Redesigning a broken course

I've got a course that (IMO) is broken, and I'm working on fixing it.

I've been teaching a course called "The Control of Nature" (after John McPhee's book) for 16 years, after thinking of the idea on my way home from my first academic job interview. (Yes, that was a bad time to come up with an answer to a question like "what other class could you teach?" No, I didn't get that job.) I've taught it as an intro course for non-majors and as an upper-level interdisciplinary general education class, and I had plans, once, to adapt it for a freshman seminar and for a large-lecture gen ed class. It's been through two different general education programs here, and is currently listed as "Education for Global Citizenship" - an upper-level gen ed class that's supposed to get students to think about global issues from multiple disciplinary and cultural perspectives.

In other words, it's not a science class any more. (After the fold: more about the purpose of the course, and what's wrong with it.)

I sold it to the gen ed committee as a course about the ways in which humans deal with natural disasters and natural hazards. And that means that I'm out of my comfort zone when I teach it. I'm fine when I'm explaining floods and volcanoes and landslides. But getting students to argue about the effects of various responses? Especially when I want them to think about the economic impact of rebuilding versus moving, or the way people feel about their home? Can't we just go on a field trip and admire a local debris flow instead?

In the past, I've alternated lectures about the geology (such as the differences between volcanoes in Iceland and the Philippines) with discussions about other reading. (McPhee's The Control of Nature usually, plus other books or articles that relate to recent disasters. For instance, after Hurricane Katrina I had students read parts of Why New Orleans Matters, to think about why people would want to move back, and Field Notes from a Catastrophe, which discusses the Netherlands' response to rising sea level.) Along the way, students write short response papers to the discussions, and at the end, they write a paper analyzing the response to another hazard (preferably in their hometown) and give a presentation to the class.

So what's wrong with it? Well, the discussions are just plain dead. If my goal was to get students to understand the differences between volcanic rocks, I could do that. But getting students to talk about why people would spray water on a volcano in Iceland, and whether that's a reasonable model for any other place? I don't know where to start.

And then there are the papers. How can I get students to say something other than "you can't control nature because it's not natural and nature can't be controlled"? It's not that I want students to leave the class with a particular point of view, to support repairing levees or forcing people to leave Chaiten. But I want the students to have good reasons for supporting one policy versus another, and to be able to assess the strengths and weaknesses of other options.

So the class needs help. I'm teaching it during May this year, and I need to order books next week. I'm currently working my way through a course design tutorial developed by the same people who run the Cutting Edge teaching workshops. I could do it alone - the tutorial is designed well for a single person sitting at a desk - but I have a blog. Maybe I can get some of the workshop experience by telling the entire world about it.

This is the first of several blog posts about the process of redesigning a course. Next: figuring out the point of it all. (What should my students get out of the class, besides a credit towards graduation?)

More like this

I'm having this same issue with my Environmental Geology course this semester. The discussions are sometimes painful to sit through, participate in, and listen to. I've done some reflecting on this and had some discussions with students about what they think would improve the discussions, and starting next week I'm trying something new: letting the students be in charge. I've assigned groups of three students to each discussion topic for the rest of the semester. These student leaders are responsible for (1) posting 'thinking questions' online at our Blackboard course site and (2) facilitating the in-class discussion. I'm hoping that by (a) putting the impetus on them and (b) having distinct, open-ended "focusing" questions while they are doing the reading, discussions will improve. I'll let you know how it goes.

It sounds like it *should* be a good course, but also that you are having difficulty getting students to engage with those higher levels of Bloom's taxonomy. Maybe rethinking the assignments/reading so that students are working to answer specific questions rather than just having open-ended discussions would help. I was particularly enamored with the jigsaw concept presented at last year's TIG workshop, though I haven't figured out how to include it in my current courses yet. But the woman from Arizona who presented it, was using it in the context of volcanic and earthquake hazards, so it might be easily adaptable and accessible for your class.

Discussions are usually lively due to either participants expanding off of each other or, more commonly, conflict. Are the lectures/readings providing enough perspective that more than one opinion/decision is plausible to the students?

As an example, presenting only the various natural processes working against the viability of New Orleans will almost inevitably result in the conclusion that it is probably not worth continuing to fight for it, whereas I would imagine only reading the Piazza book would result in the opposite conclusion. Maybe reducing the number of examples but expanding the number of perspectives (either by longer, more comprehensive texts or multiple sources) could create the atmosphere for more enthusiastic and thorough discussions?

On that note, a possible reading suggestion would be Rising Tide - about the Mississippi Flood of 1927 and the profound socio-political consequences it had that shape events to this day. There is a lot to chew over in terms of class, race, and political dynamics.

Other than more energy and nuance in the discussions and papers, how would your ideal course look vs. how you see it now?

1) You need to develop general goals and specific objectives you want the students to reach. The latter should be observable (i.e. test items, discussion participation, writing accomplishment in papers, etc.). The goals need not be directly observable, but you should be able to make a strong argument that students who have met the objectives have also met the goals.

