Observation – The Catastrophic Earth

For my second lecture observation this term I attended EOSC 114 – The Catastrophic Earth: Natural Disasters. In contrast to the first lecture I observed, EOSC 114 is a high-enrolment course with over 300 students in each section. It tends to be taken by a lot of upper-year students as part of the science requirement for their degree, but also by first-year students that want to major in geology. As such, there is a wide variety of students in the course and that can present challenges for the instructors. Another unique feature of EOSC 114 is that each of the seven modules is taught by a different instructor, generally one that specializes in that field. My mentor is currently teaching the Landslides module of the course, but he also taught the introductory module so he had worked with the students before. He mentioned that this makes it harder to get students to participate in the class since they are constantly having to adapt to a different teaching style.

There were several things that the instructor did during the lesson that I think are good techniques, especially for large classes, and that I would like to try out in my own lessons. Before the class had even started he played a YouTube video of a landslide that was narrated by a “landslide chaser”. Most students didn’t pay attention to the whole video since class hadn’t started yet but I think that it was still beneficial for them even if they only ended up watching a small portion of the video. Students would have benefited by seeing a landslide and they likely picked up on some features of landslides regardless of how long they were watching the video. It was also a good way to introduce the new module, since this was the first lecture on landslides, and to get students excited about the topic.

The instructor posts pre-lecture slides on Connect that don’t include clicker questions and any other information that relates to activities or mini assessments that will occur in class. This is a great way to give students lecture slides, which they so often ask for, without giving away the answers to questions that will be asked during the lecture. The slides are then updated to post-lecture slides after the class but without the answers to the clicker questions to encourage students to come to class.

The learning goals were listed on one of the first slides but the instructor didn’t read out the goals during class since. The reason for this is that students won’t listen to something being read off a slide, so they can just be included and students can refer back to them later. The instructor instead reminded students that they should be referring to the learning goals when studying and that the midterm and final exam questions will be based on material that is covered by the learning goals.

The hook used in this lesson was to ask students what their experience with landslides was using a clicker question. Two of the options were to have been in or very close to a landslide. The instructor asked for students that chose these answers to share their landslide story with the class. This would have been a really great hook into the lesson but the instructor forgot to repeat what students had said, so from my place in the back of the lecture hall I couldn’t hear what the student was saying. I mentioned this to my mentor after his lecture and he was disappointed that he had forgotten to do this, since he knew that it’s very important to repeat everything students say in class to make sure that everyone has heard them. He said that he’s given students a microphone in the past but found that once students realized they would have to talk into a mic they didn’t want to share their stories.

Another technique the instructor used is that every time he asked a clicker question during the lesson, he did it in a series of steps. First the students answered on their own without discussing the question with anyone around them, then the instructor would look at the results, tell them that they were split between answers, and to “turn to your neighbour and convince them that you’re right”. Even though doing clicker questions this way takes a bit more time, it is infinitely more valuable because students are learning a lot more by teaching each other. It also gets them to think critically about why they chose the answer they did. If clicker questions are constantly done in this way students will learn to put more thought into their answer instead of choosing an answer arbitrarily since they know they’ll have to explain their reasoning. Once the students voted again the instructor asked for someone to share why they chose their answer. In one case the student that answered ended up having the wrong answer. The instructor reminded students that he wants them to be wrong in class because they will better retain the material if they were wrong. I think this is important to emphasize to avoid embarrassing students if they give the wrong answer after they have worked up the courage to share in front of the whole class. It will also make them more comfortable answering questions since they’re reassured that it’s okay to have the wrong answer.

The instructor showed one video in class of a landslide to get students to notice features of the slide that they would later be able to use as clues to identify the type of slide. He played the video twice because it’s very difficult to notice specific details of something when you’re seeing it for the first time. Then he asked the class to share some important features of the video, without telling them what these features could indicate about the slide. Identifying landslide types would come later in the class. To get the class to participate, he asked for someone in the back of the room to answer the question, and then used the stare and wait tactic until someone answered. I think this tactic would be very useful in large classrooms because it’s harder to single someone out when you don’t know the names of all the students in the class. It’s also less intimidating to give students the opportunity to volunteer to answer a question rather than selecting someone that may feel very uncomfortable answering.

The class ended with an activity in which students learned to identify different types of landslides based on their unique features that they identified in pictures. There were six pictures, three of which were completed in class and the other three were posted on Connect for homework. Students were provided with a simple worksheet that included space to identify the material type, detachment surface, rate of movement, and name the landslide in each of the pictures. The instructor then told the students to pair up and showed the images on the PowerPoint slide.

The final thing I took away from this lecture is a good technique for creating lecture slides. The slides the instructor used were very simple with black text, a white background, and sans serif font. In our meeting after the lecture I learned that this style is the universal design for learning, meaning that it is most accessible for students that have a visual impairment because it provides the highest contrast and the most simple font. I’ve often felt the need to make slides that are visually appealing, meaning slides that are colourful, have some sort of design, and sometimes have simple animations to break up areas with more text. I found it interesting that this makes it harder for students that are visually impaired to read the slides and that it may be distracting for other students. The idea of using simple black and white slides also appeals to me because they’re a lot less work for the instructor to put together.

