Tag Archives: high expectations

Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo)

I just found out about Academic Writing Month via this link posted on Twitter by CTLT.  It’s a cousin to National Novel Writing Month (#NaNoWriMo), during which people commit to completing a 50000 word draft of a novel. For #AcWriMo, the scope is broader: anyone engaged in academic writing can commit to a giant goal and go for it! What struck me most when reading about it was the acknowledgement that December is supposed to be a time of celebration, and yet it ends up being packed with work put off while classes are in session. Since May I’ve been trying to prioritize my mental and physical well-being, and #AcWriMo actually fits with that spirit. I happened to tweet I was interested, and the organizers (@PhD2Published) were so encouraging I decided to dive in and set some goals! Because we all know there’s good research evidence on the power of publicly declaring your goals, I offer them here. It may not meet a 50000 word mark, but these are the projects I aim to complete by November 30:

  • History of Psychology paper comparing my life journey in psychology to a famous psychologist. I’m choosing Mary Calkins, our first female APA President. (12 Pages) Finished November 6. 4494 words.
  • Teaching of Psychology grad seminar course syllabus in preparation for next term (~8 pages, draft already complete) Progress November 13.
  • Ethics application to study the learning outcomes of the Teaching of Psychology course (~5 pages) Progress November 15.
  • Finish grant application for Peer Review software/services Review (with collaborators) (~5 pages, draft already complete). Finished November 14.
  • Complete draft of Team Testing manuscript (with N. Mirriahi from Arts ISIT) (~30 pages; currently have draft of 5 pages) Progress November 19. 
  • Magna proposal for e-seminar on Active Learning in Large Classes (~3 pages)
  • Active Learning manuscript for publication (~20-30 pages; already 2 pages of notes collected)

Wow, that list includes everything I had planned to complete by the end of December. Some are already in progress but just need that extra push. #AcWriMo just may do the trick! Wouldn’t it be fabulous to have them done before December (at least in draft form)? So there they are, my goals for November. I’ll update as I go… now… time to begin!

Responding to Student Evals 2011/2012 Part 2: Psyc 100 Introductory Psychology

Welcome to part two of my reflections on student evaluations of teaching from 2011/2012. Please see my earlier post for a general introduction and reflection on feedback from my Psyc 217 research methods course. I have also posted graphs that facilitate comparison across all my courses and years I have taught them.

First, I would like to thank each of my students who took the time to complete a student evaluation of teaching this year. I value hearing from each of you, and every year your feedback helps me to become a better teacher. Please note that with respect to the open-ended responses, I appreciate and consider every thoughtful comment. The ones I write about are typically those that reflect common themes echoed by numerous students.

The first thing I did to start reflecting on my intro student evals was to consider the numerical results (I am a quantitative scientist, after all!). After creating the graph below (click on it to enlarge), I noticed a small drop from last year’s intro psych class. This doesn’t surprise me a great deal for a couple of reasons: (1) last year’s results were the highest evaluations I ever received ever across any course, suggesting they’re a bit of an outlier, and (2) my class size increased by 42% this year relative to last year. An increase in class size from 270 to 370 students makes it that much more challenging to connect with students as individuals. All this said, I was pleased to note that students rated my teaching above 4 across all six of these questions. Compared with the first three bars, which denote my (relatively less positive) ratings during my first year of teaching these courses, I seem to be maintaining my ability to reach my students effectively. In sum: no concerns arose from the numerical data.


As I read the qualitative data, I was humbled. The most common comments noted appreciation for the enthusiasm I bring to each class. Here’s an example:

Dr. Rawn is one of the most engaging professors I’ve ever had – and she really made the class something that people became excited about, which is especially hard to do with a lecture hall consisting of 300+ students. Her passion was contagious! Great course, great instructor.