2) Worrying about specific strategies (i.e. reading, papers, discussion, jigsaw, whatever) before you have established the desired outcomes is counterproductive- just as deciding what gear to take on a field project before you've decided what data you want to collect is counterproductive. In your post, I see plenty of concern with content and strategy, but little thinking about first, where the students are starting from, and second, where you want them to be at the end of the course. If you aren't conciously considering that path, are you surprised that it's not really clear where you're ending up?

3) As for your "comfort zone," I'm certain anyone who has done any teaching can relate. It's OK to tell students that certain topics are not areas in which you are an expert. The fact that you are not an expert doesn't mean such areas are unimportant. Acknowledging the fact may make students more comfortable challenging you and each other. It's also an excuse to broaden your own understanding; any good teacher is first an exhuberant learner. We can't know everything, but we can work on weak areas.

4) Overall, this is a great course idea (I've taught a similar course for secondary science teachers), but your own ideas and those of administrators and students are pulling it in different directions. These different directions are not necessarily "wrong" or incompatable with the materials and issues at hand, but they're expanding beyond your ability to make them coherent in the time available. My bet is that the lack of focus and coherence is what is make students unresponsive and apparently unengaged.

5) Callan's comment and ideas are good, but again, you need to have first in your mind "What are the outcomes we are working toward?"

This may be presumptuous of me, but I have done quite of bit of science education (i.e. teaching teachers how to teach science) and educational consulting, particularly curriculum development and assessment. I can't really promise, but I think I could help with this. My e-mail is at the top right of my blog/website.

I'm not a teacher, and I haven't been a student for a long time, but here's my thought: use a debate approach. Have students debate each side of the stay put vs. abandon argument for several of the examples you're discussing. Assign students to their positions. Base part of their grade on how well they research and present the positions.

By Ralph Wilson (not verified) on 11 Mar 2009 #permalink

Frankly, it doesn't sound like a geology course (which you say yourself) and would perhaps be better taught at a different department altogether. It should probably be run by a sociologist or social psychologist (or possibly a historian or economist with the appropriate bent), and the course should be focused on that.

For the actual disaster bits, a geologist and other specialists could come in for guest lectures on the specifics (geological disasters of course, but climate disasters, wars, pestilences and famines are full-on disasters as well). Anchoring it on geology feels a little like having the tail wag the dog, and I suspect that's why it doesn't quite work despite the basic idea being great.

Janne - yes, I think you're right that I'm the wrong person to be teaching the course. The sciences have trouble fitting well into the entire gen ed program, however - the goals of the program are focused on things that other disciplines value, and we're expected to play along. (During the workshop that led to this particular gen ed program, I threatened to rebel and suggest that one of our goals should be the use of calculus to solve real-world problems. But I'm a wimp, and I didn't want to try teaching calculus to non-science majors, anyway.)

Anyway, at any liberal arts college, the science faculty have to be able to do non-science-y things. It would be nice if I could team-teach this with a social scientist, but that's too expensive to be an option. So I'll work with it as best I can.

perhaps you should focus the course a bit more narrowly: for example, you could look at just the one natural hazard, flood. That would still bring in plenty of interesting geology, plus the whole global warming issue. To introduce the policy aspect for the US consider the whole issue of flood insurance for houses. This is simply unavailable in the private sector: only the feds offer it but the issues of drawing the flood zone maps and setting the premia are intractable. You can't get a federally-related mortgage on a home in a flood zone here in the US without this flood insurance. You could thus draw in the econ/business students into the topic.

Globally, you could look at the stuff from the Benfield Hazard Research Centre at the University of London for much interesting material: worldwide, private insurance firms are much engaged in risk assessment and mitigation. Naturally, Dutch firms are very interested.

It might be better to do one issue in more depth, no pun intended, than to cover every possible natural risk (volcanoes, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc.).

By brian smith (not verified) on 11 Mar 2009 #permalink

Were I teaching such a course I would tend to want to keep it more towards the Environmental Geology side of things. I might consider teaching it from the aspect of "process design" and then show those designs in nature (outside of the biological - might as well not get into evolution) which challenge man. Along the way you could teach on aspects such as crystallography, sedimentation, structural geology, vulcanology, etc., from the aspect of the process which leads to the design man must deal with. Ok, just had a flashback to the graduate Engineering Geology course I took at Texas A&M and the lab section for a Geology for Engineers course for which I was a teaching assistant.

Nevermind.... lol!

By Lynn David (not verified) on 11 Mar 2009 #permalink

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


A follow-up on my comment at the top of this stack. We had our first discussion under the new paradigm, and while it wasn't a perfect exercise, I definitely feel like it went better than previous discussions. I assigned three students to lead the discussion (weeks ago), and they posted "thinking questions" online at Blackboard, including some great ones that went outside the reading and added historical context, and then they ran the show in class. I almost literally bit my tongue, and found that me remaining silent forced the students to talk -- although a lot of them still directed their commentary physically in my direction, a greater proportion actually DISCUSSED with one another. I sat there silent, and I think that was an important element in the success of the conversation. We'll see where things go from here, but I liked this first stab at having the students run their own discussion.