Thinking about teaching

This week I’m attending a workshop on pedagogy and I’m hearing lots of interesting ideas from people teaching really exciting and innovative courses. They are incorporating service learning, multi-week projects, location-centric courses, and intro courses for particular audiences (say, business majors). They are doing cool case studies, fun field activities, integrating current events, and designing real world applications. It’s inspiring, and honestly, a little overwhelming. (And this is only the second day!)

Right now I’m contemplating revising my intro course, but I’m not sure when I’ll be teaching it again, and I’m thinking about how I want to structure my new upper-level prep. Since I’ve taught the intro course before, most of my concrete ideas and questions are relevant to that class.

  1. What are the things that I really want my students to get out my classes? (It’s probably not really specific content, but more to do with process, quantitative skills, and communication skills).
  2. How do I integrate conceptual and skills-based projects with an existing assessment structure centered around multiple choice quizzes and tests (an unfortunate side effect of large sections)?
  3. How do I add those projects without overwhelming myself and my students?
  4. How can I really integrate current events with my lectures without frantically revising each lecture at the last minute?
  5. The age-old breadth versus depth question…If I increase depth of content in my intro course, by sacrificing some breadth, how will this tradeoff affect majors who need this course as a prerequisite to future courses?
  6. Can I make any meaningful revision in my intro class when I teach one of five sections?
  7. How am I going to structure the labs of my new upper level course in order to include development of professional skills (incl. communication) and a unifying project?

More to come?


  1. #1 Rosie Redfield
    July 15, 2008

    One way to immediately shift the balance of a course from memorizing facts to understanding concepts is to declare that all tests and exams will be open book. Not just “you can bring a one-page crib sheet” but “you can bring anything except a cell phone, wifi, or a friend”.

    It’s surprisingly easy to modify all your exam questions so they’re suitable for open book exams, and the switch sends the students a clear message about what aspects of learning you think really matter.

  2. #2 squawky
    July 15, 2008

    Open book is an interesting idea – I’d suggest (if you try this) making very very clear what your policy about plagiarism is… I tried some take home exams this past semester, and ran into more than a couple instances of almost direct copying (both from the textbook and the internet).

    Yes, if you write concept questions (and not memorization questions), the copied answers probably aren’t going to be that good anyway – but I’d rather give a C to a student who tried to answer a question than to a student who found a few key terms in the text and copied what they found.

    Of course, I also had complaints about the “apply what you know” questions on my exams, too — they’re just too hard compared to the “regurgitate the slides from lecture”, I guess 🙂

  3. #3 Rosie Redfield
    July 15, 2008

    This is freshman biology. I haven’t had any problems with plagiarism on exams (they’re not take-home), but I don’t ask students anything they could answer by copying text out of a book. Email me if you’d like to see one of my exams.

  4. #4 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 16, 2008

    Having been a teacher on and off since 1973, including as Adjunct Professor in two venues and two different subjects, and having taught Biology as well as published a couple of dozen times in Mathematical Biology, I appreciate the trade-offs listed.

    I also always give open book, open-notes, open homework exams. It makes my job much harder and more labor intensive as a teacher, but has these two main benefits.

    (1) In the real world of employment, one’s boss never says: “I want you to solve this problem. But you’re not allowed to look anything up or ask anyone.” Isn’t education a life-long process, and don’t we want our students to be prepared for the world outside the ivory tower?

    (2) Your primary role is to balance instruction (which is usually all that the naive think that teachers do), assessment, and management (lesson planning and classroom management). The assessment is not just about grading homework and exams; it is to determine the learning style of each unique student. What matters is NOT what you know, but what you can find out about what is going on in the head of the student. Give at least half credit on homework and exams under my mantra: if you can’t write the equation, draw me a picture, or write me an English paragraph, but show my what you think. What the student knows that is right, build on, using their learning style.

    What the student knows that is wrong, usually the result of a bad teacher in the past, you solve by regressing them to just before that mistake, and then rolling forwards on the right path. The student usually knows where and when they went off-track, and still resents the teacher who did that.

    There is some deep recent discussion about all this, albeit the nominal subject is Math rather than Biology, at Professor John Armstrong’s blog “Unapologetic Mathematician” — especially the threads:

    Sunday Samples 76

    Pre-Calculus Mathematics Courses (open thread)

    Real crackpots send emails

    In the last of these, I made some points about treating students who have disabilities with appropriate respect and professionalism.

    There is also great career advice, often related to the teacher-student interaction, in Terry Tao’s amazing blog “What’s New” — again, nominally about rather advanced math, but, as often commented upon, applicable to many academic disciplines.

    I learn from better teachers, including my mother, and my wife (the latter being a Physics professor).

  5. #5 Jim Thomerson
    July 17, 2008

    The less work the professor does, and the more work the student does, the more learning takes place. By this I mean you focus on conning the students into finding things out for themselves, rather than giving out more handouts. I think multiple guess tests can be done well. It is possible to give data and ask questions about relationships rather than asking asking for memorization of the data. I always arranged the questions in the same sequence as the topics covered. When dealing with large sections, you can’t let assessment overpower the rest of your effort.

    When you are teaching one of five sections, there should be some correlation with what you are doing and what your colleagues are doing. I didn’t like to hear, “My friend in Sec. 3 isn’t having to do this dumb assignment.”

    I evolved to teach less and less about less and less. I think it is better for a student to have a good understanding of five concepts vs being vaguely aware of 20. In introductory and general education classes, I have used sickle cell anemia as a recurring uniflying theme to build on familar knowledge. It can be used to illustrate everything from molecular biology to societal and political problems.

    There was a methodology called “writing across the curriculum.” Which is probably out of favor by now, but I found it useful.

    In the general education course where attendance ran 60% or less, I tried having 5 question multiple choice guizzes at the beginning of each class. The students kept the quiz sheets and handed in a little answer sheet. My TA had the answer sheets graded and alphabetized by the end of class. I went over the questions in class and the students could mark the right answers for study. The final was the 45 most missed questions plus five on the last lecture. I told the students I would drop the three lowest grades, which ment they could miss class three times without cost. Actually, being lazy, I added all the grades and divided by 3 less than the total number of tests. My attendance level in both sectios was 89%, and student evaluations were very positive.

    Success in a general education biology course is producing a student who thinks biology is interesting, important, and understandable. Success in an introductory course is a student who is prepared for the next course. The next course, by the by, should include an initial assessment exam so you will know where the students are and teach appropriately.

  6. #6 Kim
    July 20, 2008

    Making intro courses really work well is hard. It’s hard to improve the students’ learning, and it’s hard to convince colleagues that student learning improved. And… well, I’m not sure that it’s time well-spent, as an assistant professor. Twelve years ago, when I was struggling with one of my large intro courses, one very well-respected teacher told me that, if I wanted to keep teaching, I should work on my research, because that’s what I would be judged on first. (I didn’t follow his advice. I also didn’t get tenure.)

    The general ideas from the workshop are applicable to upper level courses, too, and it’s good to internalize all the interesting pedagogy stuff that’s going on. But you don’t have to make the intro class perfect immediately. (And you don’t have to use all the ideas at once, or all the ideas ever.)

    That said, I thought the most useful thing was the assessment discussion (Bloom’s taxonomy applied) on the last day. I could see using that to help devise better multiple choice questions, or in-class exercises. (I’m no good at grading in-class exercises, though. Maybe if I were better with clickers…)

    (You’ve got grad students teaching the labs, right? If not… in one of those hallway discussions, I heard about ways to do the lab grading on the spot. That’s an idea I’m going to steal.)

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