The New Prep: An Upper Level Course with Lab

Having previously taught (and described) my intro class, my other course this semester has been occupy most of my mental and physical energy of late. To compound the amount of work required, I am also teaching the labs for the course.

The course is taught every year at Mystery U, and from here on out, it will be my course every other year, alternating with another faculty member. For both of us teaching the course, the topic represents a secondary area of research. The other faculty member provided me with copies of his labs and a >10 year old syllabus. Since the textbook, and the field in general, have advanced significantly in the last decade, the provided materials only got me so far in my course planning efforts. I think I can salvage parts of the labs, but I am totally reorganizing the lecture portion of the course.

Since I know my time is at a premium if I am going to get any research done this semester, I started my course planning by trying to think of ways to shift some of the course prep to my students. (For purely pedagogical reasons of course!) I decided to have weekly discussions of journal articles, with a different student leading the discussion each week. (Does anyone have a good rubric/grade sheet for evaluating discussion leaders?) In order to make sure that everyone is doing the readings, I am having all students email me before class with (1) the main point and (2) the most confusing point of each paper. Hopefully their emails will help me co-lead the discussions. This may well be the first time that many of these students engage with the peer-reviewed literature, so I expect that they will have some difficulties keeping up with the reading and know what to say in the discussion time. For that reason, I am trying to pick the papers carefully so as not to overwhelm them. I expect I'll need to do some supplementary reading so that I can help the students put the discussion paper in context. Given all the time that I'm spending picking papers and doing reading, I'm not sure that my time-saving strategy will actually save me that much time in the end. But I can then fall back on pedagogical claims to justify the exercise. We'll see how I feel about it at the end of the semester.

The rest of the time I'll be doing a traditional lecture style of teaching. I've taken a number of short courses and grad courses that were related to the topic, and I'll be hoping to draw heavily on those materials. Fortunately, some are available on the web or on CD. But, a week into the class, I am discovering that it is still taking me a tremendous amount of time to write the lectures, because I skim the textbook, need to refresh my memory on the topic, find the appropriate resources, decide how to best organize the material, and then make it all work in Powerpoint. Yes, I am using powerpoint, because it's the best way to show photographs, figures, and graphs, but I'm also doing a lot of writing on the board.

In terms of labs, the other faculty member took me on a preview field trip to see some potential field trip sites, and that was very helpful. Now I've simply got to come up with objectives/topics for the labs and match them to the most appropriate field sites. Oh, and I've got to learn a few techniques so that I can teach them to my students. And find the equipment that has migrated all over the building and into the control of assorted grad students. And write keys for the labs.

I think it's going to be a challenge just to stay a few minutes ahead of my class this term, and I'm really grateful that I only have one new prep rather than two. I can see that much of my work week will be spent writing lectures and labs and reading articles. I'm still excited about this class, but I'm also feeling a bit overwhelmed with the prospect of prepping a new upper-division course next fall, and then again next spring, and then the fall after that... At some point I'm going to have to find a way to (sustainably) prep new classes while still accomplishing some research. After all, they say that research is what will give me the privilege of keeping on teaching at the college level.


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Perhaps I am in an anti-social field (sometimes I am convinced of that), but the main difficulty my professors have with discussion classes is getting the students to talk. Oddly enough, the system that has worked the best so far was handing out "stars" to the students asking or answering questions. I am hoping you will share your strategies of getting people to talk at some point in the semester.

Emeritus Professor here. I operated on the theory that the less work done by the Professor and the more work done by the student, the more learning took place. There is a student culture which says keep your head down and hope. Communication with the instructor is brown-nosing, etc. Should be less of a problem in a more advanced class. What actually is the nature of the course?

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 15 Jan 2008 #permalink

Echoing sciencegirl, I have always been a bit leery of trying to have students actually lead a discussion on a paper for fear that nobody will talk. So let me know your secret if it works for you. My approach has been to assign the class 4 papers for a 50 min class, assign 4 presenters and everyone else writes a summary of one of the papers. Presenters usually choose to prepare a powerpoint with about 4 slides to get the main ideas across, including one or two key figures or tables, and then we have a few minutes discussion for each paper. But this is partly because in my field it is pretty easy to find papers that are easy to read, not too involved, not too many ancillary validations or alphabet soup like you might find in cell bio.

