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Tips for teaching intro astronomy July 12, 2017

Posted by aquillam in Science, teaching.
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First and foremost: this may be the only science class some of these people ever take, so think carefully about what you want them to get out of the class.

  • How do you want to change them? What do you want them to remember 20 years from now, even if they don’t specifically remember that they learned it in this (or any other) class. Always keep this in mind when making lesson plans.

Make lesson plans

  • A complete, formal lesson plan includes goals for the unit (usualy a chapter from the text), the most important ideas, a brief outline of the lecture material, notes on potential problems, topics covered in lab/discussion and homework, and what details will come from the book only.
  • If you don’t do a formal, complete lesson plan, at least write down the items from the unit you want to change them, the items they need to understand future units, and the items you want them to know for the exam. If the only thing you have is items you want them to know for the exam, consider dropping the unit.

Be aware of student expectations

  • Many students take astronomy thinking they will learn things like the names of constellations, mythologies, or how to read a sundial.
  • Many students take astronomy because they are afraid of taking a “hard science” class like physics or chemistry, or they think astronomy will have less math.
  • Be up front with them about the topics covered and the necessity of using math as well as fundamental physics, chemistry, and possibly geology and biology.

Don’t repeat the book

  • The book is expensive. If you’re just going to repeat it, don’t make them buy it. Instead, cover the material from a different angle, point out connections students are likely to miss in the reading, address common misconceptions, and use active learning techniques to engage the students and increase their level of understanding (in other words, make reading the book homework, and use class time for homework-like activities.) Let the book fill in details like numbers or specific features. Don’t add extra details unless it’s to tie things together or involves a discovery too interesting to skip or too recent for the book.

Be aware of deadlines

  • Know when the last day of drop-add is and be prepared for students who add the class on that day.
  • Make sure there is enough evaluated work or sample of the exam so students can assess whether or not they should drop before that day.


Enriching Scholarship 2017 – A Digital Profile of U-M Students May 8, 2017

Posted by aquillam in teaching.
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In this session, a handful of students shared their “digital profile”, which was recoded from browser plug-ins on their laptops and a app on their phones. They reported primarily on what activities they did, not on how much time they actually spent. There were a few key takeaways

Students tend to use laptops to work, their phones for entertainment. They feel having a laptop is pretty much a necessity, despite the computing centers around campus. A phone is essential. without a phone, you are isolated.

On the question of phones or laptops in the classroom, they feel it actually depends on the class and the students. Some students really feel the need to take notes on the laptop. It is stupid to prohibit laptops in a computer programming class. It’s distracting if the person in front of them is watching football, or if their phone goes off.

Phones may actually be a sort of defense mechanism. If they can text their friend, they don’t have to stress about meeting the person next to them. They use their phones less in (or before) classes where they have come to think of their neighbors as “friends” rather than “classmates”. Some good icebreakers, especially things that are relevant to the class but still personal may help (maybe some of those Liberating Structures?)

Some students check email a lot. Some never do. Some check Canvas Announcements. Some don’t. Some are on Snapchat all the time. Some are on Facebook. Some are on Twitter. The best platform for communications with them is whatever their friends are on. It helps to be clear about how you plan to communicate.

GroupMe is nearly ubiquitous. It is a group MMS app that allows sign up through email, so you don’t have to give strangers (i.e. classmates) your phone number. Chances are good that there is a groupMe for your class, but there’s a fraction of your class that doesn’t know about it. It may be helpful for you to facilitate this, but your students do NOT want you on the GroupMe, so the best thing to do may be to ask for one or two volunteers manage it. There are some pitfalls (like the potential for harassment) but if the students are going to do it anyway, it’s probably better for you to try and ensure it’s more inclusive than to let those who aren’t part of the in crowd struggle on their own.

Enriching Scholarship 2017 – Coaxing Canvas to Support Gameful Pedagogy May 8, 2017

Posted by aquillam in teaching.
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“Gameful” is a model where students build points by completing talks and assessments. In a fully gameful class class, students have an array of options with point values associated with them and they are told what score they have to achieve to earn a particular grade. They then have the freedom to choose which tasks to do and how hard they want to work to achieve a particular grade. Many classes are only partially gameful. Rather than full flexibility, students must complete certain tasks (e.g. a midterm and final) but then have options in other areas (e.g. out of 20 at-home assignments, complete 10.) Some material may even be optional (e.g. you have to know the difference between a terrestrial and jovian planet for the exam, but you have the option of completing a project to assess whether 10 exoplanets are likely to be terrestrial, jovian, or something else). This means some students will need extra resource material, and a different set of assignments. Getting Canvas to do that takes a lot of planning and preparation, but is very possible.

