Thursday, November 11, 2010

Planning teaching

I guess this blog is going to migrate into being about my experiences as young professor as well. Maybe I need to be more anonymous? I don't know, I don't really know if I care so much. If I start wanting to rant about my school, then maybe I'll care more. At the moment so few people read the blog, that it really, really doesn't matter.

Recently I've been thinking a lot about how to teach effectively, and how unprepared we are as academics to do that. I wouldn't have been so psyched at the time if someone had made me do a summer series on inquiry based learning in sciences, but in hindsight, I wish that they had. Heck, I should have taken my office-mate's inquiry based geology class at Everett Community College. In any case, I am struggling with preparing my two classes for spring semester - Applied GIS and Earth Surface Processes. The easiest thing to do would be to take a pre-existing class (i.e., my advisor redid his geomorph class last winter) and to just teach that. It would make my life easy. I could adjust to teaching relatively smoothly. The problem is, if I do that, what is to keep me from continuing to do that year after year. I want to make my classes interesting.

I despised lecture classes as a student. I only went because reading the textbook was worse. I had a really hard time focusing and used to give myself a break in the middle of 90 min lectures because I simply couldn't focus for that time. What is the point of lecturing to all 3 students in the class? Why not do something interactive with them? There are only 3 of them! (I am not kidding, I did take a class in college with 3 students that had twice weekly 90 min lectures; when we got up to use the toilet the lecturer stopped). But what if textbook reading was necessary and limited. It was something that you were kept accountable for and that was reasonable because it was a relatively small amount (not hundreds of pages). I like that idea. I like the idea that students learn better by doing. Problem sets are how I learned in most engineering and math classes, not the lectures. So what if class focused on students doing things? That is the idea of active learning, inquiry based learning, lecture free learning, etc. Lots of new models for how to change science education. The last place that these things change is universities. What a shock - we were all trained by doing research at R1 research institutions and now we are supposed to be teaching students (in my case at an undergraduate institution). We know how to do research. Very few, if any, of us have taken classes in education. So what do we do? We perpetuate the system and do what is easiest - we teach our advisor's classes with his/her lectures initially and modify them as we go. To be honest, I am just not ok with that. So I am trying to follow the course planning guidelines in Lecture Free Teaching by Bonnie Wood (at UM Preque Isle) and be more creative in my teaching.

I'm mostly at the point for Earth Surface Processes where I can write up the syllabus. I am still missing some reading assignments and I'll need my new textbook to assign text pages, but I am getting there. GIS is going a bit slower. Yesterday I realized that I really like the idea of GIS being project based. And Michelle, a friend in Wisconsin, told me that she is taking a class where projects are things requested by local environmental groups. Cool. So I emailed a bunch of NE Ohio environmental groups yesterday and asked if they had projects that my students could do spring semester. 5 out of the 7 (or so) have gotten back to me already. 3 were kind of confused but 2 were really enthusiastic. In a class of 14 students, I really only need 2 organizations and should get enough for the students. Awesome. Since text book orders are due soon, I spent a bunch of the morning figuring out text books for the classes. Now I think I'm ready to go back to my backwards planning for GIS.

What I'm doing to plan classes is called Backwards Design. Basically you start with your course goals (big things like "students will use geomorphology terms to communicate, orally and in writing, to their each other and to me what they are learning"). Then you say "how can I know they achieved that goal" on both a daily (formative) and topic-based (summative) level. So you design your assessments for the students. Then you figure out topics to teach that fit in the summative and formative assessments. Finally you put together a syllabus. The syllabus is long and students need to read it (they get extra credit if they do). You don't spend the first day in class just reading the syllabus to them. The whole class is based around "learning teams" that students work with for the whole semester. That is because most science is done in teams, not individually, so learning team-work skills is an important part of learning science.

I'm pretty excited about this way of teaching. You cover less material, but given that immediately following a lecture students only remember 20% of what they heard, theoretically (and research has shown that) they come out of the course having learned more. And it sticks.

I'll keep you all updated as things progress. Right now I am trying to plan my GIS assessments and topics. Good thing I figured out the text books I'll be using.

amanda :)

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