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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Results of poll on preferred number of times to teach a course

Last winter, I did a poll asking about preferences related to the number of times people prefer to teach a particular course. Embarrassingly, I never got around to writing up the results post, even though I think the results were interesting! So, in the spirit of better-late-than-never, here are the results!

tl;dr: Most people prefer to teach the same course over and over and over again. Those preferences don’t seem to change much over a career, but, if they do, they are more likely to move in the direction of preferring to teach a particular course fewer times. Faculty in teaching-intensive positions reported having less control over what they teach and were less likely to say they are happy with their teaching assignments in the past three years (as compared to faculty not in teaching intensive positions); a key driver of that is department teaching needs.

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What if we make a class better for student learning but unsustainable for faculty?

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?

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Poll: What’s your preferred number of times to teach a particular course?

I recently had a conversation with someone who said he thinks the second year of a course is the best year and that, after three years, he wants to move on. But I’ve also had conversations with others who would be happy to teach the same course for eternity. And I know still others who initially wanted to teach the same course over and over and over, but who now prefer to switch more often.

Part of why I’ve been having these conversations is I’ve been thinking lately about how long I want to teach Introductory Biology, even though I’m not sure how much of an option I have in terms of how long I will teach it for – I don’t think I’d be forced to if I said I absolutely didn’t want to do it, but there is definitely pressure to stay in it. But, for reasons I’ll explain more below, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how many times is the “right” number of times to teach a course and whether that number changes over the course of one’s career.

So, let’s start out with a poll. And, to be clear: I recognize that there are often things that take us away from what we’d prefer, and that, for some, some of these questions might feel like imagining what you’d do with an extra million dollars. (Yes, I sometimes wonder about that, too.)

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How to support undergraduate students experiencing mental health concerns

(Trigger warning: mental health, self-harm, and suicide discussed below)

I recently attended a really great workshop on interacting with students who are experiencing mental health issues. The workshop was run by Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT), which is a fantastic resource. One thing that makes it especially good is that it has the CRLT Players – a theatre program that “uses a diverse array of performance arts to spark dialogue”. Often, they act out a scenario and then pause, allowing the audience members time to reflect and discuss different aspects of the situation in small groups. It’s amazingly effective! They are really good at creating scenarios where there’s no clear “best” option, which leads to really rich discussions.

In this case, the focus of this workshop (run by Sara Armstrong) was student mental health, and the players acted out a scenario where a student approaches her professor to ask for an extension on an end-of-semester assignment. The student discloses that she’s been having a rough time and having a hard time getting her work done. I suspect I’ve spent more time than the average faculty member thinking about how to support students with mental health conditions, but I still learned a lot from the workshop. The workshop also included a great handout with principles to guide interactions with students with mental health concerns. I’ve been thinking a lot about what was covered since the workshop and there’s been a lot of interest in the past when I’ve posted about supporting students with mental health conditions, hence this post.

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