I wrote a few years ago about our overhaul of Intro Bio at Michigan. We substantially reduced the amount of content we cover in the course (though I suspect current students would be surprised to realize that – it still feels like more than enough). We also added in more in class activities (clicker questions as well as other things such as in class short answer problems and exercises aimed at increasing students’ comfort levels with figures). And, most notably for this post, we added in frequent quizzing. Students are expected to take a quiz before every class, with more basic questions related to the readings for that day, as well as higher order questions related to previous classes. Writing the questions for the quizzes the first semester was overwhelming, but my hope was that, in future semesters, it would be much less work. While it’s been less work, it’s still quite a stressful part of the course for me. After teaching the course multiple times after the semester where we overhauled things, I still feel like I am crawling across the finish line at the end of the semester – and that’s with teaching only half the semester! When I teach Intro Bio the next time, I will teach the whole semester, and I am pretty concerned about what state I will be in by the end of the semester if I teach the course the same way we have in recent years. The current course does not feel sustainable.
In talking with others who use similar approaches, I know I’m not alone in this feeling. Teaching this way takes up a huge amount of time, and we still have our other responsibilities (mentoring students, keeping our research programs going, department service, editorial responsibilities, etc.) Lately, I’ve been in multiple conversations with others where we wondered: what do we do if we’ve made a course demonstrably better for student learning but, at the same time, not sustainable for the faculty teaching it?
To be honest, I’ve actually been a little surprised to realize how many other people feel this way. I assumed that a lot of my problem is my personality. I think that, if I could be less perfectionist, the quizzes would be much less stressful. I’m pretty sure it’s the quizzes that push the course over the edge of sustainability for me. Some of it is that there’s all the assembling of quizzes that we need to do (unfortunately, it never seems to work to just reuse an old quiz, since changes in semester schedules and course content mean there’s always shuffling of materials). On top of that, there’s a non-trivial amount of modification to individual questions that needs to happen – even relatively minor changes to course content lead to needing to read all of the answers on old questions very carefully, modifying ones that will now be confusing to students. As one example: this past year, I cut the phosphorus cycle from class to make space for other material. (Sorry, phosphorus lovers.) That meant that any questions that mentioned phosphorus or weathering or any of the other things that had been in that brief part of the course had to be changed (even if it had just been a wrong answer choice for a question on the nitrogen cycle, for example). This doesn’t sound like a lot, but, with even minor changes to a lecture (e.g., using an updated example in the microbiome lecture) and with two quizzes per week, there are a lot of changes that need to be made. On top of that, we continue to run into technological glitches. This past year, our quizzing platform kept deleting images from questions for reasons that we were never able to understand. (The images would all be there when we checked the quiz before it went live, but then would disappear at some point after that. I would learn this by getting an email from a student who was understandably confused by the question.) And, inexplicably, questions that we’ve used multiple semesters in a row would sometimes end up with the wrong answer keyed on the quiz. The most reasonably hypothesis we could come up with was that gnomes were messing with the quizzes after we assembled them.
Quizzes are live almost all week, to give students as much time as we can to complete the quiz, recognizing that they have lots of things going on in their lives. But this means that I spend most of the week cringing whenever I get an email from a student about a quiz. Usually, when they think there’s a problem, it turns out it’s due to them misunderstanding the material. (Discovering those sources of confusion well before an exam is part of why frequent quizzing is good for student learning!) But sometimes it’s due to a problem with a question, and then we have to go back through and figure out who has already taken a quiz with that question (the questions are drawn at random from a larger bank of questions). Fortunately, our really amazing textbook rep does this for us – I really don’t know how I would find the time to do this! – though it also adds to some of the stress I feel about messing up quizzes. I feel not only like I’ve let down students (again, I realize a lot of that is my perfectionism at work), but also like I’ve created more work for the textbook rep, who already has plenty on her plate.
