was team teaching; now FACTS?

Bill Purves purves at THUBAN.AC.HMC.EDU
Tue Jul 13 20:29:47 EST 1999


Pardon me for taking up yet more bandwidth, but the discussion is growing.
Dave put one nickel in me, and another member of the group said to me
in a private e-mail, earlier today:

>Bill,
>
>Thanks for saying the things you have.  I feel somewhat more
>comfortable with what I've done academically for my students (and
>professionally) but could you expand a little (I wouldn't mind a lot,
>actually) more on the "HOW to ACQUIRE skills?  I know, I know.  I am a
>"There is always one of those."  I quess I want to see "educating" from a
>perspective different from the ones I have so far considered.  Perhaps
>after reading your answer I'll get another "better idea." 
>
>Best wishes.

I'm responding to him as follows and figured I may as well share the
thoughts with the group.  Some you've heard before...

Skills won't come from listening to lectures, nor will facts.  Lectures
sure are fun to give, but... perhaps their best contribution might be
the generation of interest among some of the students.

Skills come from practice.  The first place that comes to mind is
the lab/field.  Some courses work; some don't.  I suspect that some labs
that are ineffective in one setting may be effective in another.
A brief description of a lab approach I like (hey, I used to teach in
that course) appears on p. 35 of "Beyond Bio 101," the HHMI publication
that also appears on the web.  It's the one used at Harvey Mudd.
In that course, students work intensively on a rather small set of
lab/field skills, AND on the skills associated with analyzing data
and writing technical publications.  The course is also writing-
intensive.

Suppose we give up one or two of the lectures (each week) formerly
used in conventional ways.  Without adding to the students' contact
hours, that time can be used to have students do projects in small
teams.  The projects can culminate in posters, web pages,
in-recitation-section presentations,...  It is important that the
students see what other groups have done.  During project development
(while students are seeking information--"facts"!--from books, from
other library sources, from the DANGEROUS but important Web, from
faculty/gradstudents, from CDROMs, whatever...) students can discuss
their progress in recitation sections.  Peer feedback can be very
useful.  Students might do, say, three such projects per semester.

Labs and recitations can be resource-intensive for a department.  What
other avenues might we pursue?

* Exams should be learning devices.  DURING AN EXAM is when every
  student feels a need to LEARN.  I agree with Quent that open-book
  exams make sense--although I'd modify that to allow open notes
  and perhaps discourage/prevent having books open in exams.
  It is likely that different courses might find open books of
  different utility.  For my introductory biology course, I found
  it a terrible waste of student time for them to be madly flipping
  pages in my huge book--it was the WRONG RESOURCE for them during
  my exams.  Notes were much more useful, for many students.
  I'd suggest using open-notes exams and ALLOWING TIME IN CLASS
  after exams have been graded to discuss how students might have
  made best use of their notes--how best to have LEARNED from them
  on the spot.  And how best to prepare notes for use in exams in
  that particular course.  You can go for broke and have students
  take exams as student pairs--I was experimenting with that in
  my last couple of years at Mudd and would cheerfully experiment
  with an expansion of it.

* When I switched to open-book or open-notes testing, it didn't
  cause me any extra work in exam preparation.  For my taste,
  the most useful exams are ones that involve SKILLS:  I like
  quantitative problems (hard to come by in many important topic
  areas, of course) and "things to figure out," such as having
  students reason from data.  Explaining things in brief essays
  is also a skill, or a set of skills.  Yes, it IS much more
  time-consuming to grade such exams, but it can be done.  Even
  in very large classes.  The time spent that way is partially
  recouped by giving up some of those lectures ;-)

* Different strokes for different folks... but there are some
  interesting ideas in "Beyond Bio 101" (among other sources).
  There are some I look at askance, but they may very well work
  for the instructors who use them!

* Consider NOT assigning the textbook as a string of chapters
  to be read/learned/memorized/whatever.  How about saying
  that it's A source, and then giving examples of how to look
  something up in it? and encouraging students to seek help in
  making use of the book?  Some students will want to read the
  book in a conventional way.  Good for them... maybe.  They're
  likely to be reading it very passively.

* How about replacing normal class expectations in an intro course
  by assigning a small number of projects, to be done in teams,
  as the GUTS of the course?  (I'm just speculating here.)  You'll
  need to figure out how to help the students get the information
  they want (that could even involve an occasional ten-minute
  LECTURE on something where students indicated a real need for
  background/orientation).

* I agree that facts are essential.  But I firmly believe that
  facts are LEARNED at the student's whim.  I'd like her to
  decide what facts she wants/needs in order to get through some
  reasonable projects.  Another student may get another set.
  But they will have gotten the sets because THEY wanted to.
  It's our job to help the students get them.  One of the best
  ways is to let the students know you're there to help them
  find out what THEY seek.  Then they can start helping each
  other.

(bill)

p.s. We're not teaching kindergarten, but Quent has a point about
those teachers managing to reduce content.  The most horrifying
thing I've ever heard was said by a friend of mine, who teaches
AP bio in one of the academically hottest public high schools
in greater L.A.  He told me, and I've heard him tell his classes,
that he will "hold them responsible for every detail" in my
book.  I'd have gotten in trouble with the law if I'd killed him.


William K. Purves      Vice President/Editorial Director
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              e-mail: purves at monagroup.com
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