Friday, March 23, 2007

Playing fast and loose with the curriculum?

One of the weaknesses of the course I teach is also one of the reasons I like teaching it.

The curriculum revision committee I'm on has been discussing ways to maintain coherence between different sections of this multi-instructor course. Right now we have two courses to compare to. One of these, the one I'm presently teaching, has five or six different instructors, each teaching their interpretation of "Ecology, Genetics and Evolution". I kid you not, that's the full detailed curriculum.

I like teaching it because I can pick and choose freely among possible topics. So, for example, I've taught my students nothing about behaviour and almost nothing about DNA replication, but quite a lot about our local environment and about HIV in Canada and Africa. And in some ways this is good for the students, as I teach them the things I'm enthusiastic about. But, from the perspective of the goals of the Biology Program this is not a good situation, as different students learn very different things and sometimes learn nothing at all about some important topics. All sections do use the same excellent textbook.

The other first year course has the opposite problem. Instructors and students all use a common 200 page set of photocopied course 'notes' instead of a textbook. Coherence between different sections is thus not a problem (except if an instructor runs out of class hours before getting to the final topic). For inexperienced instructors this is a good thing, but there is little opportunity for experienced instructors to control what they teach. So it's hard to work up much enthusiasm.

So one goal of this committee is to come up with a curriculum document that's sufficiently specific to ensure that the important topics are covered, but sufficiently flexible to allow instructors to feel they control what they're teaching.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Are clickers worth the hassle?

I've spent most of the last 24 hrs wrestling with the software that goes with the Personal Response System (PRS) 'clickers' I have my students using in class. This is the third time I've assembled all the marks the students have earned for the answers they've given to the questions I've posed in class and posted the combined marks on WebCT. This time I think I've finally gotten it right. (Thank you, students, for your patience.)

The software isn't that bad, though it's a bit clumsy. Now I better understand how it works, it all seems quite straightforward. But getting myself to this point would have been easier if my university provided better support for instructors using PRS in their classes. The fuss I made about this last year produced some talk of a PRS Users Group, where we could help each other, but that seems to have been vaporware.

But I do think using clickers is worth the trouble. It enables me to push the students into doing 'active learning', rather than passively absorbing whatever I tell them. I really like to see the students talking with each other about what the answer should be.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

'cumulative' exams

Students often ask me whether the final exam for my course will be 'cumulative', testing material covered both before and after the midterm. The alternative is that the final only tests material taught after the midterm.

I understand that some professors do give non-cumulative final exams, but I find it hard to think of a situation where this would be appropriate. In my courses, we build ideas onto other ideas. I select a particular order of topics (e.g. genetics then evolution then ecology) for precisely that reason. By first studying genetics, we develop the genetic underpinnings needed to understand evolution, and by understanding evolution we can better appreciate issues relevant to ecology. The exam questions I like best are the ones that ask students to pull together concepts taught in different parts of the course.

Telling students that material covered before the midterm won't be needed for the final is tantamount to telling them to forget that material - it's not even valuable enough to remember for another 6 weeks, much less beyond the final exam.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Researchers as teachers

I've been away from blogging for the past month, as I've been focused on getting two research grants submitted by a March 1 deadline. Yes, that's today, and they're both done.

I've been neglecting not only this blog, but also the students in my classes, as a consequence of caring more about my research than about my teaching. I originally wrote 'as much about my research', but that's not true - I do care more about research than teaching. But I'd like to think that caring about research makes for a good teacher, maybe better than someone who cares only about teaching.

Being taught by scholars (researchers in the science or humanities or whatever) is one of the supposed benefits of studying at a real university rather than at a college where the faculty have little or no time or facilities for scholarly work. The benefit is (should be) that the teachers are people who DO research. We care deeply about intellectual work, about scholarship, and we can communicate about the process from our ongoing experience. Active research also keeps us at the frontiers of knowledge, and gives us the perspective to make value judgments about what's in the textbooks.

The down side of this is that we're unlikely to be as dedicated to teaching as our non-researcher colleagues (at UBC, 'sessional lecturers' and 'instructors'). I, for example, have been skimping on my teaching responsibilities for the past couple of weeks, to get my grant proposals done.

But this isn't because we don't care about learning. I, and every researcher I know, care much more deeply about learning than the great majority of our students do. We LOVE learning - it's our favourite thing in the whole world. But we love learning as a concrete activity, experienced most rewardingly in the research we do, not as an abstraction. So it shouldn't be surprising that we value our own learning activities (our research) more than the learning activities of our students.