Before deciding to go gameful there are two very important things to consider. First is that it requires a lot of planning and preparation up front. If you’re doing this 2 weeks before the start of the semester, stop. Run a traditional class. Do your planning for next term along the way. Feel free to share the optional materials with your students and create alternate assignments along the way this term, but please do not try to go gameful on short notice. The second thing is that it works best for students with good executive skills. The easily distracted, non-prioritizers and procrastinators have a high rate of failure. They put off doing assignments and skip the exam because they think they can make up for it later in the term. Are you prepared to deal with the student who thinks it’ll be ok it they don’t do any work for the first half of the class and comes in crying and begging for a C- the day grades are due? If not, you may not want to go fully gameful. You can always sneak it in as an array of n projects that can replace up to m homework assignments, or by providing 2 or three options for each week’s assignment.

The most important step is planning out what you want, because that will determine what tools you choose. No matter which choice you make, it’s important to know how many points you will have and how they align to each letter grade. After all, the idea is to start from 0 and accumulate points, not maintain some percentile with respect to the other students. It’s common for gamified classes to have huge numbers of points, similar to a video game. Once you know how many points students need for a particular grade, you can enable a course grading scheme. If you do a custom scheme, you can add extra categories, like “enrolled” for 0 – 10%, “member” for 10-15%, “participant” for 15 – 20%… so students don’t have to see “E” for half the term.

If you want the fully gameful, rack up the points option, you may want to consider gradecraft. Gradecraft allows students to accumulate points and earn badges for completing tasks, reaching milestones, and achieving learning goals. The badges in particular can be useful motivators to keep procrastinators on track. It supposedly integrates with Canvas now, so you can still use Canvas as the single portal to everything.

If you want a mixed class where some assignments are required and others are optional, you want the regular Grades. Racking up a score works best if you don’t use weighted assignment categories. Even if you have categories, if you don’t weight them, you can choose to have Grades display points instead of percent. This makes it easier for students to tell if they’ve reached the score they want.

If you want to use weighted categories, students will see their total grade as a percent. This makes it VERY important to get all the assignments in and published at the beginning of the term, even if they aren’t available to the students. Otherwise as you add assignments it looks to the students like they are loosing points. However, weighed categories makes it easier to make sure your required assignments carry the proper weight at the end of the term. Also, if you want to provide a menu and let them pick n of m assignments to complete, you want categories. Within each category, you’ll set a rule to drop (m-n) assignments.

Once you have your gradebook / Assignments set up, you’ll have to decide how students should access them.

Assignments is the most straight forward way. For each Assignment, you can set an availability and due date. Students won’t see it until it becomes available, and it will show up it their calendar in due date order. However, it doesn’t easily show things like “do one of the following”, nor does it show upcoming big projects, or related resources. For that reason you may want to create a page or use Modules.

Pages are basically webpages. They are probably the simplest solution if you want to provide a menu of options. In particular, you can create a page with a table showing the options for this week, resources needed for each options, and the things you think students should be working on right now.

Modules allow an enormous amount of control. You can choose to do anything from a list of associated assignments and resources to a branching set based on time and performance. For example, you can set up a module so students see what the reading is, then get access to a reading quiz the day before class. If the quiz is self graded, you can set it so they have to get a specific minimum score before they can move on to the next item, maybe the in-class assignment. Alternatively, they could get some additional reading and a prompt to take a similar quiz before they get access to the next in-class assignment and homework. Or, if they get over some higher score, they skip the second reading and quiz and are given a choice of projects to do instead of the regular homework. If you want to get very complicated (like re-doing quizzes or requiring quizzes before they can get access to their project of choice) make sure you test it out in your sandbox. In particular, test to make sure students can do things like change their mind.

