Thursday, November 04, 2010

Helping students learn when no textbook is assigned

Yesterday I met with a colleague who has given a lot of thought to how students learn from textbooks.  I wanted her advice because my new genetics course won't have an assigned textbook - instead students will be expected to use a textbook of their own choosing (I've provided suggestions) in conjunction with other materials.  These resources will be used as reading assignments to be completed before each week's classes and as study materials that reinforce and clarify the lecture material.

Not having an assigned textbook will be a new experience for these students, and for me at this level.  I'm doing it because a suitable textbook doesn't exist, but I think I can also use the experience to help students build valuable skills that will be useful in other courses and in the rest of their lives.  They'll improve their abilities to gather information from various sources and to integrate this information both across sources and across topics.

Helping students find appropriate readings:

My colleague said that one key will be to give students very explicit guidance about where to look for information.  The resources I suggest can probably be organized as 'levels', with level 1 resources being places to start, with the goal of getting a big-picture overview of the topic.  For example, for the week that will focus on meiosis, I might recommend that they begin with Wikipedia or an introductory biology textbook (even a high-school biology book), and read with the goal of finding out what function meiosis accomplishes that mitosis doesn't, and why this is important.  I'd recommend that they then move on to more specialized level 2 resource such as whichever genetics textbook they have and any specific readings I've provided, and read with the goal of finding out how meiosis accomplishes its function.  There might also be level 3 readings - places to go for details.  And I'd like to include other materials than text, such as expert and beginner animations and movies found on YouTube.

For each level's reading goals, students should also be given one or two study questions to answer.  For example, a level 1 question about meiosis might ask why meiosis only happens in the cells that make eggs or sperm, and a level 2 question might ask about the differences between the chromosome pairs seen in mitosis and those seen in the first and second stages of meiosis.  The students' ability to answer these questions will be tested in weekly on-line reading quiz due each Sunday midnight (before the week's classes); the questions in the quiz should be very similar to the study questions they'll have been given.

She also emphasized the importance of giving students tasks and activities they need to accomplish using their reading, to help them focus and to stop them from just passively absorbing the factoids. It would be good to be able to assign students to 'reading groups', with each group given a different component they had to sort out and somehow present to the other groups.  But I think organizing this and finding time for it would be too big a challenge, both for me and for the students.

I will use one technique I have used in the past with my first-year classes.  One question of each week's reading quiz will ask for the student for a question about the readings that they would like to have answered in class.  This (I hope) nudges them to pay attention to identifying the things they don't understand, rather than just comforting themselves with the things they (think that they) do understand. This might even help them to regard discovering things they don't understand as progress rather than as failure.

Helping students interpret and connect what they've read:

My colleague also suggested a way to use part of each tutorial to get students (i) explicitly analyzing what they learned from the readings and (ii) making connections between the material for different weeks.  (We have the luxury of a 2-hr tutorial each week.)  It's very low-tech, relying on flip-chart sheets and coloured pens.

Each week the tutorial starts with a blank flipchart sheet and a specific pen colour.  Let's assume that this tutorial is happening in the third week of classes, when the lectures are addressing topic C.  The TA asks the students for important points about topic C that they learned from the readings they've just done, and writes these on the flipchart (red ink).  The TA also asks them for important words they've learned, and maybe other things too.  Then the TA puts up the topic B flipchart sheet (green ink) from the previous week's tutorial (there won't be a topic A flipchart since there were no tutorials in week 1).  Now the students are asked to make connections between the two sheets, and the TA uses the green pen to annotate the points on the topic C sheet with the relevant point numbers from the topic B sheet.

As the course proceeds this organizing and connection-making activity will become increasingly complex; it will probably take half an hour in each tutorial, sometimes more.  Students will be told (over and over) that this connection-making activity is especially critical for success in this course, because we're separately introducing the two major genetic phenomena (how genes control phenotypes and how genes are inherited) and then asking students to connect them and work with the combination for the rest of the course.  And that it's also extremely valuable in other contexts.

If we also encourage students to use this part of each tutorial to share information about the sources they found useful and the problems they experienced using them, this will help all the students (and us) discover the best kinds of resources to try.  We might even be able to photograph the flipchart sheets after the tutorials and post them online for students' (and our) future reference.

I'll have to check out the room assigned for our tutorials, to see if this can work. OK, here it is, Math 103.  Wow, do we ever have chalkboards!  Lots of opportunities to have students work through problems on the boards.  And lots of space to tape up flipchart sheets.

Helping students improve their writing skills:

My colleague also reminded me that, next fall, many of my students will have been working on their academic writing skills as part of a first-year 'seminar' program .  My course will include a small writing assignment (see Don's brilliant idea), and she's going to send me a document that spells out the writing goals the students were working towards in this program.  That will let me explicitly build on their first-year experience.

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