Why teaching Intro Bio makes me think we need to radically change qualifying exams

When I first arrived at Michigan and began teaching Intro Bio, the course had four exams. In that first semester, I added in clicker questions. Since then, we have added in frequent quizzing, so the students now have four exams, plus two quizzes a week (completed before coming to class), plus clicker questions in class. We have all of that because we know that frequent testing improves student learning. (Here’s one review, here’s another, and here’s a summary of the changes we made in Intro Bio and their impacts on student performance.) As a side bonus, when the testing is low stakes (as with the quizzes and clicker questions), students get those learning benefits without paying a cost in terms of increased anxiety. Given all that, I would never consider changing the format to one where we have just a single, pass/fail, high stakes assessment at the end of the semester.

Now, let’s consider graduate prelim/qualifying exams.

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Cohort-based mentoring for graduate students: a “bright spot” worth emulating?

I recently learned about an approach to mentoring that I think has a lot of potential. My initial conversations with others suggests they think it has promise, too. The goal of this post is both to share the idea and to (hopefully!) hear from people with experience with this approach.

Here’s the general idea: some larger graduate programs at Michigan use an approach where each cohort is assigned a mentor. So, there is one mentor for all of the first year students, a different one for all of the second year students, etc. That person is an additional resource for those students – someone who they can turn to for advice. They also host regular events (I think maybe ~monthly) for the cohort, which helps them develop skills, explore different topics, and crucially, helps build community.*

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Making office hours more accessible: should we be calling them student hours and recording them? What else can we do?

Recently, I’ve been involved in a few discussions related to office hours and how to make them more accessible. There are many instructors, myself included, who would love to have more students come to office hours—I think lots of students would benefit from coming, but most don’t come (and that’s even though we have a relatively good turnout at office hours for a class our size). There are many, complex reasons why students do not come to office hours, but probably some key things are:

  • Not realizing what (or who!) they are for
  • Not feeling safe showing up to them (e.g., out of fear of looking bad in front of the instructor)
  • Not being able to make it to them (e.g., because of work or childcare)

The solution to the first one seemed so obvious once I saw this tweet:

https://twitter.com/amy_nusbaum/status/1100440431500775424

From the twitter reactions, I know I am not alone in wondering how this never occurred to me—it’s a great idea! It, along with having some more information in the syllabus about what student hours are for, starts to address the second point, too. But that point and the following one can’t be fully addressed by a name change. When I was emailing about this with a colleague, she jokingly replied that maybe we should call them “FREE ADDITIONAL INSTRUCTION THAT SOMEONE ALREADY PAID FOR WHY DON’T YOU COME???”, then immediately added: “Just kidding – I never went either. I always had to work and was too shy to ask someone to adjust around my work schedule.”

So, I was really intrigued to learn recently that a colleague of mine at Michigan, John Montgomery, records his office hours (which he calls “Open Discussion”). Michigan has a lecture capture system set up in classrooms. I use this for my lectures, which are all recorded and made available to students via the course website. Recording my lectures helps students review material, plus makes it easier for students who need to miss lecture (e.g., because they are sick) to catch up. It had never occurred to me to recording office hours/student hours, but, imilar to the “student hours” solution, it seems obvious in retrospect.

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On listening and responding to students: A small shift I made to be more encouraging to students who ask questions

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had a piece that focused on “How to Listen”. When I saw the title, I immediately clicked on it because I’ve been thinking a lot about mentoring and how to help people build skills that will allow for better mentoring relationships. Communication skills are clearly important for mentoring, and obviously communication is only effective if someone is listening. But while I clicked on it in that context, what ended up striking me the most was how it relates to a teaching challenge I had faced.

Near the beginning of the piece, the author, David D. Perlmutter, says,

Don’t just listen — show you’re listening. Many people have habits that betray us when we are not paying attention: wandering eyes, fidgeting, tapping fingers, and, everyone’s favorite, cutting off the speaker in midsentence. In administration, almost as important as listening is that people perceive you to be.

Here lies the rub for academic administrators: Most of the concerns brought to us are remarkably limited in variety. Often the answer or solution is evident long before someone has finished explaining the problem. Nevertheless, good listening involves steeling yourself to silence.

Sometimes what we learn from a conversation or a public forum is less a set of facts and figures than a confirmation of emotions and feelings. If you jump in too quickly, you risk coming off as brusque, inattentive, and, yes, a poor listener — even if you deliver the wisdom of Solomon.