Teaching – Symmetry

For the first lesson of my practicum, I taught a 1.5 hour class in ISCI 330A: Symmetry. One of my mentors attended the class and completed a COPUS evaluation. I also asked her to look for students that were off-task during the lesson because this is one of things that I’m considering using as a proxy for student motivation for my SoTL project next term. There are 39 Integrated Sciences students enrolled in Symmetry and almost all of them are in their third year of university. This is a course that I am quite familiar with as I am currently TAing it for the third time, and I have also been a co-instructor and TA for the summer version of this course that is offered through the Vancouver Summer Program. I think the combination of being a TA for the course and the small class size made this an ideal environment for me to teach my first lesson because I was comfortable with the material and more willing to try new techniques, and knowing the students made it easier for me to facilitate discussion and get questions answered. My familiarity with the course material also allowed me to devote more of my time to integrating teaching techniques into the lesson since I did not need to learn any new content.

The topic of my lesson was Frieze groups, which are 2D patterns that are translated in one direction. When I set out to plan my lesson I wanted to make sure that students were participating in the lesson as much as possible so that they would hopefully be engaged and be more motivated to learn the topic. My strategy to achieve this was add the following elements to the lesson:

  • A retrieval exercise
  • ABCD card multiple-choice questions
  • Mine information from students throughout the lesson
  • An activity that targeted the main topic covered in this lesson

For the retrieval exercise I asked students to take out a piece of paper and write down 3 things that they learned in the 2 lectures we had last week. I told them to do this on their own and without looking at their notes. This is something that I have seen one of my mentors do a lot in her lessons and it is a technique that I like and see the value in. It gets students to reflect on what they have learned, and if they are included in multiple lessons in a class, students will start to anticipate them and will ensure that they are paying attention to the lesson so that they can complete any retrieval exercises that come up. As a bit of a twist on what my mentor usually does, after I had walked around the room and gauged that most students had written down their 3 things, I got students to pair up and compare the things they listed. I told students that if there were any concepts they had listed that their partner hadn’t, they had to explain that concept to their partner. The reason I did this is because I think that students learn best when they are teaching others so I wanted to give them the opportunity to do so.

Since we don’t use iClickers in Symmetry, I planned to use ABCD cards (or as I like to call them, “clickerless-clickers”) during the lecture. I had used them before in this class when I was filling in for the instructor at the beginning of the term and, based on the feedback I received from a couple of students, students seemed to like them. Unfortunately I forgot the cards in my office, and only realized that once I had already started the lesson. During the retrieval exercise I mentioned this to my mentor and she suggested getting students to download the smart phone app so that they could use the ABCD cards on their phones, so I was still able to ask them the questions I had prepared. Almost all the students answered the questions correctly which helped me assess that I had done a good job of teaching the material. If there had of been a split between two answers for a question, I would have told students to turn to their neighbour and convince them that they are right, which would get students to think about the reasoning behind their answer and collaborate with others to gain more knowledge.

I designed the activity for this lesson with the aim of getting students to understand how the 3D point groups that were covered in earlier lessons are derived from 2D Frieze groups. Students are normally just told this during the lesson so I felt that they would end up with a much better understanding of the concept if they came up with it on their own. Students were each given a Frieze pattern and were asked to determine the symmetry elements that it had and the Frieze group it belonged to. I walked around the room to see or ask students if they had completed that task, then I told them to get into groups with the other students that had the same pattern as they did, resulting in groups of 3 students. They then had to tape the ends of their pattern together to make a 3D shape and figure out the new symmetry elements and point group of that object. As they were working on this I circled around the room to see if students had any questions, to monitor what stage of the activity they were at, and to ensure they were still on task. One problem that arose is that some of the patterns were simpler than others, so those groups completed the activity much more quickly and were getting off task. I got the students in the groups that finished their objects to join other groups that were still working so that they could work on another object and see how other symmetry elements transform from 2D to 3D. Their last task was to come up with a list of each of the symmetry element in their Frieze group and what symmetry element it was transformed into in 3 dimensions. We then went over these as a class to generate a complete list of all 2D to 3D symmetry element transformations, which ended up being the same one that is normally given to students on the PowerPoint slides.

At the end of class I asked students to fill out a brief feedback form. The three questions I asked were:

  1. What helped you learn?
  2. What would you change?
  3. Any other comments?

I wanted to keep the form brief because I feel that lengthy feedback forms often overwhelm students and the quality of the feedback suffers because of it. When I looked over my feedback following the lesson I was really impressed at how detailed some of the responses were. I was not surprised to see that the main thing students would change was to add more examples of how to find the Frieze group of a pattern. They also said that I can be shy when answering student questions and that I should be more confident with the answer I give, which is something I’ve never been told before and will definitely try to keep in mind the next time I’m interacting with students!

After the lesson I met with my mentor to discuss how it went. I thought the thing I did best in the lesson was to include lots of elements that could engage students in the lesson so that they didn’t get bored. I felt that the lesson went well and that the activity was successful, especially since it was the first time running it. My mentor gave me some suggestions of things we could add on to the activity so that students would get to work with more of the patterns. This would address the feedback they gave that they wanted to work with more patterns. Even though some problems arose during the lesson, I felt that it went well and that I handled the problems so that they didn’t throw the lesson off course. The main thing I would change is that I didn’t end up going over an example of how to determine the Frieze group of a pattern. I had planned to but I realized when I got to that place in the lesson that the example that I had put in the slides was the same pattern that I was going to give one group for the activity, so completing the pattern as a group would have given away the answer. In hindsight I could have pulled up a PDF file with more patterns on my computer during the lesson so that we could have completed one as a class as an example. Below are the results of my COPUS evaluation:



Observation – First-year Seminar in Science

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.