Deadlines for undergraduates in research

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Students might not be aware of the time horizons of applications for opportunities. Oftentimes, these things need more advance planning than expected.

Here I suggest timelines for undergraduates doing research and applying to grad school, particularly within the United States. Please make sure that students working with you are aware of these deadlines.

Applying to graduate school

You should be deep into grad school applications at the start of the Fall, one year before you plan to start grad school. Continue reading

Parade of professors or solo scholar?

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There are two basic models for teaching courses and the norm varies a lot depending on the type of ecology course. A single professor was responsible for the majority of classes I took as an undergraduate. However, these days the courses I’m involved with are done by a series of professors for particular subtopics. The contrast has me thinking about the pluses and minuses of these approaches. Continue reading

My path to science

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Two years ago, Meg Duffy told the the story of her path to ecology. It’s a good story, why not go over and read it? I think it might be useful for more folks to tell their own stories. Here’s mine, about how I became an ecologist, with specialities in tropical biology and social insects.

As a kid, I didn’t collect bugs and I wasn’t a nature geek. Continue reading

NSF makes its graduate fellowships more accessible

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The US National Science Foundation has changed a rule for their Graduate Fellowships. As of next year, grad students can only make one attempt at landing a graduate fellowship, which is intended to increase the proportion of awards going to undergraduates. Continue reading

Undergraduate research is many things

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Conversations about “undergraduate research” often involve dispelling misconceptions.

Undergraduate research is not one thing.

What is undergraduate research? It is research that involves undergraduates. That’s all, nothing else. If you want it to mean something else, you might have to spell it out.

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Continue reading

Students say the darndest things!

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Oftentimes, professors make sport of sharing humorously incorrect exam answers. I’ve seen a bunch of these during this end-of-semester grading season.

When students don’t know the answer, they sometimes entertain us with witty, technically correct answers that don’t answer the intended question. (There’s a well-selling book about this. And at least one website, too). But that’s not what I’m talking about. Continue reading

Having “The Talk” with students

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Recently, I posted on my regular blog about two separate incidents at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. One was a male allies panel gone horribly awry, and the other (which was all over the news outlets the next day) was a statement from Microsoft’s CEO about how women should trust the system and not ask for raises. Continue reading

When are minority-focused conferences the best choice?

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Sometimes, the title has a question mark. The body of the text usually has the answer to the question in the title. This is not one of those. I don’t have an answer to this question.

Have you heard of SACNAS or ABRCMS?* These organizations put on a big science conference somewhere in the US each year. (SACNAS is passing through my own city next week.) Continue reading

Teaching Challenges: group projects

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Science is a collaborative effort and in essence, more and more of our scientific effort is done in groups. We come up with projects together, divide the labour, and co-write the papers that come out of it. So the idea of the lone scientist, working away in a solitary lab is really something for the movies rather than reality.

In teaching, group projects not only mimic the reality of what happens ‘for real’* but also provide a valuable learning experience for students. If you’re interested in reading more about the benefits of group work here is a start and here and here offer some tips on how to implement group assignments. Continue reading

Huge problems during research are totally normal

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At the moment, I have the great pleasure of working with a bunch of students at my field site in Costa Rica. Which means that I’m really busy — especially during the World Cup too! — but I’m squirreling away a bit of time before lunch to write about this perennial fact that permeates each field season.

We are used to stuff working. When you try to start your car, it turns on. When we set alarms to wake us up, they typically wake us up. You take a class, work hard and study, and earn a decent grade. Usually these things things happen. And when they don’t happen, it’s a malfunction and a sign of something wrong. Continue reading

After one year as a Visiting Assistant Professor

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This is a guest post by Carrie Woods, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Colgate University. This is a follow up to her post from last year, about starting out in a VAP position.

I just completed my last lecture of my first year as a Visiting Assistant Professor at a liberal arts University. Each semester I got to design my own course and teach three lab sections of a general biology course called Ecology, Evolution, and Diversity. Having graduated in August 2013, this was my first experience in designing and teaching my own course and it was absolutely amazing.

I did stumble a bit at the beginning though. In the fall I taught Plant Physiology, a junior level course of my own design, and had a bumpy start trying to figure out how to teach. Given that all of my post-secondary education has been at research I universities, I assumed the most familiar teaching format I knew – standing in front of students, powerpoint up, throwing information and numbers at them. That was my first lecture. I blew through what I thought would take me three lectures in one hour.

