ANS 109-110-year-three-lessons

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Seems I have a lot to write about this year, if belatedly…

Subject 20.109, Laboratory Fundamentals in Biological Engineering, Spring 2010

In the lab: pedagogy of experiment design

The calcium sensor module truly came to fruition this year. I love the combination of diversity and robustness that has developed over time. Each pair of students gets to design and carry out a mutation; however, each also runs another mutation in parallel that is the same for everyone and known to have an interesting effect. When I tried to implement this idea last year, the mutant change was subtle and not repeatable in the students’ hands. This year the effect was clear and consistent.

The other aspect of this module I like is how students are able to build on each other's results. I mentioned in class that in prior years, changes within the calcium binding loops often had no effect, and that students might consider changes to structural or (peptide) ligand-binding elements instead. Few students chose this path, but those that did got interesting results. At the end of the module, students also try to find patterns in the present year’s class data.

I plan to use this module as a model for any future experiments I design. Its strengths are the design component, the diversity of student outcomes complemented by a ‘positive control’ safety net, and a community aspect both in real time and over several years. Students almost uniformly liked this module best.

In the first module, students particularly enjoyed getting experience with more computational tools than we have sometimes offered in the past, in a more structured way than we have in the past. Their positive feedback should be considered in future class iterations.

Making the most of student questions

I was pleased to see many comments in the spring 2010 mid-semester evaluations showing appreciation for my Socratic style of answering questions. (For example, one anonymous comment said: “I like that I am taught to think. So even when I have a question, it is often answered by twisting the question so the answer becomes more apparent to me.”) However, this is also the first semester that a few students said they felt intimidated asking questions or were treated dismissively. I should make clearer at the outset that I am not pushing students away when I answer their question with a question, but rather trying to engage them.

Improving writing instruction

As usual, drafting, drafting, and more drafting markedly improved student writing. Also as usual, lessons apparently learned by the students when revising one report did not necessarily carry over to the writing of the next report. How can we encourage more sustained learning? A few notes on attempts/failures/ideas are below.

Prior to the first report revision, I read some excerpts of strong reports and had students try to tell me why they were good. Most people have a more fully developed appreciation/editing apparatus than a creative/writing one, but my hope is that the former can drive gains in the latter. I will try this exercise again even earlier in the semester, but using a report on a different topic than the students will write about. This approach should help with generalizing good qualities.

We also had the students do technical exercises (mostly re: wordiness, some re: grammar) in which they re-wrote sentences or paragraphs that were poorly written. According to the student feedback, this was not too helpful. I agree that the exercise didn’t result in students taking a sharper editing eye to their own work; editing is what is skipped when time is short, as it often is. I should explicitly emphasize the idea that good editing makes good writing.

I don’t think the idea of the “writing grade,” i.e., 10% of the report grade being determined by the writing faculty, has worked out well. The students seem no more invested in the writing instructors’ comments than before, perhaps because they know their final grade comes from the science faculty only. I think the writing faculty’s time would be better spent workshopping report excerpts directly with the students, rather than writing detailed feedback on the entire report that the students may not heed. We will try this approach in spring 2011.

Journal article discussions and journal clubs went particularly well this year. I think in part my colleague’s selection of exciting and well-written papers in a hot new area motivated students to do well. I also approached the first in-class journal article discussion differently this year. I explicitly included discussion questions about the writing rather than just the the technical content, which I believe helped reinforce the style suggestions I make in the general writing guidelines. I still wish more students read the guidelines early on… perhaps this can be part of an exercise led by the writing faculty. (“How well does this paper demonstrate concision?” etc.)

Is there such a thing as too much teaching? On rubrics, revisions, etc.

At our end-of-semester meeting, a colleague shared some concerns about student report revisions. He said that revisions were often completed as minor insertions, deletions, and paraphrases, rather than larger restructuring or content development: "They seem to be responding very minutely to specific comments. I'd be happy if they just turned in a better report, whether they responded to my comments or not. It feels as if they're checking off a list to satisfy us, which is the wrong lesson to teach."

I began to wonder if I was in fact begging the question by highlighting a number of specific concerns that I had rather than making broader comments about the report drafts. I aim to be fair (within possibility), and don’t want students to tell me, "I thought I addressed your comments, but I didn’t get a better grade." On the other hand, they can always ask me to elaborate during office hours. Holding back my comments will be something to experiment with this coming spring.

