Friday, April 01, 2011

Planning next year's tutorials

The other day I sat down with my favourite pedagogy expert to discuss how to improve the tutorials for the new genetics course.  I'm quite happy with the problem-solving component of the present tutorials, but they still need a component that develops students' reading-interpretation and connection-making skills.  We came up with a plan that I think will work well.

Any plan has to deal with the big practical problems.  First, students much prefer activities that they see as directly useful, and activities that will improve such fuzzy and poorly defined skills as reading-interpretation and connection-making fall far below activities that will directly improve their grade.  Second, most of the students are very anxious about speaking in class.  Third, even experienced and skilled teaching assistants are understandably reluctant to impose tutorial activities that the students don't like.  Fourth, many of our teaching assistants will be inexperienced and unskilled.

Under the new plan, students will spend the first part of each tutorial analyzing one or two short readings taken from textbooks.  They won't have to do any extra preparation for this, as the material they'll be analyzing will be part of the preparatory readings recommended for that week's classes (motivated by the weekly Reading Quiz).  They should see the analyses as directly useful, because the texts (and associated figures) will be about topics they need to master to pass the course.

In each tutorial, about 30-45 minutes will be spent on activities using these readings.  These are 2 hour tutorials, and the rest of the time will be spent working on a complex genetics problem (described in the last paragraph below).  They'll first work in pairs or small groups with a clear goal, such as
  • 'Identify a question you'd like to ask the author of this paragraph.' 
  • 'What are the important differences between the information presented by the paragraphs from two different textbooks?' 
  • 'How does the figure clarify the text?  What potential confusion does it clear up?'
Then the ideas from the groups will be discussed by the class.  I think that students are more comfortable reporting what their group came up with than describing their own ideas directly.  They could either form groups on their own, or the groups could be pre-assigned by the TA.

In the first few weeks of the class, the TA will then use one of the two texts to demonstrate one way to diagram the relationships of ideas in a text (one week hierarchical diagrams, another week flow charts, another week concept maps).  The students will then individually create this type of diagram for the other text they've been analyzing, and hand this in.  In later weeks the TA demonstration won't be needed, and the students can diagram the text in any way they like.  The TAs will mark the diagrams out of 2 points (1 for any attempt, 2 for something good), and return them to the students at the next class..

My pedagogy expert and I considered ways to let the students also look over what other students had done.  We didn't decide on anything, but later I came up with something that might be good.  The TA could hand the marked diagrams to random students (not to their authors).  Each student gets a minute to look over the diagram they've been handed before finding its author and giving it back to them.  This will be an ice-breaker, a minute of chaos that will get students talking and help them meet each other.  If we wanted to designate the pairs or groups that will discuss the new assigned text (rather than letting students pick their friends), returning the diagrams could also assemble the groups  - each report could be given to another member of the designated group.  One other possibility we discussed was having the TA choose one diagram from each tutorial and give photocopies to all the students.

Because the students should see this text-analysis process as valuable and non-threatening, the TAs should be comfortable leading it.  In the weekly TA meeting we'll prepare them by going over the readings with them, pointing out ways to help students develop their ideas.  We'll also show them how to teach the diagram-creating activity.  We'll make sure they know how to do the marking very quickly, without worrying about details.

A note about the problem solving part of the tutorials:  We've developed a complex genetics problem for each tutorial.  Students get the introductory information and one or two relatively simple questions ahead of time, and are expected to hand in the answer(s) at the start of the tutorial.  After the text-analysis, they spend the rest of the tutorial working through this problem in groups (mostly at the chalkboards) and discussing the answers to the questions it poses.  Finally the chalkboards are erased and the students are given a sheet with one or two of these questions, which they answer and hand in.  As with the text-analysis activity, the TAs are given lots of preparation for this problem-solving activity and for grading the answers (again 1 point for any attempt, 2 for a good answer).  The intent is that the TA meeting will fully prepare the TAs for their tutorials, and that the grading will not take more than one hour for each tutorial.

Once classes end next week, we're going to spend time developing the materials we have into a draft set of TA materials for each week.

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