Then I did what anyone in my position would have done: sought advice from fellow faculty. This is a top-notch liberal arts university after all, and I am surrounded by teaching gurus. Within a couple of hours and several meetings with different faculty post-first lecture, I completely changed how I thought about teaching. As per the advice of the faculty, I abandoned my powerpoints (except for complicated images and figures) and returned to the most basic method of teaching: the chalkboard.

My second lecture, I asked what they had learned from my first lecture and, after many mumbles and looks of confusion, I decided to start from scratch and re-teach the first lecture. I was honest and open about it and told them that if I was doing something that confused them, I wanted them to let me know. I used a socratic method and got them engaged and involved by asking questions constantly. I used the chalkboard to write and explain key concepts. The classroom transformed into an open and engaged learning environment. I was happier, my students were happier, and my teaching was way better. The learning curve wasn’t just steep, it was 180°!

Through my Masters and Ph.D., I had so many opportunities to TA courses as a graduate student that I realized my teaching skills were developed for running labs. So the lab sections of the biology course that I ran were much smoother than my Plant Phys course. I shadowed the faculty member who was the coordinator for the course, by which I mean I went to every MWF lecture and to her Monday lab so that my Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoon labs went smoothly. Although it took quite a large time commitment, I learned a lot by doing this and incorporated the same questioning and engaging teaching methods from my classroom into the labs.

With new skills in hand and great feedback from my students in the fall, I designed a CORE science course on agriculture called Food for Thought this spring. By far, this has been my most rewarding teaching experience. The class is for freshmen and sophomores in any discipline. I only have three students from biology the rest being from varying departments – political science, economics, philosophy, English, and sociology. Students discovered biology through the history of agriculture and current farming practices. We examined environmental impacts of farming, GMOs, and had a continuous debate about the global food crisis and how to feed the world. This class (again!) taught me how to be an effective teacher because of the new challenge of teaching non-biology students. The course went so well that I have students knocking on my door asking if I could teach it again in the fall so they could take it. I am so touched.

I am so grateful to have had this experience. I am a much more effective and creative teacher and would recommend this job to anyone looking to better their teaching skills. I liked it so much that I have decided to stay for another year.

Public higher education is not a reward for hard work

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Here in California, there was a measure to officially restore affirmative action to the public university admissions process.

(The movement navigated through our state senate, but then the popular narrative is that the Asian-American community tanked it before public had a chance to vote on it. More here.)

Whenever white folks (or non-Hispanic European, or whatever ‘white’ means nowadays) are opposed to affirmative action, they’re called out on privilege and are told to share fairly with everybody.  This is justifiable in my view. Now, in California, the politicians associated with the Asian community are allied with the white folks that are against affirmative action. Considering that there is no shortage of Asian-Americans getting into our public universities, concerns about privilege should be extended to this demographic category as well.

The status quo remains: we continue to have an underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos in our public universities in California.

Some people get upset because affirmative action decreases their own opportunity. (I know how this feels. In my high school class, the only white person who got into UC Berkeley was the valedictorian. But everybody who was a member of one of the protected categories got in. (This was a small number, because I was at a mostly white private school. I wasn’t poor by any measure, but I was one of the poorest kids at this school.) I didn’t like it, because I didn’t think it was fair. And, well, life isn’t fair. That’s especially true for people who have don’t have avenues for opportunity despite hard work. Like the students who are systematically excluded from our public universities.

Taxpayers should fund K-12 public education because in a civil society, education should be a right and not a privilege. Moreover, we want an educated populace for the betterment of our entire community. And education for everybody in an equitable fashion is an engine of prosperity.

The same principle applies to our public universities.

As a taxpayer in California, I am not (partially) funding the undergraduate education of students because they worked hard. I don’t want to use my money to reward people who deserve it. I’m not giving out prizes for performance. I don’t want my state legislators to do that either.

I want to spend our public dollars in a way that improves the welfare of the state and its populace. I want a state that provides the best education to all of its people. I want my kid to go to school with students that all have a real chance to attend our state’s top universities. And frankly, without affirmative action, most of the children in our school district will have a hard time getting into UC Berkeley because of the systematic disadvantages that they’ve been facing since fetushood.

So, if you’re mad that someone with extraordinarily high grades can’t get into the publicly funded university of their choice, you can stuff it. I want everybody in the state of California to get admitted to our best universities (whichever ones those might be). If you don’t want to share our state universities with fellow Californians that have experienced a long history of disenfranchisement, then you aren’t deserving of a publicly-funded education.

