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Enriching Scholarship 2014 – Best Practices for Improving Introductory Courses May 6, 2014

Posted by aquillam in teaching.
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Enriching Scholarship is “a week of free workshops, discussions, and seminars… for instructional faculty and staff” at the University of Michigan. Tuesday morning I attended the Best Practices for Improving Introductory Courses panel session by William Gehring, Melissa Gross, Mika Lavaque-Manty and Perry Samson.


He started with the advice the first time teaching a large class, having a mentor is very valuable. The most final piece of advice he received for teaching was: you need to make the big class feel like a small class.

Do something at the beginning of the semester to let your students get to know you. His example is to use his hometown. He actually uses his town’s “big” attraction, A small park, as a running joke throughout semester.

Do something to help you get your students: He has a “coffee talk”. Each week, he e-mails invitation students, who have to sign up to have coffee with him at a local coffee shop. Since he has 300 students in his class, without the sign-up, they might overwhelm the coffee shop. Another way to get to know your students is to use learning analytics. You can identify what classes your students have taken, where they’re coming from, how well they do in your classes, and try to understand why they succeed or fail. Finally, he asks survey questions that aren’t specifically content related. For example,”how often do you bring your laptop to class?” He also asks questions like “how anxious do you feel about the exam” or “do you follow UM sports?” These questions help can get to know the students, and can supplement the learning analytics. They also help identify what leads to success in his class.

He also tries to incorporate the idea teaching about learning into his class. He gives students tips on how to study successfully, and asks students what they do that succeeds. He includes reflective assignments. Additionally, he shows then the data. People usually remember material they generate themselves better than material they are given. He does example problems to demonstrate this effect, and shows the data illustrating it. Students become more invested in the assignments if they believe it will help them learn.

He does in class work, which involves breaking his 300 students into small groups. About half of those groups will actually leave the lecture hall while working on a group project. He is in East hall, so many go to the atrium. He uses clickers, so they generally return because they want the clicker points.

His lecture is an hour and a half long, so he likes to use a funny video or picture for no reason whatsoever to break up the lecture. This gives them a mini break without disruption of leaving the room.

Melissa Gross

Melissa Gross Teaches a 230 student movement science class.

She also brings up her lecture with an image although in her case it’s usually something related to anatomy, like naked bodies or horrible injuries.

She did not have a mentor when she started, and had to figure a lot out of her own. Early in her career she tried to make really beautiful well-designed lectures. However, she found it was rather like a beautifully presented meal that no one actually wanted to eat. So she started dumping pieces of her lecture, replacing them with novel images for the students to evaluate. The students became more engaged, and actually learned material.

Her tool of choice is lecture tools. Using it, she can use image instead of asking multiple choice question. Lecture tools allows students to click on image in response to a question, for example identify a specific bone structure. She can immediately identify students are having a problem, or students can use the question tool to actually ask a question. Her focus shifted from figuring out what to teach to figuring out what they could learn. Although she worried about the idea that if she didn’t tell them something they wouldn’t know it, all she does is tell them, they don’t know it anyway. This way engages them, not only making the class interesting, they also appear to learn the material better and deeper.

Lecture tools also provides assessment data after class. This helps her identify comprehension problems, level of participation, and the effectiveness of the types of questions she’s using. She found that just participating in activity helps almost as much as getting the answer right. Students of all types tended to participate more on image based activities. Additionally, the image-based questions help students with low GPAs improve their performance on exams.

Mika LaVaque-Manty

“The biggest obstacle to good teaching is architecture” (the traditional lecture hall is not conducive to group work.) He uses blogging, gamification, group project, peer review, visual evidence (again lecture tools), and live webcast in his classes. When designing activities, he tries to keep in mind that he wants them to learn about learning (metacognition),  to develop a sense of autonomy and self-regulated learning.

gamification: using points to  “level up” instead of marking down assignments (they come in with a zero and try to increase their score) It’s important to offer multiple paths to achievement.  Students often describe poorly designed videogames as“sucky games that are totally linear” – like our syllabi! Some students may be comfortable with the term paper, in which case they can’t write a term paper. However, others might create a board game or a music video. There need to be low stakes assignments to make failure safe – failures  should be part of the process.

We live in a Post geographic world, so why force students to be location dependant? In the fall, his class will actually be spread over 3 nearby classrooms. His GSIs go to lecture, so they can assist in the rooms he isn’t in. Students can also choose not to come to class, but then they can’t get the in-class activity credit.

Not all assignments ned to directly relate to the class. His first reading assignment is Louis Menand “Live and Learn” or what is college for. He asks them to think about why they are here and what their goals are. Tied to that is the idea of justifying the work they’re asked to do. Specify the purpose of every assignment. In his second class, he brings jumprope to class and demonstrates double unders: practice makes perfect. Fess up to giving them manipulative exercises. Involve students in shaping the course.

Evidence that this works is on the poster, viewable online.

Perry Samson

developed Lecture Tools, and keeps improving it. Some advice if you want to use it:

If you offer this, they will use it. Make sure the wireless is ready for everyone in your class

Students do not believe laptops are a distraction.  It’s hard to say if it’s really worse than distractions of the past. After all, it’s quieter than a newspaper!

the data collected by Lecture Tools can be used to identify what works, what doesn’t, who the students are, who might be in trouble, and more.

Students feel they are learning more.

Students are NOT comfortable asking questions verbally, especially women and students who don’t speak English as a first language. Women, freshmen, and ESL students ask questions at much higher rates over lecture tools than in class. It “levels participation playing field.” Perry gets 1/2 GSI per 150 students to help monitor the questions during lecture.

Student outcomes are not related to attendance in the classroom, so why make them come? webcasting allows them to be anywhere (which he likes) and the tool allows them to interact, so they still get the group work. Also, he doesn’t have to be in Ann Arbor to run class, which he likes (his class didn’t get a “snow day”.)

Student outcomes ARE related to participation:  more effort = better outcomes. Anything you can do to lower the barriers to participation will improve learning. Performance on in class activities predicts exam performance: those who get the answers right in class get it right on the exam. BUT, those who try and get it wrong in class are still more likely to get it right on the exam than those who didn’t try.

Student outcomes are related to their emotional state: happy people do better (but then are they doing well because they are happy, or are they happy because they are doing well…) He asked students what they want him to do if they aren’t happy and aren’t doing well. They did not want him to notify their academic advisor or even email them a warning, they wanted him to request a meeting to come in and discuss strategies for improvement (and probably to be more lenient when he understood their problems.)

Having more students taking notes seems to increase the amount of notes each student takes! Does hearing your neighbor tapping away on the keyboard encourage more notetaking, like peer pressure? Also the more slides they annotate, the better they do, to a point:  transcribing lecture is not helpful – its not participation. The transcriptionists also show up though, since they are the ones with the most notes, which means again, the instructor can identify them early in the term and meet with them to discuss effective note taking  strategies.

Some final notes

Giving the student the opportunity to create (cognitive engagement) generates learning

Want it to be safe to fail, but also need to have some higher stakes assessment – like experience vs skill points in video game

Multiple paths are important to ensure no one is disadvantaged. If lecture tools is 40%, than optional group work should be 40%

Bill does not require clickers, but makes it a tiny amount of extra credit

If you’re asking invasive questions, you may want to make the questions optional (or risk IRB violations)

Perry has 15% for surveys.
grading should be transparent
make sure students understand tech is not perfect – they need to have a sense of humor about it!


(running out of time, so apologies if the end especially seems rough – it is)



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