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Engaging students by increasing curiosity: have I actually been making students *less* engaged with some of my in class activities?

As I wrote about last week, I recently attended a seminar given by José Vazquez from the University of Illinois. He gave a talk in the Inclusive Teaching seminar series that has been hosted by the Foundational Course Initiative at Michigan. Clearly it got me thinking, since it’s a few weeks later and I’ve written multiple blog posts about it! The first was on how students mostly aren’t reading the textbook, and the ones who are might actually end up less prepared as a result. In this one, I want to focus on what was the main theme of Vazquez’s talk: that one of the most important things an instructor does is to motivate our students, and a key way to do that is by making them curious. The main method he talked about to achieve this was to ask questions that focused their attention on a gap in their knowledge or understanding, being careful not to open a gap that is too big.

Early in the seminar, he started by showing us a video of what is apparently a common demonstration used in physics:

still from a video showing someone putting two small metal balls each on two tracks, one of which is flat except at the very beginning, and the other of which is wavy

Source of video

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Are our students reading the textbook? And, if they are, is it helping them?

I recently went to a really interesting seminar hosted by Michigan’s Foundational Course Initiative. The seminar was given by José Vazquez from the University of Illinois. He raised a couple of issues that I’ve been reflecting on since the seminar, and that I thought would be worth blogging about. The first is: students are not reading the textbook, even when you try to force them to, and, if they are, it might actually make them less prepared. The second, which I’ll explain more in a future post is: one of our main roles as instructors is to motivate our students, and curiosity is a really important motivator; we can motivate our students by focusing their attention on a gap in their knowledge or understanding (as long as that gap isn’t too big).

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Should we aim to leave students feeling empowered to tackle climate change? Should we try to give them hope? And, if so, how?

As I’ve blogged about a few times recently, I have been working with a couple of collaborators, Susan Cheng and JW Hammond, on a project aimed at understanding student views on climate change. As part of this, I’ve been thinking about what we teach and how we teach it, and also about a common challenge faced by instructors who teach about climate change: how do we convey the severity of climate change without leaving students feeling depressed and hopeless?

As I was working on the manuscript describing the first set of our results, I typed a sentence to that effect, and then just sat and stared at the computer for a bit, wondering “Is it my responsibility as a biology instructor to leave students empowered and with a sense of purpose?”

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Comparison of ways of visualizing individual-level Likert data: line plots and heat maps and mosaic plots, oh my!

Last week, I wrote a post where I talked about how my training in evolutionary ecology led me to try reaction norms (that is, paired line plots) for plotting paired Likert data. I had already tried a few other options, but didn’t include them in that post, and I got some feedback on that post that gave me more ideas. There was also a request for code on how to actually generate those plots. So, this post shows four different ways of visualizing individual-level responses to paired Likert-scale questions (paired line plots, dot plots, mosaic plots, and heat maps). It does that for two different comparisons, leading me to the conclusion that the type of plot that works best will depend on your data. I’d love to hear which ones you think work best — there are polls where you can vote for your favorite! And, if you’re working on similar data and want to see code, there’s an associated Github repo, but it comes with the disclaimer that my code is good enough, but definitely not elegant.

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Stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment: do students think others are judging them more than they actually are?

Last year, I supervised Honors Thesis research by Morgan Rondinelli related to mental health in two introductory science courses at Michigan (Bio 171 and Physics 140). Morgan’s survey included two common screeners, one focused on symptoms of depression (the PHQ-8*) and one focused on anxiety symptoms (the GAD-7). The survey also asked about previous diagnoses, stress mindset, resource usage and knowledge, barriers to seeking help, and demographic information. Here, I will briefly summarize some of our findings, but I will especially focus in on the area that seemed the most novel: student views on stigma associated with seeking mental health care.

The tl;dr answer to the question in the post title is: it seems possible.

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My strategies for mentoring undergraduate researchers

At this year’s ESA meeting, I was part of an Inspire session organized by Nate Emery on “Students As Ecologists: Collaborating with Undergraduates from Scientific Question to Publication”. It occurred to me that my talk would be good fodder for a blog post. So, here are (some of) my thoughts on some specific strategies for working with undergraduates in the lab. This post includes information both on types of projects that we’ve had undergraduates work on, as well as things that I think are important related to working with undergraduates in the lab.

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