Friday, December 29, 2006

Preparing for January

I pulled up last year's detailed course outline to start deciding what to cut and what to rearrange.

Given the shorter term this year, and the timing of the mid-term break, I think I'll move more of the fundamental evolution material into the first two weeks. This will give us a solid grounding in evolutionary principles and processes before we get into the nitty-gritty of genetics.

That will also let me schedule the midterm in the last class before the break, before we get into the technicalities of how natural selection works. And I'll be able to cut a week from last year's post-midterm material on evolution, leaving us enough time to get into sustainability and ecological principles.

But the above assumes that I'll still teach the same content, just crammed into fewer classes. That's not what I want, so I still need to work on cutting factoids to give more time for thinking. And on the classroom activities (clicker questions) that get us all thinking and discussing, rather than just transmitting information.

Friday, December 22, 2006

What to cut?

The powers-that-be have left us with only 12 weeks of classes this term, rather than the usual 13. This is probably due more to the dates that various holidays fall on, rather than to a fiendish scheme by the bean-counters to give the sudents 10% fewer classes for their tuition dollars. But it means that I need to cut 10% of the content from my classes.

I actually want to cut more than that, because I'm hoping to have students spending more of their class time thinking and less time than copying down things I tell them. This means I need to come up with thought-provoking classroom problems and activities, but also means I need to eliminate even more of the 'lecture style' content.

Cutting content is hard. What criteria should I use to decide what students don't really need to know about? Which of the lovely PowerPoint slides I slaved over last year should I consign to the trash? Should I cut the cool new frontiers of science stuff, or some of the classic concepts? Should I just not bother to teach the parts that everyone forgets right after the exam? Do I cut the hardest concepts, or the time I spend reminding students of the basic principles?

To make this even harder, I want to include more about ecological sustainability this year. I fear that this means some genetics will have to go.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Getting ready for the new clickers

Today those of us who will be teaching BIOL 121 next term got together for a demo of the new 'radio frequency' (RF) clickers we'll be using, and of how to integrate the clicker questions into our PowerPoint slides. If you don't already know, clickers are remote response gadgets used to collect students answers in class to questions posed by the instructor (like in "Who wants to be a millionaire").

These new RF clickers are much better than the clunky old infrared ones we used last year. Now the students don't have to worry about whether the system received their answer, so they can relax a bit and think about the question.

Last year the clicker questions we did in class were worth 5% of the total marks for the course. This year I'm going to set it up a bit differently, allowing each student to choose, at the beginning of term, whether they want their clicker responses to count or not. If not, the midterm and final will together count 5% more. I can do this because I've figured out how to set up WebCT and Excel to automatically use the appropriate mark calculations for each student.

I like the idea of giving students more choice in how they will be graded. But I also think that clicker questions help students learn, and that students will take the questions more seriously if they count for marks, even though the mark value of each question is only about 0.05% (there will be about 100 questions over the term).

I like to think that most students will agree with me and choose to have their clicker questions count. Before making their decision they'll sensibly want to know the effect of the clicker marks on grades in last years' classes. So I just checked - on average students did a bit better on the clicker questions than they did on the midterm and final, so the clicker marks pulled their grades up a bit. Note that this doesn't address the question of whether doing clicker questions for marks helped students learn biology. Rather it reflects my decision to avoid giving clicker questions that were very challenging.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Yesterday my colleague and I planned our workshop on open-book exams.

Giving a workshop is itself a form of teaching, with the difference that the 'students' are our peers. In any teaching, the students learn best the ideas they come up with themselves, so the participants are going to spend much of the 90 minute workshop doing activities that will raise in their minds the ideas we want to develop.

So they will first write down why they currently give closed-book exams, and what problems might arise if they just let students bring their books and notes to such an exam. Then they'll come up with possible advantages and disadvantages of open-book exams. And finally they'll evaluate the suitability of various exam questions for use in an open-book exam, suggest ways to convert unsuitable questions into suitable ones, and from this generate a set of principles to use in evaluating other questions.

Our roles will be mainly to direct the activities and discussion, and to record the ideas on flip charts. We've developed our own lists of ideas, but we'll use these only if the participants miss something we think is important. We also have a page of sample exam questions that participants can evaluate (I had fun making this last night), but we've encouraged them to bring
questions from their own exams.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Open book exams

A colleague in the Faculty of Education just reminded me that, in a couple of weeks, she and I are going to give a 90 minute workshop for faculty on open book exams. We'll discuss why we think open book exams are a good thing, and easy ways to transform conventional closed book exams into open book ones.

All the exams in my courses (finals, midterms, quizzes) have been open book for the past ten or twelve years. My usual rule has been "You can bring anything except a cell phone or a friend", though lately I'm having to change that to prohibit anything that might allow wireless communication, such as a laptop.

