ANS 109-year-two-lessons

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My second year of teaching was even more satisfying and in some ways more challenging than the first. Experience brought me steadier footing, and I had the pleasure of teaching in a spacious, sunlit lab. Here are a few lessons that stand out and goals to pursue.

First, a small note on something that worked well: I’m quite satisfied with my current teaching technology set-up. I use an external tablet on my Mac, and hand out the pre-written part of lecture notes for students to annotate concurrently with me. Such a simple thing, yet so effective.

Improved experimental controls and safety nets

Particularly well done in the calcium sensor redesign module. The use of a parallel sample that was the same for the whole class, treated alongside each pairs’ independently designed DNA/protein, was a real boon not only to the lab work, but especially to the laboratory reports. Some groups got interesting results and some didn’t, but all had the opportunity to demonstrate their analytical skills on an identical design. In the cartilage tissue engineering module, the use of two reference points for collagen expression (stem cells vs. digested cartilage) was similarly helpful. As long as standards can be used without sacrificing student engagement with their unique designs and outcomes, the more the better.

Update on less-is-more, lectures and discussions

I remember that my big theme in last year’s reflections was less is more. By cutting material, I was able to improve the depth, specificity, and time for exploration in my formal lectures. Now I would like to work on introducing even more opportunities for interaction, and more physical demonstrations and well-picked analogies. Perhaps the most successful discussion I led was the one that students were asked to take seriously in advance, and that had a particular outcome attached: students were asked to read papers on standardization in biological engineering, come prepared to hear a brief context-setting lecture, then write independently for 10 min before beginning a class-wide discussion. More people spoke up that day than on any other, and many stayed a few minutes extra. Having students speak in small groups and then as a whole class is also something I tried, with some success. In an area for improvement, journal article discussions feel a bit stiff. I may need to talk less myself and loosen up the structure to make room for the students to speak up more.

Continuing to improve communication component

Neal, Alan, and I worked hard this past spring to teach the difference between a Results and Discussion section. I overcompensated a little at first, defining the results section so rigidly that the students didn’t feel comfortable drawing any conclusions, and the sections were quite dry and lacked flow. Moreover, the students still didn’t grasp that the discussion had to tell a bigger story, to provide context rather than a list of potential experimental errors. Inspired by Alan’s letter to the students, I began to use the language of “procedural conclusions” vs. “scientific conclusions” and this distinction seemed very useful. The students received Alan’s letter in preparation for revising their draft reports. The letter also made explicit that final grades would be based on the ultimate product quality, and not only on the amount of improvement, which was an important point to share up front.

In a small note, my fall semester students suggested that I give my mini-lecture on figure-making before students’ first attempts to write a figure caption for their homework. (Previously I had done such lectures immediately after the first try.) I took the suggestion this spring, and it did seem to help with setting expectations while still giving students some room to explore what they think belongs in a figure caption. Perhaps I can extend the exploration process somehow.

Rubrics and feedback for major assessments

Rubrics seemed generally helpful to the students, and we used them for several assignments. I worry that having too many categories and associated point values slows down the grading a bit. However, I do like the transparency to students of where they need to focus their attention during revisions. I think that a rubric can work as a scaffolding for the students, for example by implying tools and organizational approaches for a talk. This levels the playing field a bit for students who have simply seen and given fewer talks – they may not implement the tools as effectively as more experienced students, but at least they know they exist.

As for feedback, I’m very happy with my current system: I read from hardcopies and manually write numbers on the students’ papers that are associated with typed up comments. This way, I don’t tire out my eyes on the computer screen as much, but I have the obvious benefits of typing instead of handwriting comments: legibility, speed, and ability to copy-paste. As the spring semester wore on, I needed a time-saver, and began handing out a “general comments to all students” sheet that included common mistakes I saw (along with fewer individual comments than before). The students’ maturity as writers was also increasing, so I was able to respond using categories (e.g., Is the methods section Clear? Concise? Complete? Well-organized?) and make fewer discrete comments.

Participation and reflective work

Something I tried out this spring was a participation score, primarily based on the students own self-assessment and according to a rubric. Like any first experiment, the results were inconclusive and the initial design flawed. Whenever my students write out a reflective self-assessment (e.g., after their oral presentations), I am impressed with their insights. However, for the periodic participation assessment I wanted to make something less time-consuming and less subjective. Students simply circled three numbers on a rubric, and as it turned out these were unlikely to change (for most students) over the course of the semester. Thus, much of the benefit of true reflection didn’t happen. There does seem to be the spark of something useful in recognizing mature participation in the class community. Perhaps having the students assess more concrete and specific actions (e.g., did we post our data?) and provide some (short) written content each time would help.

Class size and collaboration

Being more relaxed and adaptable is something I’ve been forced (thankfully!) to do, teaching 32 rather than 24 students this spring. It’s simply not practical to control every detail, even if it were desirable (which I recognize – theoretically – that it’s not). And I truly did find that one can pull a teachable moment out of a mistake or poor outcome. It is so important to model this behaviour to budding scientists, that risk (and occasional carelessness) are part of the process of research. Repetition and rescue of experiments gone wrong are important skills to learn.

Unfortunately, the increased grading load makes it more difficult to rapidly catch all instances of academic dishonesty. Thus, I plan to be much more explicit about precisely what constitutes going beyond the collaboration policy in our class. (That said, I will also emphasize that relying merely on what is very specifically prohibited for one’s moral guidance in life is a misguided idea. In other words, the spirit and not just letter of the law is important.) It looks as though the MIT handbook has good examples of appropriate vs. plagiaristic paraphrasing, which should be helpful.

Shape of the semester

I’m now deliberating about two competing ideas for the shape of the semester. On the one hand, I liked the somewhat top-heavy shape last spring, as students were only focusing on one major assignment at a time. However, it does feel strange to ramp down experimentally, making the second module “easier” in several respects than the first. Moreover, it would be nice to weight the second writing assignment more than the first, to bias grades towards indicating learning and not just what abilities the students came in with. (Though our revision policy for the first assignment is generous.) This weighting in turn requires (or at least suggests) either having oral presentations earlier in the semester, when the students may not be as sophisticated and ready for the journal club assignment, or having a pile-on of work in the middle… which is probably happening in all their other classes. Probably next spring I will split the orals as Natalie has sometimes done – one each per 1st and 2nd (or 2nd and 3rd) modules, and hope that the students will sort themselves according to workload and experience.