Still trying to teach myself how to teach...

Over at Discovering Biology in a Digital World, Sandy thanks me for, "unintentionally starting a public teaching journal." That was a very nice way to describe what's been going on here in the comment threads for the posts where I've talked about what I'm inflicting upon the hapless undergrads I've been assigned. It feels a lot more like being the subject of a pathology lecture. Still, I did volunteer for this, and the comments are helping - I hope.

In my last post on teaching, I vented a bit about the results of the most recent quiz I gave. In particular, I was annoyed that 25% of the students in one of my sections incorrectly answered a question on the quiz that I had discussed, using almost the same words as the quiz, less than five minutes before giving the quiz. A couple of the responses to that suggested that I try doing things that I had actually tried to do. That's not the fault of the commenters, however, since I spent most of the post venting, and didn't detail the entire approach that I had taken. This time, I will do just that. Having my teaching methods taken apart in the comments here is painful, but it's preferable to not getting the material through. If you read this, and see something you think I could have done more effectively, please do let me know.

The lab that I just quizzed the students on was a basic genetics lab. There were a number of excercises for this lab, but the main one had the students determine their own blood type. I did a lecture prior to the experiment, and went over blood group inheritance. I went over blood group inheritance again with students on a one-on-one basis during the experiment, while looking at their results.

The week after the experiment, I gave back the totally awful quiz that I mentioned way back at the start of this series of posts. I went over my expectations for quizzes with them, and told them that one of the things I was going to expect was for them to read the handouts before the quizzes and be able to define any word that appeared in boldface. I apologized for not defining the words during the prior lab, and told them that I would answer any question asked in lab, and would respond to questions emailed to me before 7 pm the evening before the next lab. I also went over the results from the week before, and had about a quarter of the students tell me what their blood type was, and what bloodtypes their parents could not have. We also discussed the use of blood tests in assessing parentage, and I had some of them explain why blood typing could eliminate someone as a possible parent, but could not confirm that they were the parent. Finally, I told them that I was postponing the quiz by one week to give them a better chance to prepare, and that they would definitely be having one this week.

Between last week and this week, I received a grand total of zero email questions.

This week, I started out the lab with another review of genetics. We went over the inheritance of mid-digital hair, and used data that the students had collected from their parents to determine how the trait is inherited. We talked about how the inheritance of mid-digital hair differs from AB blood group inheritance. At the end of that, I reminded them that an AB parent couldn't have an O child, then asked if there were any questions before the quiz. There were few, and none involved blood group inheritance. The students were then given the quiz, the second question of which was, "Mom has AB+ blood. Can she have a child with type-O blood?" 20% of one section got that one wrong, as did 25% of the other section.

Aside from possibly tatooing the answer to the question across my forehead, I'm not sure what else I could have done to try and teach that material.

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Thanks for the opportunities you've given us all to talk about teaching. That doesn't happen often.

In your class, it seems you're addressing a variety of learning styles and providing considerable repetition of information offered in several ways. So, let's see. In your first post on teaching skills, you said, "So far, about 25% of the class has managed to define one correctly, and about 10% of the class defined both." Today you say that "25% of the students in one of my sections incorrectly answered . . ." In a matter of days, you've more than tripled the number of students who're getting the right answers to certain important questions? It seems to me that you're on the right track here.

I have one more suggestion, but please don't use it unless it fits in with your personality. In other words, to work, it really needs to come from the heart. If you have a list of your students' E-mail addresses, mid-week before the test you could send each a very brief message saying something like, "I want everyone to do their very best work on the test. How is the studying going? What questions do you have?" (Not, "do you have a question?": make having lot of questions the norm, not the exception.)

I have one friend whose introductory classes typically far out-do the classes of all the other instructors; one mayor difference in his teaching technique is that personal inquiry. He does it because he really wants to know. A couple of years ago, I sent such a message to everyone in one of my classes, and a student in his thirties, who hadn't been doing very well, responded simply by saying that in all the school classes he had ever been in, he couldn't remember any teacher actually seeking him out to ask how he was doing. That's all he said. On the next test, his grade jumped about 20 points and stayed up there till the end of the semester. Of course, I sent a lot of messages to a lot of people to get that one dramatic response. I thought it was worth it.

(If you do use the inquiry message, I encourage you to use it for everyone at once, so there's no appearance of playing favorites.)

Sorry: I meant "major difference in his teaching technique . . . ."

Some student's never learn...

A friend of mine taught introductory psychology at "big state school" when he was a graduate student.

Every test -- including the final -- he gave 5 points extra credit if the students could select his name on a multiple choice scantron. 15% of the student's missed the question on the final.

Hi Mike:

You're taking it too personally that your students haven't learned what you want them to. My view is that brilliance of presentation is only a small part of instruction. Students can walk out of a class and say, "Man, Mike was GOOD today," yet tomorrow they will still have forgotten 90% of what you told (not taught) them.

Learning really doesn't take place until the student is willing to put in the effort to master the material. Typically, mastery isn't necessary in school, since you're often graded against your peers, rather than some absolute standard. (Never had a class where there wasn't a curve to pick up low averages.)

I'm in a better situation in which I teach people one-on-one in a non-academic setting. They don't complete my course until they can demonstrate mastery to me. I've butted heads with quite a few students who thought they could get by with B-level effort.