Given student feedback from this class and over all my years of teaching, I have learned that enthusiasm is one of my greatest strengths as a teacher. I try my best to bring enthusiasm for my students, for teaching, for the discipline to class every day. Without such consistent student feedback I would not necessarily know this about myself as a teacher. Therefore, over the years I have learned to cultivate that enthusiasm each day. Sometimes it takes work (I’ve been known to rev myself up to, ahem, Britney Spears or Pink from time to time…), but I find it’s always easier when I actually know at least some of my students personally. To this point, about a dozen students reported appreciating the Invitational Office Hour on Friday afternoons, which I will definitely keep given two consecutive years of positive feedback.

Exams Many students mentioned the exams and coverage of material, but unfortunately there wasn’t a consistent theme that I could use to make changes. Some people reported that there were too many/too detailed/covered too much, but others felt they were just right or too straightforward/easy. Of the three types of comments about exams, reports that exams were challenging in some way were the most frequent. Although I frequently make lots of changes to my teaching practice based on student feedback, making the exams in this course easier isn’t one I’m comfortable doing. The main reason is that I’m not getting feedback that the tests are unfair or unreasonable, either in qualitative responses or in the numerical data (in fact, this class’s rating on “fair evaluations” item is my highest of all my courses). It seems that a minority of students find them especially challenging, but the sentiment coming through is not one of unfairness (which was the case in my research methods course a couple of years ago, and I’ve been working to address it. Read more.). Here’s an example:

She is a good lecturer but her exams are very difficult even if you read the textbook and show up to each class you will find it very difficult to do well.

I have high expectations for my students — and my department does too. Our class average must be in the mid-60s, and over the past few years I’ve created exams that hit that mark. What I will think more about is how I can better reach this minority group of students who report struggling and feeling discouraged because of the exams. Given the above and similar comments, I’m wondering if part of what’s happening is that study strategies for high school are not working in university. I cover strategies in my syllabus and a bit at the start of the year, including in the memory unit, but I wonder if I/our TAs could develop some sort of  extra special study strategies workshop to help reach out to these students who may need a bit more assistance. Maybe I can partner with the Learning Commons on this.

Finally, I’d like to share a few of the quotes that touched me deeply because they signal that my role in these students’ lives was bigger than simply being their intro psych prof. Notes like these are humbling, and fuel my passion for this challenging career.

Overall amazing instructor that taught us through example how to respect others, care about the science of psychology, and take initiative with our learning.

Although I initially thought I would not enjoy being taught by Dr. Rawn, mostly due to her excitedness, I actually felt that her passion for psychology made it more interesting to learn, and the obvious effort she put into teaching was superb. If she sees this I just want to say Thanks!

Really impressive to watch Dr. Rawn work. She knows an incredible number of students’ names, puts in a lot of effort to get to know them individually, and can really hold her own in a 400-seat hall. Her enthusiasm for the subject is matched by an effective and accessible teaching style, and she manages to incorporate an impressive amount of discussion and classroom activities for such a large class. I think it wouldn’t hurt to lay down the smack a bit harder with the kids at the back of the hall, even to the point of kicking them out. Why put up with that? Nonetheless, a really inspirational role model as a scholar, teacher, and an intelligent and talented woman.

Many thanks to each and every one of you for helping me to improve my teaching by signalling both strengths and areas in which I can grow. I wish you the best.

Stay tuned for more course reflections…!

Responding to Student Evals 2011/2012 Part 1: Psyc 217 Research Methods

Thank you to each of my students who took the time to complete a student evaluation of teaching this year. I value hearing from each of you, and every year your feedback helps me to become a better teacher. Based on last year’s feedback (upon which I reflected here) and my additional professional development, I made quite a few changes to my teaching in 2011/2012. I have created graphs depicting results from the University Module Items, which are 6 questions that are asked about every instructor across campus. I have posted those graphs (and the precise wording of each question) here for your consideration.

Please note that with respect to the open-ended responses, I appreciate and consider every thoughtful comment. The ones I write about are typically those that reflect common themes echoed by numerous students.

I am in the process of writing reflections on the feedback I received from each of my courses. After writing about Research Methods, I realized I should probably break up this post, as it was getting quite long! More is to come!

