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.