Saturday, December 3, 2011

What Students Really Think

It's thick into that end-of-semester season, and I am snowed under a pile of papers to grade.  One of the things some instructors dread about grading, including this one, is seeing your hopes for the students dashed when they fail to follow what seem to you to be very clear expectations.  There is often a disconnect between students and faculty.  In hopes of buoying myself amid this possible sea of disappointment, I am taking the opportunity to look at the humor, the failure and the successes of this project as a way to help to close that chasm of disconnect.

THE PROJECT:  One of my standard assignments to my Introduction to Biology and Plants,People&Environment courses, both for non-majors, is a poster project focused on the question:  What should (Our College) Students know about (Biology or Plants)?  They select a topic, devise a question on this topic to guide research, and in the case of my plants class, also conduct an excursion or exploration on the topic (kind of like a self-selected field trip).  They are permitted to choose their own groups of 3-5 students.  At the conclusion of the project, they present their posters in gallery style to mimic a Poster Session at a Scientific Meeting.  We all mill about, evaluating posters.  Groups are assigned evaluation times when I appear in front of the poster and the group must talk me through their work.  They also submit a brief (2-3pages) individual paper which is to summarize all of the research conducted for their project.  

EVALUATION:  I score the papers and posters against rubrics that have been provided to the students.  Students also peer-evaluate the projects, self-evaluate their own project, and peer-evaluate their group members on collaboration.  I combine peer, self and teacher(x2) scores for the poster project, and my score stands alone for the paper.  Teammate peer evaluation is averaged.

VALUABLE CONTENT:  Many students indicated that they benefited from the project and were able to apply knowledge that they learned in the course completing it.  They mentioned a better connection to the environment, their food or their medicine as a result of their research.  

HUMOROUS CONTENT:  Conventional wisdom says we should use stone, steel and glass in architecture, but, surprise!, its also possible to use plants. Plants are becoming more and more important in our everyday lives.  Vegetable shortening, milk powder and vanilla flavoring can be used to create a high-quality organic product that’s eatable.  Cacao trees, from which chocolate comes from, apparently were once inhabited throughout Central America (clearly, the chocolate group needs to talk to the architecture group; this is some critical lost historical knowledge).  Calamine lotion is a plant-based substance.
1)    They would benefit from submitting a very clear project proposal that includes the question they are trying to answer, two options for excursions to support their research and a time line of when the work will be conducted.  They also need to include what pages in their text cover this topic, since its clear few of them referenced this beneficial source.
2)    They would benefit from seeing what a paper looks like that contains a clear introduction with a focusing question, then supporting information with proper citations.  Since I don’t have any examples from those submitted, I may have to write my own.
3)    All formatting details need to be clearly defined and gone over carefully in class.
4)    Same with how to cite and when to quote.  They aren’t transferring what they have learned in English to my class, and I can’t assume they “learned” it, anyway.
5)  For evidence of the excursion, I need to be explicit that photographs need to be taken such that I know that they not only visited the location, but that also document their visit in a concrete way.  I get lots of images of doors, group shots with unidentified backgrounds with the "photographer" missing, closeups of the same persons hands holding an object...  With the availability of smart phones with cameras (which they all seem to want to play with during class), there really isn't too much of an excuse for not getting images.
6)    I’m not teaching a classroom full of “me” that can do what I could do at 18.  I knew this, but a reminder is always helpful.
7)    Examination of the relationship between poster score and average paper scores by group I note no correlation.  I suspect, and the content of papers supports, that in some groups the focus was on the poster and the papers were written secondarily, and in other cases, the papers were written first and the poster was an afterthought.  In some cases it appeared that one person did the bulk of the research, or synthesized all the group contributions, while others focused only on one subset of information.  Most papers did not show a synthesis of the ideas of the entire work (with the exception of the two best posters).  I will ask individuals Monday in class to individually submit a timeline of how they worked on this project, while also evaluating the contributions of teammates on the project itself. 

WHAT DO YOU THINK?  Other ideas are happily solicited.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Thinking about Roses in Concrete

On Oct 6-8, I attended a conference called "Strengthening Student Success: Assessment, Dialog and Change", hosted by the RP Group, which is the research and planning arm of the California Community College Chancellor's office.  This post is one in a small series of reflections from that conference.

