Teaching – Systems Approaches to Regional Sustainability

My first lesson of my practicum for this term was in ISCI 360: Systems Approaches to Regional Sustainability. This is a course that I am a TAing for the third time that is composed entirely of guest lecturers on various topics relating to sustainability. The topic of my lesson was systems thinking with an introduction to earth systems science, something that is a bit out of my comfort zone. The learning goals I wrote for the class were as follows:

  1. Describe the basic properties of systems.
  2. Solve stock and flow problems graphically.
  3. Apply the earth systems science model when analyzing sustainability and appreciate the interconnectedness of earth systems.

As part of my SoTL proposal I wanted to assess student engagement as a proxy for motivation. To do this, I used the Behavioural Engagement Related to Instruction (BERI) observation tool, developed by Lane & Harris (2015). This tool was recommended to me by one of my mentors and was developed by my supervisor for my geoscience education portion of my thesis project. The tool uses student behaviour to gauge whether students are engaged or disengaged. For example, engaged behaviour could be following along with the lecture on computer or taking notes in a word document, while corresponding disengaged behaviour would be surfing the web, checking email, or online chatting. Observers each take a subset of students from the class and note the number of those students that are disengaged at 2-5 minute intervals, depending on how experienced they are with observing students. They also note the type of activity that was occurring during the time interval (lecture, discussion, activity, etc.), any relevant instructor actions (questioning, humour, real-world examples, etc.), and any extenuating circumstances (outside noise, technical issues, etc.). Two of my mentors were able to attend the lesson, and the course instructor was also able to observe students, so I was confident that they would be able to sample a large enough subset of the class to get an accurate representation of their overall engagement.

The figure below shows the compiled data from the three observers normalized to 20 students (each person was observing 12-20 students each, depending on their positioning in the classroom and how many students they felt they could accurately observe). It clearly shows that students were engaged for the majority of the class. The lowest points of engagement were during “students drawing on board” and “revisiting worksheet #2”. The first low point of engagement occurred when I had asked a group of students to come up to the board and explain how they got their answer to a question on one of the worksheets. A significant proportion of the class wasn’t paying attention when they were writing on the board and the observers noted that there were still students in the back of the class that didn’t seem to understand how the answer was determined. For next time, I’ll try showing the answer on the document camera instead because part of the reason for the low engagement could have been that the blackboard was too far away and hard to read for some students. I could have also included the answer in my PowerPoint slides, like I had done for the other two previous questions. The other point of low engagement was when I revisited a worksheet from earlier in the class. The reason for revisiting this worksheet was to clarify misconceptions that most people have about how reducing greenhouse gas emissions affects the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. I hadn’t considered that my students had read a pre-class reading that should have changed their preconceptions about the stocks and flows of greenhouse gases, so they didn’t need any time to revise their answers. Luckily I was able to quickly assess that students didn’t want any more time with the worksheet and we moved on to the next part of the lesson.

I also got students to fill out a short feedback form at the end of the lesson that contained questions about their engagement during various parts of the lesson. Some of the questions I asked were, “How did you feel during the bathtub activity?” with the options for them to select being excited, bored, interested, distracted, or other (fill in the blank). They could also choose if they couldn’t remember the activity, or if they could remember the activity but didn’t understand the point of it. Most of the feedback I received was that the activities made students feel excited or interested about the topic. Interestingly, a few students thought that the most interesting part of the lecture was the short discussion on the earth spheres, so for next time I would make that discussion longer.

I met with both of my mentors after the class to discuss how it went. One noted that my iClicker “choreography” had improved, which was something he had suggested I work on from one of my term 1 classes. I knew when a discussion was needed after a clicker question and when the question was easier and could be quickly answered by the students. Both my mentors noted that I was confident during the class and didn’t seem nervous, which is something I’m continually trying to improve on. Some things I can work on for next time are not using the phrase “if you want…” because students will automatically tune out. I also have to work on regaining the class’ attention after working on an activity. This time I tried to start talking over students after I couldn’t get their attention to start the lecture again, but they noted that some students that are trying to pay attention could get annoyed at their classmates for talking, so it’s better to wait and call on people to be quiet multiple times if necessary. Finally, during one of the activities there were two groups of students that were finished ahead of the others and ended up becoming disengaged because I didn’t have anything else for them to do. In the future I can use those students as a resource by splitting them up and getting them to help other students that are still struggling with the activity.

Overall, I think did a good job delivering the content while at the same time incorporating lots of activities and class participation, and I can definitely see things that I have improved on from my term 1 practicums. I will use my next practicum to work on the finer points of the lesson, such as effectively regaining students’ attention and being extra cognizant of the way I introduce activities and discussions to ensure that they don’t sound optional.

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