I completed my first observation for the CATL program in SCIE 113 – First-year Seminar in Science. This course is designed to teach B.Sc. students about science in society, the scientific process, and how to communicate scientific concepts through the writing of a research paper. There are over 20 sections offered per term with each section limited to 26 students to facilitate small-group discussions and to ensure that students are given plenty of opportunities to interact with the instructor. The class is held in a small classroom and students sit at round tables that encourage group work and discussion at the table.
Students were required to complete pre-class activities for this class, which the instructor reminded them about by using a simple PowerPoint slide as students were entering the classroom, and then verbally at the beginning of class. Completing the pre-class activity was essential for the lesson and that must have been reinforced in previous classes as everyone had completed their activity. The class started off with a brainstorming activity based on a reading that the students were required to complete before class. The instructor outlined the activity and once students had paired up and had started brainstorming, only then did she announce the time limit for the activity. When I asked her about this strategy in our meeting, she said that she will often wait until after students have started the activity to give the time limit because that gives her more time to decide what the time limit will be. I suggested that giving the time limit after the activity is introduced would be beneficial for students since it breaks up the amount of information they receive at one time, and would make it more likely that they hear and absorb the instructions for the activity.
I noticed that while students were brainstorming with their partners, the instructor continuously walked around the room but would never engage in the conversations the students were having unless explicitly asked to by them. In my view the reasoning for this would be that it shows students that the instructor is available for help if they need it, but it does not disrupt their thought process if the instructor were to actively offer assistance. This also gives the instructor the opportunity to monitor how far along students are in their work so that she could gauge if they had sufficient time to complete the activity or if they needed more time to work on it.
Once students have finished brainstorming, the instructor introduced the main assignment of the day, which was to write an introduction paragraph for their essay. Since learning about how to properly write an intro paragraph had been part of the pre-class reading, the instructor “mined” the class for guidelines on how to write an intro paragraph instead of providing them on a slide. The class was eager to participate and was able to generate the list of guidelines almost entirely on their own, with a bit of prompting from the instructor for items that didn’t directly come out of the discussion. The instructor facilitated this process by explaining terms that were less common and that she likely thought some students may not be familiar with.
The next activity was to write an intro paragraph that contained all the features the class had collectively come up with. The TA distributed the worksheets to the class as the instructor explain the task, and then after all the students had begun working the instructor told them the time limit for the task. She also asked if everyone understood what they were supposed to be working on. I thought that it was a great idea to wait until after students had received the worksheets and begun the activity to ask if they understood what they were supposed to do, because often when an activity is being introduced it can be a bit of information overload for students. By waiting to ask if everyone understood the task, the instructor ensured that students had gotten a chance to process what they were required to do and that they had time to come up with any questions they had about the task. As students were working on writing their paragraph, the instructor took the same approach of walking around the room but not providing any feedback unless asked to.
Once the intro paragraphs were written the students partnered up and reviewed each other’s papers. Partners were made by counting off numbers around the room to ensure that students were not partnered with someone they were sitting with. The instructor told the students to introduce themselves to their partner to break the ice and make them more comfortable with reviewing each other’s work. Peer review can be a difficult process, especially if you don’t know the person you’re working with, so I felt that this mini ice-breaker was an important step in ensuring that students were more comfortable with each other. The instructor also provided students with a peer review worksheet that told students what they should be looking for in the intro paragraph and what aspects they should be revising. For example, one question would ask about the claim the author was making, and then the follow up question would ask them to revise the claim if it didn’t contain a list of necessary features.
The second part of the peer review activity was for each student to pick the most important piece of feedback they wrote down and to verbally communicate it to their partner. The feedback sheets were exchanged following this activity so that each student would have a copy of all the feedback they received on their paragraph. During my observation of the class, I noticed something interesting about the interaction between the pair of students that I was sitting closest to. The student that was giving feedback on the other’s paragraph gave them a piece of positive feedback first, and then a piece of constructive feedback that was delivered in a respectful and diplomatic way. In my meeting with the instructor after the class, I mentioned this to her and asked if she had taught her students how to provide effective feedback, or if they had been given literature on it. She said she actually hadn’t, but was impressed that that pair of students were able to provide such effective feedback without prior guidance. She also noted that it was a good idea to include literature on giving feedback and that she would incorporate the next time she taught it.
Observing the SCIE 113 course was very beneficial for me because it was the first time that I witnessed a class that consisted almost entirely of student discussions. The instructor in this course acted as more of a facilitator which allowed students to generate much of the course content themselves and ultimately learn more about how to write an effective paper. I was very impressed to see how much content the instructor was able to fit into a 50 minute course and how much more the students learned since they were generating much of the content themselves and weren’t just hearing it come from someone else. Observing this course has inspired me to try and incorporate more small-group discussions and use more student-generated content in the courses that I teach.