On a related topic, I've grown fond of using rubrics in the past year or two for major assignments. I do believe the quality of work has gone up in some areas. However, I am also starting to see a "cookie-cutter" effect, namely that students are checking off items on the list I wrote, rather than using their creativity and analytical skills to figure out an appropriate approach to the assignment. I may be robbing them of the chance to develop these important skills.

Surely there must be an appropriate middle ground. I don't want students at a loss, guessing at what effective written or oral communication looks like. Nor do I want them unable to reason through what makes good communication on their own during later years/projects. I don't want to be too vague in my responses to student writing, as some students may not have the tools to implement or envision what I'm looking for without greater scaffolding. Yet, I don’t want to overdetermine their revised work, and will strive not to.

Promoting academic integrity

I continue to see confusion (not willful I hope) over what constitutes appropriate paraphrasing. I had the students sign a form at the beginning of the year stating that they were aware of the class guidelines, but I had difficulty being a tough guy in the sense of “look, you signed something saying you understood what I meant.” On the plus side, I graded homeworks in lab-pair order rather than alphabetical order, something my colleague Natalie has done for years I think, which allowed me to catch plagiarism before it became a more serious problem (i.e., on major assignments). I should encourage my colleagues (who grade the major assignments) to grade in this fashion as well. On a note of prevention rather than detection, I would like the writing faculty to lead an exercise in which students are forced to confront what they think is appropriate paraphrasing versus what professionals think.

Revising assignments for effectiveness and/or efficiency

Participation grade

One intangible that I like to make space for in the final grade is student participation. Certain students make valuable contributions to the class through their insightful questions or comments. The first way I tried to put a number to this type of activity was to have the students assess themselves based on a rubric. I intended for the students also to write a couple of reflective sentences per module, with the rubric a guide to minimize extra time commitment; however, few students included a strong reflective component in their work. This year I want to strengthen said component of the assignment, and probably toss the rubric altogether (again, it suggests boxes to check). The assignment may remain private, or I may have the students write more broadly about their experiences on a class-accessible blog, as my colleague Natalie piloted this fall.

Lab notebooks

With an infant at home, I am more interested than ever in avoiding late lab days and in working efficiently. I’m not convinced our approach to student notebooks is the best one. I do want the students to strive for completeness, but cutting and pasting or copying over protocols does not seem the best way to learn this skill. I will experiment with having the students refer to the wiki protocols rather than paste them in, and write down only their own specific volumes, times, etc. when different from the protocol, as well as calculations and narrative. The notebooks still have to be clear for the grader, and it may take some experimenting to find the right balance between concision and completeness.

Final module assignment

I like having some accountability for the data gathered in module 3, but there is not much time for the students to grapple with it. I used to require a brief report and give them the whole last lab day to finish writing it. This year I may pare down that assignment further or replace it with a 15-20 min discussion of their data with me. Having an informal and interactive oral assignment like this might be interesting… or stressful (for them). I would miss seeing the students’ writing progress from module 2 to 3 in a way that it often does not for module 1 to 2, though.

Subject 20.110, Thermodynamics of Biomolecular Systems, Fall 2009

This fall I asked to teach a recitation for our department’s foundational thermodynamics class. I wanted to reconnect with my engineering roots, to see what my laboratory students learn prior to 20.109, and to follow a cohort of students for an extended period of time.

As intimate a class as 20.109 is, a recitation is in some ways even more intimate. And I sensed that students were more comfortable coming to laboratory office hours after already knowing me from thermo. During 20.109, I enjoyed talking about free energy and rate constants with a clearer sense of what my students could be expected to know already. Most importantly, I regularly began doing an exercise during 20.110 that I found to be beneficial in 20.109 as well.

One way that 20.110 is less intimate than 20.109 is that only in the latter are students regularly forced to interact. Thus I tried to foster interaction in 20.110 by having the students talk in groups of 2-3 about a question before calling on individual students for an answer. This seemed to warm everyone’s minds up, and allow students who weren't as quick on the draw to be involved in the conversation. Although I wouldn't have thought that 20.109 needed this added level of structured interaction, I found it really helpful for getting otherwise quiet students to speak up sometimes. (Looking back at the year two reflections, I apparently did try this exercise a few times in 20.109 before but forgot about it!)

The “teaching too much?” question described above is here applicable to my exam review sessions. Much as I love synthesizing information and presenting it clearly, I wonder if an unintended consequence is that my students are less likely to do this task themselves. One option would be to make entry to a review session contingent on handing in a draft of exam notes/personal study guide.