This issue has nothing to do with immigration. It has nothing to do with “hard work.” It has to do with making sure that those the potential to succeed are given the capacity to do so, and that this happens as equitably as possible. That’s the point of affirmative action, because if you base admissions based on grades and test scores, you are perpetuating an inequity. If you don’t see the inequities among our public schools based on socioeconomic and ethnic dividing lines, you’re blind. Without affirmative action, we codify these inequities into the access to universities.

Even the opponents of affirmative action understand this point, unless they’re stupid or ignorant. But they might not like it because it hurts their own demographic group. Yeah, my kid (of Irish-Italian-German-British heritage) has a lower chance of getting into his favorite UC campus because of his background. And I’m okay with that. Because I want him to inherit a state in which people of all backgrounds have access to opportunity, even when they come from underfunded school districts whose students lack a way to get ahead. As people have explained for many decades, you can’t pull yourself by your bootstraps if you don’t have any boots. This is self-evident to all but those with boots.

Since we’ve been failing at providing equal access to quality public education at the K-12 level, the least we can do is to try to make things more fair when it comes to access to higher education.

It’s not about how hard your kid has worked. It’s about the priorities for our state. I don’t want a state that systematically disenfranchises major segment of its populace. I guess if you do want that systematic disenfranchisement, then feel free to fight affirmative action. But don’t try to fool yourself by arguing that it’s about fairness and equity. That’s a transparent sham. If you buy into the fairness and equity argument, then you need to spend some time volunteering in a high-need public school district to remove your blinders of privilege.

 

Our expert advice remains unheeded

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Once in a while, tropical biologists get bot flies. We sometimes find this out while were are in the field. But on five occasions, my students have returned to the US, and then discovered that they are hosting a bot. They all contacted me for advice. I told them a few things, but the most important one was:

Whatever you do, don’t go see a doctor. That could be disastrous.

Nonetheless, three of these students went to the doctor.

The bot fly Dermatobia hominis, that came out of my student's arm while he was sleeping. Photo: T. McGlynn

A mature bot fly larva, Dermatobia hominis, that emerged from my student’s arm while he was sleeping. He intentionally reared this one out and allowed it to pupate. Pencil is for scale. Photo: T. McGlynn

This has always troubled me. Without any additional context, it looks like the students just didn’t trust me, and thought that I’m stupid. At the very least, it shows that they trusted their own intuition over my recommendation based on a long history of experience. It shows that they followed the misinformed advice of family and friends over the judgment of the person who was responsible for the trip to the rainforest.

It shows that when it really really really counts, my guidance ain’t worth much at all to my own students.

I don’t give students this instruction without an explanation. I tell them that nearly every doctor in the US will want to cut the creature out. History shows that bot fly larvae are smarter than doctors. If you present yourself to a US doctor with a bot inside you, the predictable result is that you leave the doctor with your bot inside you. You will also leave without a large chunk of flesh that the doctor removed in a futile attempt to get the bot. Sometimes the bot is killed in the surgery, but not excised, which leads to a rotting carcass and infection, and the need for serious antibiotics. I tell them that, if they can’t get it out using the variety of techniques we’ve discussed, and they feel compelled to go to a medical professional, they must go to a vet and not to a doctor. (The students who did the opposite of my recommendation came to regret their choice, if you’re wondering.)

These bot fly incidents are convergent with a recurring incident in a non-majors laboratory that I have taught. The week before an exam, I hand out a review sheet that specifies the scope of the exam. I then tell the class:

Check out item number three on the review sheet. This is a straightforward question about osmosis. The answer is that the volume of water in the tubing will “increase.” The correct answer to this question is “increase.” Just circle the word “increase” and do not circle the word “decrease.” I’m letting you know the answer to this question now and I guarantee — the odds of this question being on the exam next week are 100%. I promise to you, with all of my heart, that this question will be on the exam word for word, and this one question will be worth 20% of your grade on this exam. You don’t want to get this question wrong, and I’m telling you about it right now. So, be sure to write down in your notes that this question will be on the exam and be sure to remember the correct answer when you see it.

The reason that I’m being really obvious about telling you about this question its that in the past, half of the class has gotten the answer to this question wrong. It’s a simple question, and it addresses the main point of the lab we conducted for more than two hours last week, but still, lot of people got it wrong last semester.

