Observation – The Catastrophic Earth

Last week I observed one of my mentors teach a class on Landslides in EOSC 114: The Catastrophic Earth. This is a large, introductory geology course that is often used as the first-year science requirement for many students. The course has two sections – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – and the same instructor teaches both sections. Each section has 150-200 students.

Something interesting about this course is that it is taught by different instructors throughout the term, each of which teaches their own specialty. I see the advantage of this as being that students are taught by leading academics in each of their fields. However the disadvantage is that switching instructors every two weeks makes it very difficult to establish and maintain a classroom environment and classroom guidelines. My mentor was the instructor for the first two weeks of class, during which he established a participatory classroom environment by including lots of clickers questions, small and large group discussion, and activities in each of his classes. Once his section of the course ended, the students were taught two more topics, each by a different instructor. When he returned to the class to teach the landslides portion of the course, he found that students were no longer as willing to participate and got off task much more quickly than before. This was extremely evident during my observation. I sat in near the middle of the lecture hall so that I could also observe the students that were sitting around me. Even though the longest stretch of lecture during the class was ~5 minutes, the students that I was observing would continually get off task after only a minute or so of lecture. Even during think-pair-share (TPS) discussions, the students would discuss the question quickly, and then switch to talking about something unrelated to the course. The only thing that seemed to hold their attention for longer were the YouTube videos of various types of landslides that the instructor would frequently play (likely to regain their attention) and then discuss as a large group. I was really surprised by this because when I’ve observed students in my mentor’s classes in the past, they were extremely engaged (relative to other courses I’ve observed) and eager to participate. Since my mentor was employing the same teaching techniques that he has in the past, this suggests to me that the students were negatively impacted by the constant change in instructors throughout the course.

I think it would be more beneficial to students if this course was taught by only one instructor. The course is a 100-level, introductory geology course, so I don’t think that the material would be too difficult for someone that doesn’t specialize in a particular topic. In fact, I think it can be easier to teach a topic that you don’t specialize in because you can at least somewhat avoid the “expert blind-spot”. I’ve seen this course taught by only one instructor two summers ago. I was a TA for the course and taught one class for the regular instructor when she was out of town. From my experience observing and teaching that class, students were much more engaged and willing to participate, even though each class was 1.5 hours long instead of 50 minutes. However, this could also have been influenced by the course demographic. This offering of the course was during the summer, so the students that were taking the course likely had less classes than they would have during the regular semester. On the other hand, they may have been less excited to be there if they were enrolled in a summer course due to failing a course during the regular term.

In summary, observing this class was an eye-opening experience for me since it showcased how quickly students can get off-task, even during a class that requires a lot of student participation. It emphasized that participatory activities such as iClicker questions and TPS are useful in regaining students’ attention, but may still not result in high engagement during the entire class. It also revealed how strongly a classroom environment can be influenced by an instructor (or in this case, by multiple instructors).

1 thought on “Observation – The Catastrophic Earth

  1. It’s useful to go through all your reflections at once. You should consider doing that at the end of the program. I appreciate your reflections though I once again apologize you had to spend so much time listening to me. 🙂

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