but have very little background to understand more process-based phenomena like osmosis.

    Also, I’d like to point out something that I haven’t seen anyone else reference: subtext matters. Had I been in that class (and not knowing how important the concept of osmosis would be when we got to active/passive transport, neuron structure and function, osmoregulation, et cetera) and I’d asked a professor to define the key terms for me, I would have expected some kind of full answer. Getting, essentially, “go look that up and let me know if you need anything else,” implies that the subject matter just isn’t all that important, it probably won’t be on the test, and that I’m just being persnickety in trying to hammer down the details. Students all-too-often have to prioritize which information in which class are going to be important for them to know, and if you’re taking what appears to be a blase attitude towards this segment of material, the students will pick up on it. Even if they go look up the meanings of the terms (and I probably would have), they may assume that it’s less important than it is, and won’t give it the kind of scrutiny that you intended. Making them look it up might actually have the exact opposite effect as you intended, even for “good students”.

    Over the summer I took an intro chemistry class that I found extraordinarily frustrating, and the reason for that is at least marginally relevant here. As a summer class, it was on an abbreviated ten-week schedule, which necessitated a faster pace than would normally be expected, and which I completely understood and was fine with — I signed up for the class knowing that it’d be a bit stressful and more work than it might otherwise have been. The department uses a standardized ACS exam for the end of the two-course intro chemistry sequence, which means that X amount of material _must be_ covered during the period of the class, and it also uses a web-based (OWL) homework system. The professor assigns homework from what’s available on OWL, and gives exams that are taken from a question bank that comes with the book (or something like that — I got it from the other end).

    The problem was: the homework was graded for completion online, which meant that answers had to be within 2% in order to be graded correct, with no partial credit at all. And while the individual questions might be fairly simple (i.e. balance an equation, give molar mass of a compound, predict orbital shape given such-and-such Lewis dot structure) they were numerous enough to take up a large swath of outside-of-class time — I would regularly spend three to four hours a couple of times a week doing chem homework.

    Which is fine (although I’d argue perhaps a bit excessive), except that exam questions were very little like the homework questions. While homework questions were straightforward (solve for this, give the concentration of that), the exam problems were significantly more involved, usually having several steps and requiring the recall of abtruse information from a table (i.e. solubility rules, colors of reactions, et cetera). There were also enough questions on each test (20-25 word problems) and very little time to solve them (one hour out of a two-hour class period) that any student who was not completely on-the-ball and ready to solve _these_ sorts of problems was left out in the cold.

    Which, again, would have been fine, except that minus a few problems on practice exams handed out a week or so before the exam, we spent virtually no time in class discussing problem-solving strategies, or even working a significant number of problems like those on the final. We did have a TA do what was called a “recitation”, which was primarily a Q&A period, but even then we had relatively little practice solving problems.

    In other words, it was frustrating because we spent a huge amount of time doing what felt like make-work in the homework assignments, and got tests that often had very little to do with the tenor and structure of the class, and with no real time to work out the answers to complex questions given the theory provided in class.

    I’m sorry for making this so long, but I was trying to provide background to say this: it was difficult because as a student I had to prioritize, and the cues I was getting in that regard from my instructor were not indicative of the overall direction of the test material. I don’t think you’ve done anything quite like this (and I have difficulty blaming my instructor, as well — much of what I complain about above was mandated by the department, and he had to make difficult choices about how to cover a lot of material in a very little time), but I hope it shows how even a good, motivated student (which I like think I am) can have serious problems with material if its importance is not emphasized properly.

    (I squeaked by with a C in that chem class, BTW, having easily done ten times the amount of work for that C than for the A I got in biology. And I think it anything the chemistry material was easier.)

  7. #7 PhilipJ
    October 5, 2006

    Everyone learns by graduate school that if you want to figure things out, you (often) need to get as many different references on the same subject as you can. Everyone’s interpretation of some idea, experiment, analysis, etc, is different, and only by seeing a large number of different takes on the same subject can you really get to the heart of the matter. This is exactly why we have multiple textbooks on the same subject, and many journal articles on very similar phenomena with wildly different results and interpretations.

    The big failure of (at least mine, but I suspect many others’, too) undergraduate education is that you don’t really learn this until it is much too late. Why does it have to wait until graduate school (or summer research experience) for students to see how science is _actually_ done?

    So, while I think it is a good idea to help your students as much as possible, I don’t think it was too much to ask that people show some independence in learning, even as first year students in an introductory course. Learning to think critically and independently should be the main component of all undergraduate degrees, and it should start in the very first class a student takes.

  8. #8 Genevieve Williams
    October 5, 2006

    I’ll weigh in again here because I spend a lot of time thinking about teaching, even though as an academic librarian I teach a lot fewer formal classes than does a member of the teaching faculty. But in my graduate program there was an entire course devoted to teaching techniques, and then over the summer I attended an intensive workshop on teaching sponsored by the Association of College and Research Libraries.

    The difference, I think, is that a master’s in librarianship is a professional degree and not all of us go into academia. Teaching people to use information wisely and effectively is becoming the principal component of our job description.

    I agree with PhilipJ that independence in learning, critical thinking, and the rest of it are very important, and I try to include this in the classes I teach. I also agree that from what I’ve seen, undergraduate programs don’t always emphasize this to the degree that they should. The advent of undergraduate-level Capstone projects is a step in the right direction; I’ve seen some truly impressive work from upper division students at my university.

    Anyway, to get back to teaching…someone commented in your previous post about learning styles. The percentages of students who “got” the various concepts, followed directions, and so forth may be indicative of how your students learn. Some do learn best by going and looking things up; some learn best by diving right in and trying things out; some learn best in collaboration with others. Some even learn best from lectures. Balancing all of these is difficult, but I think the results are worth it.

    One thing I discovered about learning styles is that you tend to teach the way you learn best. I’m big on lectures and reading and have had to work to incorporate active learning into my classes. In a science class with a lab component, you have the active learning built in. I have a sneaking suspicion, based on your numbers, that most of your students learn best that way.