You should know that those students also were told in advance what would be on the exam. Just like I’m telling you right now. They knew that 20% of their exam hinged on remembering one word, “increase,” and still the majority of them got it wrong. I’m telling you this now because I don’t want you to suffer the same fate of those other students. DON’T BE LIKE THE STUDENTS FROM LAST SEMESTER WHO WERE FED THE ANSWER AND THEN GOT IT WRONG THE FOLLOWING WEEK. Just remember that “increase” is correct and the other word is not correct. I’d like you to remember the physical mechanism that explains this osmosis, but more than anything else I’d like you to demonstrate that you can be prepared for the exam and remember this small fact which I am hand-feeding to you right now. I promise to you this exact question will be on the exam Learn from your predecessors, don’t make their mistake. I’m giving you 20% of the exam for free right now, so write this down.

As I give this slightly overwrought speech, the students are paying attention. There is eye contact. They might be note-taking activity. Nobody’s on their phone, and nobody’s chitchatting.

When I administer the exam, more than half of the class circles “decrease” instead of “increase.” This has happened four times, and each time it happens a little piece of my heart dies.

As you can imagine, many of the students in our non-majors class are as disengaged as humanly possible. By no means is this a difficult course, even with low standards, but the fail rate for the corresponding lecture course is about 50%. The students who fail are clearly doing so because they aren’t even making the slightest effort. The reason that I keep giving students that same question over and over, and give them the correct answer over and over, is to give me some reassurance that the wretched performance by so many of the students is not my fault. I do this to grant myself absolution.

In these labs, each week is designed to give students the opportunity to develop their own experiments, find new information on their own, and work together to solve problems. This happens to some degree. But half of the students do not exert the tiniest amount of thought about doing what it takes to pass the exam. Why don’t they even try even the slightest, despite my best efforts to both inspire and feed them the right answers?

The students who fail these exams trust their own intuition, or some other model of behavior, instead of my own advice. If anybody is the person to tell you how to pass the exam, it should be the professor who is telling you the answers to the exam. But in this case, the students weren’t even bothering to look at their notes for five seconds before stepping into the exam. They’ve presumably heard from other people that work is not required for this class whatsoever, or perhaps they don’t care for some other reason. All I know is that no matter what I do, I can’t get these students to care about their grade on the exam. Some are excited about the labs, but not necessarily in passing.

So, what do the bot fly story and the osmosis story have in common? No matter how hard we try, sometimes our students won’t follow our recommendations. At least, not mine.

We are fancy-pants PhD professors, with highly specialized training. We’re paid to be the experts and to know better. That doesn’t mean that our words are prioritized over other words. Anything we might say just ends up in a stream of ideas, most of these ideas just flow out as easily as they flow in. It’s no accident that my teaching philosophy is “you don’t truly learn something unless you discover it on your own.” This is why I focus on creating opportunities for self-discovery in teaching. This is the only way in which people truly learn.

No matter what we professors might say or do about bot flies, or studying for exams, or anything else, other people will rely on their own judgment over our own. Even when the experts are overtly correct on the facts, even smart people often use misguided intuition when making important decisions, even when they are obviously wrong on the facts and the experts are overtly correct.

It’s easier to listen to other people than it is to heed their words. As a professor and research mentor, I’ve given up on the expectation of being heeded. I just work to speed up the process of self-discovery of important ideas. But, for the most part, I still don’t know how to do that. I think it’s an acquired skill, and a craft, and I think I still have a ways to go.

I grew up poor.

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There are two inspirations for my post. First, a conversation over at Tenure She Wrote is really worth reading. Sarcozona started it up with a great post on poverty in the ivory tower and Acclimatrix has added to the conversation with her own personal musings about coming from poverty and class struggles with family. Both are really wonderful/powerful posts and I highly recommend reading them. One thing that struck me was Sarcozona’s call for people to talk about their own experience with poverty. So here I am.

The second inspiration is that I’m currently traveling (a sign of how far I’ve come). I wanted to attend a conference in California, which is 9 hours time difference from where I live in Sweden. Being someone effected by jetlag, that sounded nearly impossible. So I stopped off in Nova Scotia to spend time with my family and give my daughter a chance to see them all too. Then I travelled on alone for the conference. Being home is always a time to reflect on where I come from, and makes these thoughts come even more naturally.