Our keynote address the second morning was by Jeff Duncan-Andrade, an Oakland teacher and a instructor with the SFState Educational Leadership program.   You can view a version of his talk here:
Hope Required when Growing Roses in Concrete

Some salient moments from his talk:
1) Children exposed to racism, community- or home-violence, poverty and other factors are more likely to receive PTSD effects from these experiences because they are _less_ resilient than adults, but they are less likely to demonstrate these effects outwardly.  The fact that they hide it better creates an illusion of childhood resiliency.
2) Children who have experienced PTSD (post-traumatic, or perpetual traumic stress syndrome) are more likely to be misdiagnosed as ADD/ADHD, which means they may end up in educational and medical situations that exaccerbate, rather than heal, their injuries.
3) Chronically high cortisol levels (due to stress) are associated with Type II Diabetes, Hypertension, Heart Disease and Cancer
4) Black males in the United States are the _only_ group experiencing a general decline in life expectancy; racism is making us literally sick, leading to a disproportionate 83K extra deaths of black Americans than would be predicted by genetics or random factors alone.
5) Hope is the factor which can heal these painful wounds:  material hope, Socratic hope and audacious hope.
6) Teacher, do you do what you are asking your students to do?  Are we reflective enough to be on the painful path with our students?  Stare down the painful path and despite the cost, make the journey again and again.

MyThoughts and Reactions:
I was a K12 educator for 8 years before beginning my journey with community colleges.  In the high schools, when students were struggling, I had, and used, a large set of intervention techniques: calling parents, checking cumulative files, contacting the students' other instructors for insight, conferring with counselors, special education, ESL or school psychologists, asking to check attendance records and pulling the student aside to ask them what is going on.  One of my frustrations at the community college level is that all but the last of that list is appropriate.  There are privacy rules that make most of the other methods impossible, so often, I don't pursue when students are struggling.  I'd come to accept that they are adults now, and they need to own it and self advocate.

The problem is, many of them can't, for many of the reasons Duncan-Andrade mentioned in his talk.  They have spent, and perhaps still are spending, such energy on meeting basic needs that they aren't equipped to demonstrate the skills of a successful student.

Duncan-Andrade's talk reconnected me with some of my passion and roots within teaching:  I'm not just here to guide and to teach and to inspire, but I'm here to help and to love and to help them heal.  While I may not have the same kind of on-campus support system to draw upon, I can begin creating a database of resources to which I can refer students.  I can educate myself about the social services that exist that offer adults low-cost medical care, housing assistance, food, job placement and counseling options on campus, and in the community, so that I know where to send them.  If my school is partnered with an outside agency like the United Way (SparkPoint Center), I can familiarize myself with that as well.

His talk was also timely.  I was recently puzzling over how I can teach the same material in the same manner to two separate populations of students and receive such disparate non-solicited reviews.  One group things I'm top-notch, the other thinks I'm average.  After Duncan-Andrade's talk, answer is clear; the students who find me average need either different instruction, or greater assistance in other arenas so that they can become self-directed learners.  Now I just need to figure out how to offer them that.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Reflecting on Standards

There is a push towards the use of standards throughout the educational framework. At the community college level in California, we are calling this Student Learning Objectives, and may be based on campus wide goals (such as Effective Communication) or on more course-specific objectives. I personally see a need for more vertical communication and alignment around many of these standards. What competency on standards for math, language, and science should I expect my beginning students to have? Drawing from NCLB alone, I don’t come up with very clear, distinct answers.

The new bottom-up movement called the Common Core State Standards Initiative may offer a new approach. Rather than being directed from the federal level, like NCLB, these “national standards” are developed by state leaders, and individual states can adopt them and their accountability measures. My preliminary research suggests that California is “in”. I agree with Kepner (2010) that if this effort is to be effective, there is much that needs to happen before we are ready for national standards. There are a wealth of diversity and preparation issues prevalent across the United States, and I feel that it may first be critical to bring the lowest performing third of the states up closer to the mean of performance. This will require reform across the grade-levels and curriculum, teacher professional development and carefully designed accountability measures.