Psyc 217 Research Methods

As noted in last year’s reflection, my major goal this year was to address head-on the fact that on average, students rated the fairness of my evaluations as notably lower than my other UMIs, and many students discussed evaluations in the written feedback. In response, I made four key changes to the course: (1) instead of one long midterm that spanned two classes, I restructured the course so one shorter midterm came earlier and one came later; (2) I revisited every single exam question and ensured I could tie it closely to at least one learning objective in class and/or in the texts; (3) I re-read the assigned chapters in one of the two textbooks and wrote learning objectives I shared with my students (because that particular text has none); (4) I added extra emphasis on the importance of studying from the learning objectives.

I noted two interesting differences in students’ feedback this year relative to last year. First, ratings of fair evaluations jumped by a third of a point. What also jumped by a third of a point was ratings of clear expectations. It seems that the changes I made to the course could have increased both clarity of expectations and perceived fairness. It hadn’t occurred to me before that these two items seem reasonably related to each other: having evaluations that align with clear expectations is one way to operationalize fairness. I wonder about the extent to which these items are correlated (but I don’t have access to the raw data, so can’t test that).

It was especially interesting to read the comments in light of this mean-level analysis. Some students reported that the midterms were too challenging (especially the 2nd), requiring advanced application of concepts. At the same time, other students reported appreciating the challenge. For example, someone wrote,

The midterms were the best written midterms I have wrote at UBC. They were challenging but unlike in some other psyc courses, they went far beyond mere memorization and into deep understanding. Thanks Catherine!

The mixed set of comments suggests to me that I’m on the right track toward an appropriate level of challenge, but I could still be clearer in warning students about the need to apply concepts on exams. I’m not quite sure how to do that, but I’ll give it some more thought for sure. I just looked back at the midterm means and noted that the 2nd midterm average was about 7% lower than the first. I will be aiming to make that one a bit easier (while remaining consistent our departmental requirements). It will still be challenging, but I’ll aim to align it more closely with the first midterm in difficulty.

Many students reported appreciating my enthusiasm for the material and for designing engaging lessons that were interactive. Many students noted learning effectively from interactive elements including the clicker questions, “what’s in the bag?” activity, and groupwork (although a minority of others mentioned they didn’t feel like they learned from these elements). In fact, some people recommended using even more interactive learning activities! Here’s a representative comment that focuses on my interactive style:

I really enjoyed how Catherine broke up class with activities rather than just lecturing all the time. This engaged the students and made concepts easier to learn. I also enjoyed the lab component, although I was nervous for it in the beginning. Iclickers are a great idea, they make you pay attention and try to comprehend the concepts as they come at you, also if you don’t get one right, you know what to focus on while studying! Overall, the active, cheerful, outgoing attitude of professor Rawn encouraged me to want to do well in this class, and in my future!

Thanks for all of your feedback! Even though I’ve now taught this course 8 times, every time is a new adventure, and there is always room to grow!

Stay tuned for reflections on more courses…

New Syllabi for Next Week

Term 2 is now right around the corner! If you’re interested in checking out syllabi for my sections early, by all means take a look! My Psyc 218 (Analysis of Behavioural Data) syllabus is available here, and my Psyc 208 (Special Topics: How Social Psychology Can Help You Succeed) syllabus is available here. I suspect that both of these courses will challenge learners–and me–to grow in new directions. They won’t be a walk in the park, but they can be valuable learning experiences if we all put in the thought and effort… and isn’t that what university is for?

I hope your 2011 wraps up safely and your 2012 brings you joy and adventures!

Psyc 217 Poster Session!

Last Friday evening (November 26), 550 Psyc 217 (Research Methods) students showcased their hard work designing and conducting research throughout this term in a poster session. It was a fabulous event with many students reporting a rich learning experience… and that it was fun to see what everyone else had come up with!

Many thanks to Eric Eich, who committed financial support from the department to make this happen, to the Life Sciences Institute for allowing us to book their space, to my fellow 217 instructor and poster session co-coordinator Colleen Brenner, additional 217 instructors Victoria Savalei and Rajiv Jhangiani, and all dozen Teaching Fellows for their support and dedication to making this a success. And, of course, to our hard-working, impressive students! It was a pleasure to see your work!