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Enriching Scholarship 2014 – Large class engagement May 13, 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. On Wednesday I attended a session on best practices for large lectures sponsored by the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning (CRLT). The CRLT formed Faculty Learning communities centered around large courses, focused on improving the classes and engaging students. Part of the goal is to find a way to engage the students not only during lecture, but also outside of class.

Michaela Zint

Michaela Zint uses Piazza as an exam study tool. She put study questions into Piazza about a week before the exam, and assigns a couple of questions to teams of  2-3 students. The teams post solutions, then review another group’s solution to a different questions. She also reviewed answers, up-voting good ones and commenting on incomplete or erroneous ones. Student’s exam scores improved some, but their participation improved significantly, and carried through into lecture. However, there were a few important things she has found about using Piazza.

If the faculty doesn’t use piazza, it isn’t useful to the students, and they hate it. If the prof. is active, they love it (how you use the tool is more important than the existence of the tool). Allowing students to post anonymously makes it a safe-to-fail environment, but faculty can still see who participated, so participation credit can still be assessed. Without credit, it doesn’t get used much, so low stakes assessment is needed to ensure participation. For exam prep, she found it was better to include some points for accuracy of answers too. Participation is additionally increased by a “bargin” where she agrees to help the students based in part on how much work they put in.

There is a significant added load in the week before exams (especially since she needs to assess the essay-type answers to make it truly valuable) BUT it significantly reduces the repeated “when is the exam” type of email, so on average it actually reduces her load (note to achieve this reduction, it is important to make sure students are using piazza, not email). Additionally, she sets a time limit after which she is done for the day and won’t answer any more questions.

One other note: although piazza is incorporated into CTools, ITS and 4-help are not very familiar with it. The piazza support people are really great though, and they can handle most questions.

Jim Morrow

Jim Morrow was looking for a way of increasing engagement outside the course, and giving them practice with analytical reading skills. He wants them to be able to analyze current events on their own.

For class, he has them write papers, and gives essay questions on the exam. He uses Lesson Builder in CTools to give them practice doing an “annotated news story.” The assignments are practice only, not for credit. However, he talks about why it’s useful in class, and the GSIs review the stories in discussion, so it is clear that it is important.

In Lesson Builder, they get a story with a writing prompt. After reading the story with the prompt in mind, they can look at an annotated version to check their answers. After they open the answer, the next question becomes available, then the next answer, etc. He is working on ideas for actually grading the activities.

Doug Richstone

Doug was looking for ways to address 3 vexing issues: limited engagement in the subject,  shallow comprehension despite good factual knowledge, and Friday class/low attendance. The things he tried: lots of low stakes assessment, including frequent quizzes, harder homework with optional/bonus questions that were even more difficult, think-pair-share and clickers, and bonus points on Friday.

The one thing that worked unquestionably were the bonus points on Friday – much better attendance.

During the class, students did a lot of struggling to keep up, but there was a larger “A” group (20% instead of 5 – 10%) than in past semesters. He also had a larger early attrition rate than in the past. Maybe this was an unusual year though, because there seemed to be a lot of people with flu, or it could have been a quicker wake-up call to get rid of students who  wouldn’t have done well and would have dropped latter. The few late drops he did talk to thought they couldn’t achieve the grade they wanted, so better clarity of grading is important. Many did not realize that the optional assignments could raise their grade by one full letter!


After the presentations, there was a lot of time for discussion, including suggestions for participants.

In a class on archeology and pseudoscience, the prof. shows a youtube video, then has class discuss it. She also gives candy and stickers for participation (which the students seem to love and it frees her from having to track points).

To track in-class work, she uses a Google form instead of clickers so she can collect better responses than a multiple choice question. If multiple choice is useful, she  can use  a”select from list” type of question, but mostly she uses the text box. Several other people use  google forms for minute papers. HOWEVER, if it’s required and requires a device, equity is a problem. Not every student can afford a laptop!

Clickers are cheap, so everyone can afford them, and they are purchased with books, so financial aid covers them. Clicker questions break up lecture, give a quick check of how students are doing and frees the instructor to move around the room. However, you MUST have tough questions. Students don’t like it if it’s only for attendance, and it’s not really useful that way.

Other alternatives to the laptop: hand in work on paper; don’t require laptop based work (e.g. no credit for Lecture Tools); use whiteboards and group work; texting (faculty are less likely to have this than students); or arrange for students to borrow a laptop from ISS. Whatever you do, decide what you want to achieve first, then look for the tools that will do that.

One of the participants teaches a medical course where attendance is a problem. The lectures are streamed online, so students can watch from anywhere. Lecture gives them the information, but then they have to do something with that. Students who watch video do much worse than those who always come to class – Why is a current research project, though most students watch the video at increased speed, he thinks that’s why they do worse.

