What factors influence whether “Professors on Parade” courses are useful?

Last week, I did a poll asking about readers’ experiences with courses where faculty (and/or grad students and/or folks outside academia) meet with students in a format that is often called “professors on parade” (because lots of faculty rotate through the course during the semester). I was curious to know whether people find these courses useful, and whether they like certain styles of them more than others.

tl;dr: Most people seem to find these courses useful, but a substantial minority do not. People seem to find these courses especially useful if they include presenters who come from outside academia, discussion of classic or important papers, and/or discussion of papers by department faculty. They seem to find them less useful if they include basic research skills (such as how to extract DNA), though that comes with the caveat that only 5 respondents were involved in that sort of course. (There were 100 respondents total, though 2 didn’t answer the last question about whether they found the course useful.)

More results below the break.

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My proposed twist on a “Professors on Parade”-style course: scicomm training for students and faculty

As I wrote yesterday, my department has been thinking about creating a course for first year grad students that would have as a key goal introducing them to a variety of faculty in the department (as well as having them get to know each other better), and that might have as a secondary goal training them in skills that will be useful for careers in science. In this post, I will lay out my proposed twist on the course. Right now, I’m not that optimistic that it would actually work, but I’m hoping readers might have suggestions for ways to tweak it to make it work!

My idea is to create a course focused on training faculty and students in how to communicate their science to broad audiences. The general plan would be to start out with training students and faculty in science communication, and then would have faculty practice their talks by giving them to the grad students who would critique them, giving feedback that the faculty could use to improve their talks aimed at general audiences. This would meet the goals of introducing new students to faculty and the research they do (though would be focused at a different level than if they were giving general research presentations), and would also provide training and practice in science communication (thus meeting our students’ desire to get more skills training, while also hopefully benefitting faculty).

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Poll: Have you been involved in a “professors on parade” course? Was it useful?

Recently, my department has been discussing whether to (re)create a course for first year grad students that would be a “professors on parade” sort of course – that is, a course where a different faculty member leads the course each week. This proposal is in response to new grad students saying they’d like more opportunities to get to know faculty early in their grad careers. Depending on the format of the course, it could also help with another request from students: more training in basic academic skills (e.g., how to give a talk, how to make a poster, etc.)

One thing this discussion has left me wondering is how other departments do this, and how well it works in those departments.* So, today, I’m doing a survey related to how this works other places. I will follow up tomorrow with a post for my idea for a different twist on this sort of course – which I think is exciting but also perhaps doomed to fail. (edit: here’s the link to the follow up post)

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What are the key ecology concepts all Intro Bio students should learn?

When I started at Georgia Tech, the “large” (80-90 student) course I was involved in was General Ecology. My first year there, I co-taught the course with my colleague Lin Jiang. I did what is probably fairly typical: I asked him for the materials he used when he last taught the course and then modified those. So, it was pretty eye-opening to me when, after that first semester, we (“we” being the people involved in teaching General Ecology and related courses) decided that we should try to assess what our students were learning. We couldn’t find a good ecology concept assessment*, so we decided to try to create our own. That involved deciding what the key concepts were that we wanted all students who had completed ecology to know. Coming up with that list was incredibly useful and changed the way I taught the next time.

I’ve been thinking about this again as I spend more time thinking about how to teach ecology to introductory biology students here at Michigan. I’ve thought about this before – we recently overhauled the course, and that involved a lot of thought about what to teach. But I feel like I want to think more about the core concepts again. I want to revisit the core ecology concepts that my GaTech colleagues and I came up with for a sophomore-level (that is, 2nd year) ecology course and figure out how to modify those for a freshman-level (that is, 1st year) course. With this post, I’m hoping to think more carefully about what the core concepts are, and to get feedback from others about the list I came up with.

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Imperfect analogies: shortcuts to active learning

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from my friend Greg Crowther. Who among other things has been a biochemist, and an instructor in various biology courses including ecology. He’s an unusually thoughtful and creative teacher, for instance using songs to teach anatomy and physiology. Oh, and he has three papers in Annals of Improbable Research (e.g.), which is like the science humor equivalent of having three Nature papers. Thanks to Greg for writing us a guest post on a handy teaching tip. 

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Most people who think hard about how to teach well accept that students should engage in “active learning,” which has been defined (by Freeman et al. 2014) as follows: “Active learning engages students in the process of learning through activities and/or discussion in class, as opposed to passively listening to an expert. It emphasizes higher-order thinking and often involves group work.”

Sounds good, right?  In general, it is good.  I enjoy challenging students with hard problems and helping them find their way toward an answer, and they are usually glad to be moving and talking, especially if the problems resemble ones they’ll encounter on tests.

Active learning is relatively easy to include in teaching about a specific research study.  For example, after providing some appropriate context, one can simply work through the figures by asking students how and why the data in each figure were collected and what they mean (Round & Campbell 2013).

When teaching basic conceptual material, though, I slip into straight-up lecture mode more often than I’d like.  It can be very time-consuming to add nontrivial interactivity to coverage of this material.

However, I do have one fall-back strategy for quickly turning a traditional lecture slide into a mini-discussion.  I call this approach the “Dissection of the Imperfect Analogy.”  Here’s how it works.

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Taking a writing-intensive evolution course was transformative for me

Was there one course that had a profound effect on your career path? For me, there were a few courses that were important and influenced my path to ecology. But, without a doubt, the most important one was the Intro Evolution course I took as a second-year undergrad. I took it through Cornell’s Writing in the Majors program, which is “based on the premise that language and learning are vitally connected in every field”. I know others who had similarly transformative experiences in Cornell’s Writing in the Majors class in evolution (and, to a lesser extent, in the WITM version of ecology), and have wondered what it was about that course that was so special. More importantly, I wonder what I can do now as an instructor that might lead to a similarly transformative experience for some of my students.

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Flipping our big intro biostats class didn’t work (for me) (yet) (UPDATED)

A couple of months ago, I told you why and how we flipped the big intro biostats course here at Calgary, and that it led to a big improvement in student performance the first time my ace colleague Kyla Flanagan taught it back in the fall. And I said that so far, it seemed to be working well for me this term.

I spoke too soon.

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How much do scientists lecture, and why? Poll results and commentary

Thanks so much to everyone who completed my little poll on how much science faculty lecture, and why. I conducted the poll because of my admittedly-anecdotal sense that much of the vigorous online debate about how to teach–in particular, whether to lecture–is a bit disconnected from the practical decision-making of many faculty. The online discussions I’ve seen tend to focus narrowly on what pedagogical research says, with the implicit assumption that pedagogical research is or should be the most important determinant of how people teach, and that the main reason people still lecture is because they’re ignorant of pedagogical research. In practice, there are many considerations that go into how to teach, and their relative importance seems likely to be sensitive to individual circumstances. For instance because most faculty have other duties besides teaching.

Here are the full poll results. Below the fold is a summary of the main results, and some comments. The bit I found most interesting is that people who mostly lecture and people who mostly don’t are making their pedagogical decisions for very different reasons…

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Poll: how much do you lecture, and why? (UPDATED)

After spending over a decade doing little but lecturing, this term I’ve been teaching a big intro biostats course as a flipped class. My anecdotal impression is that this makes me somewhat unusual, at least among profs at research universities. I think most science faculty mostly lecture–heck, I still do in my other classes! But do science faculty mostly lecture? And if so, why is that, given that pedagogical research says that lecturing is less effective on average than other teaching methods?

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