So my confession is that I also grew up poor. It isn’t something I hide but it also isn’t something I talk about often. My parents were teenagers when they had me and so it is difficult to actually talk about my childhood with any generalizations; my parents were growing up as I did. We moved around a lot, they changed jobs and roles, and we didn’t stay poor forever. I never knew the feeling of going to bed hungry and there was always lots of love and fun when I was a kid, so I didn’t feel poor. But we were. I didn’t have the latest, well, most things. A small example is that I had to make do with hand-me-down clothes from my cousin. I can still remember the mix of excitement and dread when those big boxes showed up. Excitement to see what there was but dread because I wouldn’t have much choice in what I would wear for the next year, even if it wasn’t to my liking. We also lived in houses without electricity or running water from when I was about age two to seven. Although there were lots of hippies getting back to the land in Nova Scotia when my parents were, living without modern conveniences and growing your own food was more of a necessity than a social experiment for them.

In many ways my younger years were really magical and for me and my brother, it was often a big adventure. We spent huge amounts of time wandering around in the woods and fields that surrounded the various houses we lived in. I’m sure my deep routed appreciation for the natural world can be directly attributed to the freedom (sometimes/many times forced: “Go play outside!”) I had to explore it. Our vacations were also outside/cheap. We either visited relatives or went camping. As kids, we loved the camping trips, even if it was hard to compare with vacations to Disney that the some of the other kids at school talked about.

Although my family’s financial situation was stable by the time I went to university, they didn’t have a fund to support me to go to school (I have the student loans to prove that). Although there was no pressure in any particular direction I think financial security drove most of my early university education decisions. I wanted to go into healthcare or something that would ensure I got a ‘good’ job afterwards. I started university for a semester and then quit because I couldn’t manage it even with a partial scholarship and a job. I went back to university after working for a couple of years—it allowed me to apply for a loan independently of my parents and therefore be able to afford it. My parents didn’t have the money to help me out with university but made too much for me to qualify for full loans (although to be fair it was me that decided on a university on the other side of the country and I could have stayed in Halifax instead). Even with loans, I worked a lot during my undergraduate years and it took me about six years to finish my degree. I remember seeing opportunities for things like field courses and exchange programs but there was no way I could afford them. I was lucky to get to work with some labs locally and those experiences steered me on the path to research. However, I was jealous of some of the things my richer peers were able to do.

These days, I’m the richest I’ve ever been and my parents are no longer poor either. I don’t want to glorify my childhood but it did instil an appreciation for nature, good healthy food, and getting by with what you have. But I’m happy for my and my parents’ financial freedom. It allows us to travel the distances between us more easily and I don’t worry about grocery bills like I did as an undergrad. I’m glad that my daughter is growing up in a different way than I did. Perhaps more importantly, I’m happy that as a parent, I don’t have to worry so much about money as they did. But having so little at times, meant that a grad school salary actually felt rich to me and I’m amazed that we were able to buy a row house this past year. In some ways the skills I learned from being poor as a kid and then as an undergraduate has made the relatively lower salary I have as a scientist quite manageable for me. But it does mean that I had a very different experience from many of my fellow grad students. I thought seriously about paying for conference travel at times, although for the first time ever my grad school salary was enough to grow a savings account. Having to buy my own car for fieldwork made an impact and money factored into my working locally instead of elsewhere like many I went to grad school with. I don’t mean to say that others were basing their research decisions on their personal funds but it made me nervous to plan a field season far away, not knowing whether I could fund it or not. So my upbringing and relationship to money did/does factor in to how I approach funding research. Mentally, I have a hard time draining accounts (personal or research) because it feels safer to have something tucked away for a ‘rainy day’. So sometimes my reluctance to spend when I have little is something I need to overcome with my research budgets.

Wandering around downtown Halifax has also emphasized some of the relative poverty I came from. It seems like there are lot more empty storefronts then the last time I was here. Nova Scotia is a ‘have not’ province and I’m sure that affects the kinds of opportunities available for students growing up. I certainly noticed a difference when I moved from the county schools I had been attending to the city schools I started in at age 12 (we moved to Halifax then). I had a lot of really amazing teachers who helped lay the foundations for my science career but I’m guessing their access to supplies, etc. was determined by limited budgets in a poorer province. Having grown up poor also means that I walked through a raging snowstorm in downtown Halifax with my four-year old daughter because for some reason I still think paying for a cab is excessive (by the time we came home, we couldn’t have got one anyway because of the road conditions). It was actually quite fun to walk through a shutdown city in the snow and I’m still amazed at what a little trooper my girl can be. But it is a reminder that no matter how different my life is, some things are hard to change.