Finally, keep in mind that one of the goals in gameful pedagogy is to allow students the chance to fail without failing. if you’re going to offer options like a big project to replace a couple homeworks, make sure if the student has the options and time to succeed in the class if s/he fails on that project. The point is to let them take risks and explore their interests, not to punish them for not following the traditional path.

Enriching Scholarship 2017: Inclusive Engagement – From The Classroom To The Meeting Room May 4, 2017

Posted by aquillam in teaching.
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Just a note before you begin: you might notice as the week goes on my grammar and spelling get worse. That’s because I have less time for proof reading and editing. My apologies if this seems less than professional, but I still have all my regular job duties to do too.

People perform best in an environment where they have the flexibility to follow their own ideas, but are given enough direction to guide them, get them started, and to keep them focused on the task at hand. They also have different preferred ways of interacting with others. Liberating Structures (LSs) are a tool for for providing both structure and flexibility, with many different ways of interacting with each other to help ensure that everyone has a voice and the opportunity to perform to their best potential. They are open source/creative commons noncommercial  so you can use them however you want, as long as you don’t try to make money off of them.

In this workshop we tried out four types of liberating structures. One was used as an icebreaker, the others all helped with generating ideas and expanding communication. In almost all of them, the amount of structure given really helped get the conversation started and give it direction. Everyone in the room was engaged in the process. Many of them have kinetic components, so they help keep the participants energized. While I can see pros and cons of individual LSs, as a toolkit, they appear to be a good set for improving engagement and inclusivity. At the end of each, we also evaluated what was liberating and what was structured.

The room we were in is a flexible space and was open in the middle with chairs arranged in groups of 4 around the perimeter.

The ones we tried out were Impromptu Networking, 1-2-4-All plus TRIZ, Fishbowl,  and 25/10 Crowd Sourcing.

Impromptu Networking was the icebreaker. We were told to gather in the middle of the room and given a prompt. Then we had to find someone we didn’t know, and had 2 minutes to talk about our answer to the prompt. At the end of two minutes, we had to switch partners, and repeat. In the end, we’d talked to 3 people, and gotten 3 different perspectives, which we took back to our seats. It wasn’t enough time to actually get to know anyone, but it was enough to promote a sense of familiarity latter in the session (and in fact, latter in the day!)

TRIZ is a Russian acronym for stopping counterproductive activities. It was paired with 1-2-4-All, which is a lot like think-pair-share.  First we were given a prompt and 5 minutes to write about counterproductive activities (since that’s a little vague, I’ll be more explicit: we were to identify activities that would exclude people from meetings or classes, i.e. be counter-productive to inclusivity.) That became the 1 part of 1 -2-4-all. After that, we were given 2  minutes to share with one of the other people in our group (so groups of 2). After that, we shared with all 4 in our group, and came up with a couple group ideas. Finally, we went around the room and each group shared their top ideas. The slow build up of sharing was very comfortable and helped make sure the quieter members actually did contribute, but the more vocal member could share with the whole class. That does leave an opening for quieter members to end up ignored by the class. Also, we didn’t plan in advance who from our group would be the spokesperson, which made things uncomfortable.

Fishbowl is remarkably like what it sounds. 4 people are chosen to talk and everyone else stands around and listens. It can work really well for things like software users who discuss what they like and dislike while the software developers listen. It can be particularly helpful if there are ideas or viewpoints that need to be heard but are often drowned out in conversation, or if you have a group who really need to hear something from a different perspective without interrupting.

25/10 Crowd Sourcing: Take a few minutes to generate big ideas (e.g. we were asked for the best idea to promote inclusivity if money is no object.) Each person writes ONE idea on an index card. After everyone has written down their idea, gather in the middle of the room. Pass the cards randomly around the room (the moderators used music to time the card shuffling part.) After several exchanges, the cards should be well shuffled. Each person reads the card, and rates it on a scale of 1 – 5 where 1 is meh, 5 is awesome, and writes the rating on the back. Once everyone has rated the cards, turn the idea up again, and repeat the random exchange and rating. Repeat 3 more times until each card has been rated 5 times. This means the maximum value for the card should be 25. After that, select the 10 highest scoring cards. This is a good way to generate lots of ideas and share them in a low stakes way. It might be a good thing to try with students to generate ideas for studying for the exam. However, it really felt like it needed more followup.