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.