To break up the information delivery, you have to develop your own style – e.g. wear a t-shirt relevant to today’s topic. Look for teachable moments – spice drops are just sweet (not spicy) if you plug nose before eating them. Find something to do to illustrate difficult concepts to make it worthwhile to come to the live lecture. Skeletal pots may be helpful to increase attendance and get people to engage in good note taking (not transcription). In other words, do something to make coming to lecture really worthwhile.

Another participant uses a “TA of the day“. Once during semester each student is assigned to work a problem before class, then help peers with problem during class. That student is also required to report back on misconceptions and problems.

How to deal with lecture hall space: block off some seats to ensure you have aisles; ask some students to leave the room while they work on something in small groups; do something that requires them to move around the room, like changing partners or structured activities.

How to handle learning disabilities? Do not single the person out (it’s hard to deal with 300 students filing past if you get extra time – you might prefer to take a hit to your grade over being an example). ASK THE STUDENT what they want. Talk to services for students with disabilities. Require them to bring the form to you outside of class (e.g. office hours), and talk to them when they bring the form in. The test accommodation center is a hassle to use (and not very friendy to instructors), but it IS a quiet place with assistive technology. Be aware that things like rooms can be a problem because it takes a long time to compose and run a message through spell check, so you really need to have an alternative for things like office hours.


TED-Ed | Flip your class with proven methods April 9, 2013

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TED-Ed | Flip your class with proven methods.

What does a flipped classroom look like? The video with Eric Mazur in this Lesson by Julie Schell will show you. And once you’re done, you should take a look at the rest of the lesson. It’s an excellent example of how to construct the pre-class assignment. The students’ answers to the questions and what they say in discussion tell you what you should address in class, and what questions to ask and how hard to make them.

Also, this TedEd tool looks really handy!

Save The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus November 8, 2012

Posted by aquillam in Science.
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Save The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.

This rare arboreal cephalopod needs your help! But not your money. What they really need is “… your love and willingness to write angry letters to the editor demanding action.” Although dollar bills do make good nesting material, so maybe they need your money after all. But only in temperate rain forests.

Also, the site is great if you happen to be a teacher looking for sites for your students to evaluate. The “Media” section is great, full of, um, resources. yeah, resources.

Useful Google Docs Features for Science Classes October 15, 2012

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This afternoon I happened to spot this article on “50 Little-Known Ways Google Docs Can Help In Education“, shared by the M+Google team. This article actually lead me to a couple others, including this one about student friendly features and the Google developers’ blog and Google Docs help. All of these together might be a bit much to wade through, so here’s a few of my top pics for astro classes, which I hope translate well to other science classes.

Equation Editor: Under the insert menu, you’ll find “equation” as one of the options. It includes many of the traditional features of the MS equation editor, like fractions and subscripts.  I did not find a “proportional to” symbol, but hopefully I just overlooked that. According to the Docs help, the equation editor will take LaTeX commands, but I haven’t tried that yet.

Subscripts and superscripts: These are under the format menu. Downside: I can’t find a way to make a keyboard shortcut, but I didn’t try for very long.

Special Characters: Tired of typing “H-alpha”? Use the subscript command then Insert -> Special Characters. Choose “Other European Scripts” from the first drop down, and “Greek” from the second and you’ll have Hα (and I hope WordPress does that correctly!) It even remembers recent selections so the next time you need an alpha it’s easy to find.

Forms: If you haven’t tried making a form yet, you should. It’s great for things like getting feedback over the web, but because it automatically puts the data into a spreadsheet, it can make a simple interface for data collection. Lets say you have a lab where you want a lot of data, but you only have enough time for each student to do 2 – 3 trials. Instead of having them write all their data on the board, have them enter their data into a form. Share the resulting spreadsheet with your class in read-only mode. Students can make a copy, then do their own data manipulation, including creating graphs, and you’l know there are no transcription errors to cause weird results for one person. If you have multiple class sections, you can copy the existing form and have a separate form/spreadsheet for each section, or you can use a single form and have a huge sheet for lots of sections.

Research: conduct a search from inside your doc and embed links to the resources you find into your doc including as citations. You’ll find Research under the Tools menu.

Define: this is the Google equivalent of “Add to Dictionary”.

Templates: You want something organized a particular way to make it easy to grade. But the students do all sorts of strange things. Lab reports with procedures written as paragraphs even though they have numbered the steps, for example. Save yourself some of the headache with a template that makes it easy for students to organize their work they way you’re expecting it to be organized. Now if there was just some way to enforce proofreading…