I made the switch to open book exams because I want to be testing students on what they understand, not what they have memorized. This is real learning; it's how the world works. "Life is an open book exam." Of course, in the real world you don't always have the time and resources to look up anything and everything, and you don't on open book exams either.

I also want students to know that what I value is the understanding, not the memorization. Educators always say "Assessment drives learning", meaning that the abilities we reward (by giving marks on assessments) are the abilities students will master. This applies to the way we test as well as what we test. No matter how many times an instructor says "This course is about concepts and understanding, not memorization", a closed book test says "This course is really about memorization".

The colleague and I worked out a very rough outline of this workshop last summer, and found some great resources about non-traditional ways of testing. Lots of people have signed up for it, so now it's time to get our acts together and plan it properly.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Blackboards or Powerpoint?

I go to a great conference (Analytical Genetics) where only whiteboards are provided - no Powerpoints or transparencies are allowed. The dynamics of the presentations are wonderful, and taught me the importance of body movement in teaching.

With a white- or blackboard, the observer's eyes are led directly from the body - arm - hand of the person creating the visuals to the visuals themselves. The visuals are an extension of the person. This helps the observer form a mental connection to what is being drawn, because our brains are much better at attending to people than to abstractions.

In contrast, with any kind of projection, the presenter and the visuals have no physical connection. Using a stick pointer rather than a laser pointer helps, as the stick leads the eye from the presenter's arm to the part of the graphic being described.

Watching the visuals being created is also a big help for the learner. So writing on the board or overhead is better than showing a finished graphic or table or notes. Similarly, gradually assembling a complex image in sequential Powerpoint slides or an animation is better than just showing the final graphic.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

No TAs?!? No tutorials?!?

It's sad but true. The ~2000 students who take BIOL121 each year get only lectures with about 225 students per class. There are no tutorials, because no money is allocated to pay the graduate students who would act as teaching assistants.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Towards community service learning in Biology

Today I met with the BIOL121 course coordinator and with representatives of UBC's Community Service Learning (CSL) and Learning Exchange initiatives. We're trying to develop resources that will let students in my first year Biology 121 classes get academic credit for helping teach biology to children in inner-city schools.

Last year about 65 of my students did this as an optional project. Their reports on their projects were worth 15% of their course mark, making their midterm and final exams count proportionately less. This year we don't have enough CSL/Learning Exchange support to coordinate independent projects with the schools, so students will be limited to doing the separately-organized "Reading Week" projects, which are planned and organized by graduate student volunteers.

But in future years I want to offer students opportunities for relatively independent projects. One component we will need is one or more teaching assistants who will guide the BIOL121 students in their interactions with the schools, themselves under the guidance of Learning Exchange staff. We're applying to the department heads for the funds to pay this TA (initially one TA for one year). The other approach is with UBC's CSL and Learning Exchange staff, who have the contacts to work with the school teachers to find out what kinds of projects they would value. (Otherwise our attempts at "service" will just be nuisances for them.)

The CSL and Learning Exchange people are wonderfully keen about this. Because a major component of BIOL121 is ecology, we can emphasize sustainability (one of UBC's big buzzwords at present). They also say that successfully incorporating community service learning into BIOL121 would be a powerful example to the rest of the UBC community.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

More relevance

My BIOL121 classes don't start until January, but teaching is creeping more and more into my mind lately so I'm going to be posting more about it.

This year I'm going to try to make the material (genetics, ecology, evolution) more relevant, by regularly asking "How can we use this information or these methods to help ourselves make better decisions about the things that matter to us?"

Genetics can help us make decisions about health or family.

Understanding ecology can help us preserve and support the parts of the world we value most.

What about evolution? Is it unimportant because it's all in the past? The biggest issue in many people's lives is their belief in a supreme being whose supernatural powers created the world and living things. Understanding evolution shows us that the wonderful sophistication of living things could have arisen without divine intervention.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

I'm going to ask students to read a book about the intersection of ecology and human actions. There will be about four books to choose from, and a short-essay (= long paragraph) question on the final exam about them (with a version for each book).

In case students would like to get their book or start reading now, the choices will include the following (links are to Amazon):
I'll be asking for suggestions of a fourth book choice when term starts, but I'd welcome suggestions here.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

After Christmas I'll be teaching introductory biology (genetics, evolution and ecology) to two sections of the course BIOL 121 (about 450 students total) at the University of British Columbia.

I'm planning this blog as the place where I'll write a bit after each lecture, summarizing the most important ideas. I hope that students (and myself) will find this a useful way to see the big picture underneath the inevitable morass of biological detail.