Like Kepner (2010), I am likewise wary of the possibility that national standards will lead to a lock-step approach. I feel that the best way to avoid this is perhaps by condensing content specific standards, and perhaps group standards around essential questions in a backward-planning approach. (Wiggins and McTighe, 2001) This should still allow some of the teaching freedom teachers typically thrive with.

Personally, I found the Key NCTM Process Standards to be worthy of posting NOW in my college classrooms. Many of my general education students struggle with these skills:
-Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them
-Reason abstractly and quantitatively
-Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others
-Model with mathematics
-Use appropriate tools strategically
-Attend to precision
-Look for and make use of structure
-Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning

Kepner, Henry S. 2010. Educated Opinions: A Math Perspective on the Common Core Standards Initiative. NSTA Reports Vol 21 No 9 (May 2010)

Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. 2001. Understanding by Design. Prentice Hall.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Teaching with Course Management Systems

At each of the last three institutions where I have worked, we have had access to some form of course management system for on-line teaching and improved instructor-student and student-student communication. I must say, I have become a huge fan. I strongly encourage all of my teaching colleagues who haven't yet explored it to check it out!

Here's some of what I love the best:
1) Having an electronic submission option for student work, be that work submitted as a .doc file or just filling in a text box. The CMS time-stamps the submission so there is no disagreement on when it came in. No more "I slipped it under your door!" The best CMS applications allow me to view the submission, make comments, and select a grade, all at the same time. These grades are then available to the students immediately.

2) Open forums where students can post questions about course material to one another and have discussions. Some students have even used this as a way to form on-line study groups. I've used the forums to encourage studying by asking students to post review questions (multiple choice) that they have written, which may then appear on a test or quiz. This also helps me gauge their understanding of course material in yet another way.

3) Scanning work for originality and completion. One CMS I've used had the ability to compare student work submissions to other sources available on-line and not only told me how much of hte paper came from other sources, but highlighted it. You can use this as a teaching tool to help students become stronger and more ethical writers. Down with plagiarism!

4) Ability to organize and post assignments and resources for students. The best CMS applications allow you to organize these easily by date, and then provide buttons you can click to see just one category of posting.

5) Activity logs. It's a little 1984, maybe, but I like being able to see which students have checked upcoming assignments and when they last logged in. I can use this tool as an intervention to pinpoint students who aren't logging in, or, in some cases, to watch for obsessive use and then give the appropriate nudge to stop playing and start working or vice versa.

6) Email and news/announcement capabilities. It's nice to let all the students know of a new change I've made, or address a common question at once. One class I have meets once a week, so half-way through our meeting cycle I can drop a reminding hello. Some of the CMS also will keep and gather responses onto that website in case I feel my inbox is getting too jammed. In a high school CMS, email addresses were never displayed, and complete records of all emails sent or received were maintained by the system. The intention was to create a safe environment for student social networking.

7) Ability to personalize the CMS. Posting pictures and letting students submit files and links increases student ownership of the learning experience.

8) Group management with special pages for clubs or groups. The best of these allow members to sign themselves up, or allow for a leader to immediately subscribe members in a secure fashion.

9) Automatic enrollment and dropping. When linked to your school's admissions & records systems, many CMS have the ability to update your enrollment for you. No having to add students to the course or drop them. In a high school setting, this allowed for easy transfer of scores when students moved from one section of a class to another due to some administrative request. Other CMS allow the students to enroll with a simple code that you give to them so that the task of controlling enrollment is out of your hands.

10) Access to online resources from the publisher. I've mostly used this as a way to point out study aids to students, but my boyfriend uses a CMS that allows him to quickly create a set of online quizzes or activities in which the variables change for each student. Work is time-stamped, students have multiple chances to submit attempts, and scores are calculated (with a penalty for multiple attempts).

CMS systems I have used: MoodleRooms, MyCollege, Blackboard, Schoolloop, MyBiology (online resources only), Turnitin

Readers, I'd love to hear what you think. If you've used a CMS for an online or hybrid course as an instructor or student, what have you enjoyed about it? If you have used other on-line tools to ease workload, what has been helpful or what do you like?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Essential Questions for Biology

Always up to improving my curriculum, this semester I will be continuing my work to apply aspects of the Understanding by Design (UbD) curriculum model to my courses. This model, developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe based on their work at the college level, and published by ASCD in 2005 (""), involves two main elements: 1) focusing learning around essential questions and 2) designing assessments to evaluate student understanding of these questions before designing individual lessons of instruction.