By guppygeek (not verified) on 15 Jan 2008 #permalink

I found it helpful to have a list of questions to ask the students as a back up if they weren't participating. By asking questions about the article they were more "forced" to participate. It also helped to break them into smaller groups to discuss the article first (have them summarize it, think about these issues X etc.) and then have the groups report to the whole class, group 1 covers part 1 summary, group 2 answers why this was important etc. I found that if it was an interesting article the small groups would actually go on discuss multiple issues not just the 'one' assigned to them.
Good luck!

Working with advanced undergrads in discussing papers, you may find it worthwhile to specifically ask them to discuss the methods used in the paper and why they were chosen, not just the results. If they are ever going to design their own research, that's something they need to start learning right away.

Of course, it also helps to have them discussing papers that use the methods they are learning in the labs.

Having just finished a class on teaching, I just want to point out that it's also very important for students to know what is expected of them and how they can be good discussionleaders. We used Problem Based Learning at my alma mater, where you get to do this roughly every 6 weeks at least once so by the end you're quite ok but for the first week we got training in how to work with this kind of thing.
Also, how big is your group? I'll be co-teaching a course with 4 debates with a group of about 50 students, and we also expect them to raise one discussion point, and post it online the day before the debate. If they've send in 4 points, they get 5% of their grade.

grading discussion leaders is hard ... you can come up with a list of important points that should be addressed and concluded from the paper, and see how well the discussion leaders managed to get to those points?

also, having students email you before class is a lot of work, especially to keep track of who has and who hasn't emailed on what day. paper-discussion classes i've had would divide up the main figure legends/charts (or results sections) and randomly assign them to 1 student at the beginning of class. the assigned student is responsible for explaining the main point from their figure/section, and they have to read the whole thing because they don't know which section they will need to talk from ...

just a suggestion :)

I'm part way through a course on teaching adult learners
One of the mantras is "the person who does the work, does the learning"

One of the other tutors on the course has a similar requirement for tutorials. Each student has to find an article (maximum of 4 A4 pages, which is distributed in advance to the class) 3 students each week present on their article, and lead a discussion.

Students get graded out of 25 for the presentation of the article. They also get graded out of 25 for their contribution to the discussion (over 6 weeks, it means they get graded out of 25 one week on their paper, and out of 25 the other sessions on how well they participate. It means that students turn up to the tutorials, usually prepared, as 25% of their grade is at stake.

The other 50% of the grade comes from an assignment or test.

It apparently works very well. Unfortunately, the class on assessment finished yesterday and I don't have her rubric.

This may not work depending on how large your classes are (mine are small) but at our school it is diffcult to get the students to read the textbook (or even buy it!) I require them to hand in notes. They are worth about 25% of the grade in the course and I grade them (meaning they don't get full credit but just for handing something in. It doesn't take me long to grade - less than a minute per student but it make sure they have read and thought about the material before class. It has been working well.

By Academic Vixen (not verified) on 18 Jan 2008 #permalink

One thing I've started doing in my grad school classes (library & info. science) is explaining how I expect them to read articles. We probably all mean different things when we say "read this article" -- so it helps to clarify what I want them to focus on.

I tell them not to just highlight sections that interest them or that they think is important but also to write brief notes in the margin about WHY they highlighted that passage.

If you can come up with 2-3-4 things they need to look at for each article and have them start out by discussing those elements in class, you'll probably be off to a good start. Of course, you also have to have done that with each article so you can ask probing questions in class in case the discussion leader is absent or otherwise not able to generate good discussion.

Another thing you could do is have the discussion leader post her / his 2-3-4 items to your community web space in advance of class. Not just for you to review & make sure they're on the right track, but also for the other students to see.

Fun discussion here! Well led. :-)