I have two suggestions:

1) Relax and view the situation with amusement. Your classroom is a microcosm of the entire world. Your students are paying you, but they have their own agenda and it doesn't match yours. How funny is that? :-)

2) More practically, view your quizzes as teaching tools, not evaluation tools. Students often don't realize they don't know something until the time they try to use the knowledge. After they squirm a bit, they're more likely to pay attention to you when you explain.

Knowledge, however, is temporary. What they know today, they will likely forget next week. Expect that, prepare for it, and you won't be frustrated.

By Taylor Grayson (not verified) on 06 Oct 2006 #permalink

Julia is right. Sometimes it is hard to get students to come get help - even when they need it. It's been my experience, too, that different types of students behave in different ways..

When I was a TA for a General Biol class of pre-med students, I couldn't escape them. We had to unplug our phone after 10 pm because they would call, even when it was late. (These were the days before e-mail).

But later, with my Microbiology students, and non-science majors, and even with my biotech students (at least in the beginning of the year), it was a different story. This may sound surprising but they were kind of intimidated by me and I had to do things like wear goofy T-shirts to class and tell bad jokes to get them to loosen up.

Moving on, well, I typed so much, that it seemed like another blog post (oh, actually two) would be worthwhile (sorry!).

I do hope this is helpful to you, because for me, in a strange way, it's kind of fun.

One of the greater frustrations of teaching is this: sometimes, your students won't get "it."

I've felt it with my students. Lord knows that Jim Coughlin and Louis Macchiarulo felt it with me. You're feeling what some of your professors felt about you. Realize that.

It's a part of teaching, that knowing that people will not walk out of your lessons getting every single moment, or in many cases, the bulk of the moments. The question, really, shouldn't be "what am I doing wrong," because you're really not doing anything wrong. You're taking the material from the book and presenting it before the class. You're differentiating your lessons inasmuch that the learning is broken up between lecture and hands-on experience. In short, you're doing exactly what a teacher is supposed to do.

The difficulty - at least, in large part - is the population. College kids are probably the most difficult group of individuals to teach, because they (1) think they know everything, (2) have recently gained some portion of independence, and therefore are probably making a greater variety of bad decisions than they've ever had the ability to do before, and (3) don't have a f***ing clue that they neither know everything nor do they have an iota of a clue about how bad their decisionmaking is. It's a toxic combination.

So, stop - or at least minimize - your ritualistic blaming of yourself. It'll get you nowhere.

Keep putting in your best effort, and you'll be able to walk away with some semblance of satisfaction when the semester's finished.

I love you, bro, and I love that I've been able to give you some workable advice on this topic, but you'll only drive yourself nuts if you perseverate on this in this detail. Teaching is an imperfect, inexact science. Which I'm sure must drive you and the other science nerds who frequent the Seed Magazine family of websites absolutely bats*** insane. But yeah, it's a science, more than anything I've ever encountered in my lifetime. (There's a reason my Master's in Special Ed and Literacy is an MS.) It's a lot of trial and error, trial and error, trial and error. What works one day will be the antithesis to the answer the next. So, fret not about the results. Just enjoy the tweaking. It's all experimenting and no true, real results.

I'm with Dan. Given the precise description of your lesson plan, I think you're doing a really good job. There is a limit to how much you can force people to care and learn. If they don't understand because they can't be bothered to ask questions, it's entirely their problem. This is not K-12, and luckily there is no "no child left behind" act.
College should be hard and should demand studying. Anyone who can hear the material and practice it as many times as they did according to your lesson plan, and still get the question wrong, probably needs to get smacked on the had with one failing grade so that they shape up.

Calculus 1 (with proofs) is the first course given to math majors in my faculty. Every year we have quite a lot of people who fail the class. Some of them get their act together for the makeup (in Israel we always have two test dates) and the second semester, and some of them are still sure that they know everything except how to do the proofs, and end up leaving the degree at some point. This happens every year, without any correlation to whether the best lecturers are giving the course or the mediocre ones.
My point is that there will always be bad students, you can't obsess about it, especially with the fact that you seem to be doing quite a good job preparation wise.

By ParanoidMarvin (not verified) on 07 Oct 2006 #permalink

I well know the feelings of frustration. I've been teaching math, biology and statistics to Education students in remote areas (I have a rather odd background). I've noticed that in math in particular it helps if I start by saying that some of the concepts took a thousand years or more for mathematicians to come up with so they shouldn't feel too bad about it if they don't get it in 20 minutes. It seems to relax them and make the whole course less stressful.

In a related vein, I saw a report in a recent issue of Science (sorry, I don't have it at hand) of an experiment in which at the beginning of the course a mixed group of students was asked to spend 15 minutes writing down their values. During the entire course, the best Afro-American students performed about as well as the best Whites, whereas in a control group they performed considerably less well.

On the radio I caught the tail end of a report of an experiment in which, just before the start of the exam (in a 'male' area of study), a group of female students were given a few words of 'encouragement'. Mentioning that they were female or that they were an elite group respectively reduced and increased the average mark by about 10% compared to a more neutral statement.

I feel that as teachers we have to be very careful of the messages we send to the students on their performance. I had a colleague who was teaching statistics to Agriculture students. He told me they were all stupid, and they lived up to his expectations. But when I had similar groups in other years we covered more material, they performed well and several told me they really ejoyed the course.

But yes, I have certainly had situations in which it was difficult to refrain from tearing my hair out in frustration, or allowing my jaw to drop to the floor.

Julia - your suggestion of sending a message to each person asking what questions they have is a good idea that I'll try to incorporate in my next course.

By Richard Simons (not verified) on 10 Oct 2006 #permalink