Today I would like to share the 10 essential questions I plan to use this semester in my Non-Majors Biology course. Yes, these questions may seem very deep. Essential questions are intended to be something which requires the student to reach into their ability to apply, analyze or evaluate information or situations. The questions are to be the sort of stuff that you could make a life of answering, spiraling back on them again and again as you grow in your understanding of a particular content. Ideally, assessments would let students demonstrate their understanding of these questions, perhaps through essay form, but more ideally by taking the information they have learned reaching for these questions to create something.

1. How do scientists investigate a problem and report their results?
2. What should every person know about biology?
3. What is life? Why are there ambiguities about what “life” is? What factors might you examine to classify life into groups?
4. How will a basic knowledge of chemistry help you understand and explain biological processes?
5. How do processes that happen at a cellular level influence the structure, functions and behaviors at level of tissues, organs, organ systems or entire organisms?
6. How do DNA and RNA control the structure and function of cells and of entire organisms?
7. How are cell division and reproduction related? Why is there sexual reproduction?
8. How do we know if an ecosystem is “stable” or “healthy”?
9. How, and why, do different structures found in very different organisms (such as plant vs. animals) perform similar functions? What types of evolutionary adaptations, found in different divisions of life, have increased efficiency and survival or organisms?
10. Why did Theodosius Dobzhansky say that “Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution”?

I am curious for your input, readers. What questions do you think are essential, either in biology, or in your own discipline

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Creating Community for Community College Instructors, Part II

At both community colleges at which I teach, today and tomorrow are Flex Days. A Flex Day is designed for a mixture of meetings and professional development. Between College of Marin and Skyline, it is a mix of convocations, department meetings, curriculum meetings and new staff orientations. Skyline is also opening a new Science, Math and Technology wing this semester, so there was unpacking of boxes, distribution of keys and trying not to get too lost in the hallways.

In the process of my meetings today, I was introduced to a fellow instructor who teaches evening classes. His comments confirmed my earlier thoughts: Teaching evening classes can be especially isolating for instructors, as the chance to meet up with peers is very limited. Like myself, he is eager to improve his teaching, and notes that it is very difficult to do a straight lecture class such as Anatomy, in the evenings. He has been looking for ways to improve his teaching, but with few colleagues to interact or share with, it makes the teaching rather lonely.

Luckily, he and I may be able to meet up once a week, as my lab ends about an hour before he is scheduled to teach. My hope is that he and I could meet up periodically for an evening meal and talk about how to make lectures more engaging. Perhaps we'll also have the chance to observe each other teaching, and collect data about our practice and our students. I have a similar project going with three other colleagues called a Teaching Square, which I will discuss in an upcoming post, and while I don't see it appropriate for him to join us now, the intention is that our Teaching Square program will be expanded in the future.

Another benefit I am seeing from working at community college, which I have sorely missed at the K-12 level, is the chance to talk to my colleagues about research. Since community college instructors in science typically have a Master's or Doctorate, I have peers who have done scientific research, and I can draw from their research experience to further inform my teaching. I am very excited about that.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Creating Community for Community College Instructors, Part 1

Community college teaching, I am discovering, can in some ways be more isolating and lonelier than K-12 teaching. In K-12 practice, you are on campus daily with the same group of adults, even though you may not interact with them on a daily basis. You may also be meeting with your peers on a regular basis; at my former high school I met with some subset of my peers formally once a week.

In community college, you are lucky if there is a departmental meeting each semester. You may know few of your colleagues, even in your own department, especially if you are teaching part-time or in the evenings. This makes it difficult to feel a sense of community, or to exchange ideas about how to better reach students by improving instruction.

To combat some of my isolation, I am considering a variety of professional societies focused on science education, reflecting my own focus on Biology. Societies are listed in descending relevance:
National Science Teachers' Association
Society for College Science Teachers
National Science Education Leadership Association
Association for Science Teacher Education
National Association of Biology Teachers

I will likely elect for membership in the first three, as well as Sigma Xi or possibly AAAS.