I feel like I’ve boxed myself into a corner with teaching, feeling like the course is demonstrably better for students, but clearly harder for me personally. As I said, I felt like I was maybe weird in feeling so stressed about the quizzes, but it’s clear that I’m not alone in the general feeling of being boxed into a corner, even if the specific causes for other people differ. At a fundamental level, a lot of it comes down to this style of course requiring much more time than simply showing up and lecturing. One person I spoke with about this noted that it leaves them feeling like a chump: they look at their colleagues who are showing up and doing the sage on the stage model of teaching, investing little effort and therefore having more time for research and everything else. I certainly have thought about how I got the same credit for teaching this course back when all I did was show up and lecture at the students, then go back to my office and focus on other stuff.
I feel fortunate to be at a university that supports faculty doing innovative, interesting things in the classroom – as one example of that, we got extra teaching credit for the course in the semester we overhauled it. But it’s still a research university and, for tenure track and tenured faculty, the primary emphasis is still on research.
You could argue that we should continue to teach these courses in this more intensive way because it’s the right thing to do, and I partially think that. I care a lot about student learning and would have a really hard time choosing to do something that I thought would harm student learning. But, at the same time, by choosing to keep this very intensive model, I am choosing to harm myself. My mental health is generally not in a good place by the end of the semester when I teach Intro Bio. As I said above, that’s when I’ve taught only half the semester! The next time I teach, it will be for the full semester, and I’m worried about the hit my personal health will take during that semester. Is it reasonable for me to continue doing that to myself and my family?
Recently, I discussed all this with a friend at another university. She told me that, motivated in part by my earlier posts on our changes to our course, she considered adding in frequent quizzing to her class. But, when she met with her university’s teaching consultants, they advised against it. That really surprised me — I’d been worried that I’d have to turn in my “Cares about Teaching” badge for even considering getting rid of the quizzes. (Note: as far as I know, those badges don’t actually exist.) The teaching consultant my friend spoke with felt like it was a whole ton of effort for the faculty member, but only a small portion of the grade. In their opinion, it wasn’t worth the investment. It’s true that the quizzes are not a major portion of the final grade in our course, but I think they are valuable for student learning. Part of that is because they more-or-less force students to stay on top of the material, and part is because they get more practice. The latter goal could be accomplished in other ways, though: we could still offer large banks of practice questions for students, and we could make those available weekly. As for forcing students to stay on top of the material: yes, there is value in that, but I wonder if I could change something about the way I do clicker questions in class to accomplish roughly the same goal. And I think it’s also worth considering that, if I find the relentless nature of the quizzes overwhelming, it’s possible that some students do, too. And, finally, another friend noted that having a really stressed out instructor isn’t great for the student learning experience either, which should be factored in.
I think a key question for me is: how do I balance doing what is good for students with being sustainable? I care a lot about teaching, and really don’t want to be someone who phones it in. But there’s also a risk of going to the opposite side of the spectrum and devoting so much time and energy to teaching that it’s not good for my health. I’m much closer to that side of the spectrum than the phoning-it-in side.
In short: there will always be trade-offs (I love these in my research, not in my life!) and I’m starting to question whether the costs of frequent quizzing outweigh the benefits. When I first wrote this post I was truly unsure and looking for ideas and suggestions. But, over the past couple of weeks while it’s been sitting in the queue, I’ve come more and more to think that I really should try running the course without quizzes the next time I teach and see how that goes both for me and for the students.
I’m curious to hear about what other people think and about their experiences. Some things I’m wondering about include: Have you found yourself in a similar situation, where you feel like you improved student learning at a substantial personal cost? If yes, what was it that made it feel that way? Did you make a change in response to that? And how do you make decisions about how to balance student learning vs. all the other things you need and want to do (including maintaining your personal health and work-life balance)?
I’d also be really interested in hearing from others who’ve switched to intensive quizzing about whether you found it stressful, whether you think it helped student learning, whether you plan on sticking with the frequent quizzing model, and whether you think there are things that make it more sustainable.