Teaching Tuesday: talking about teaching

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When I did a survey of ecology teachers earlier this year*, I left a space for further comments on teaching in ecology. Here, I got perhaps some of the most interesting opinions. One respondent took the time to practically write a post themselves, which I have pondered quite a bit. Instead of commenting on bits and pieces, I decided to post it in full:

There is a big difference between large lecture hall sophomore courses (Introductory) and upper division courses.  My approach to these is almost totally in opposition.  In the upper division course I do many of the new fangled things you mention above including- think-pair-share, multiple drafts of written work, in class presentations, etc.  In the lower division course, though, this kind of activity is nearly impossible to execute- and the students, many of whom are uninterested, don’t WANT any of that.  So it becomes a pure waste of time.  I have tried many of these techniques in the large lecture hall setting and it becomes mayhem and nothing is accomplished.  So I settled back into pretty straight lecturing, which seems to work just fine- students are happy, they seem to get it, and my time is not wasted.

My Upper division courses are the opposite end of the spectrum.  Sometimes students enroll in my upper division course because they LIKED my large lecture hall technique, and they end up displeased with all the group interactions, presentations, class participation, etc. that happens in the upper division course.  I actually have a little trouble in my reviews from students RESISTING those techniques (that we all think are student friendly).

I approach upper division courses like a “workshop” and I tell them that before we begin at the start of the semester.  Interestingly, some of my smartest students have told me personally, and also in evaluations- ” YOU are the expert in this field- I don’t want my time wasted by listening to the novice opinions of other students.” I think that is an interesting perspective, although most of the students like a more participatory setting.

Finally, I have been involved in a number of teaching workshops and I think it is important to point out that those kinds of settings can become akin to moralizing.  Preachy, in fact.  And, I have excellent data to support the notion that sometimes the strongest advocates of new, “modern,” student friendly, engaging, technologically innovative, etc. are also people who have terrible natural rapport with students!  I have had advisees come into my office and complain bitterly about how terrible faculty member X is, and how everyone tries to avoid their sections of the class, when I know for a fact that faculty member X is the leading advocate on campus for all of these supposedly student – friendly techniques.  In contrast, I know faculty members who have been around for a long time who just us chalk and a chalk board- that is it- 100% lecture, no AV at ALL, who the students love and get a ton from.

E.g., I went to a session once all about how students these days are “Millennials” and they expect to have information delivered in small packages etc.  Have you ever spelled out that tripe to actual students?  I did in my class a couple of times and the students themselves think this is absolutely ridiculous.  They are not a simple “they” and “they” don’t fit into pigeonholes easily, and they don’t want you stereotyping them this way.

There is a high-horse mentality, and even taking this survey I could feel it a little bit… I expect to see some report from this survey bemoaning how ecology teaching is “behind the times” or missing opportunities for real “student engagement.”

I urge extreme caution before making any kind of statements of this sort.  What is missing from any of this discussion is actual OUTCOMES for students!  Has there been content delivery?  We watched some Youtube clips, had a scientific debate on twitter, used clickers, paired and shared, etc—-so what?  Did they get more than would have been accomplished through use of chalk?  Data on this are VERY scanty in my view- and, unfortunately, a lot of our critique of teaching has absolutely no rigor when it comes to measuring OUTCOMES.

As outlined above, I use many of these techniques, and appreciate them- and I will vocally support anyone who choses to use them.   But, I think they are mostly irrelevant to success in teaching.  In my experience, teaching is pretty simple:

(1) Bring good material to the classroom
(2) Be organized, have a plan for the semester- explain the plan- and stick to it.
(3) Demonstrate that you care about the students- you are not there to battle them or prove them stupid, that you really do want them to “get it”
(4) Be transparently fair in grading and other forms of evaluation.
(5) Demonstrate passion for the topic.

There are things I agree with and many I don’t in this commentary, but I want to be careful to not simply argue with what is written here. Instead, the comments have got me thinking about many of the assumptions, biases and difficulties around talking about teaching. Some of those are highlighted above, some not. Mainly I want to use the comments as a springboard. What follows are the somewhat random thoughts that this reading inspired…

First, should we be concerned with whether techniques are “student-friendly” or not? Or what the students want? I keep coming back to this one. Ultimately, as the commenter suggests, it is the outcomes that are important. So regardless of what the students think they want or are comfortable with, I believe we should be doing what helps them to learn.

That leads me to the purpose of teaching in the first place. What are our goals? Do we want students to pass our tests or to take the fundamentals learned in our courses with them for life? Are we exposing students to ideas or do we want them to understand them? Is the main thing to get students to be passionate or at least respect the natural world around them? None of these are mutually exclusive, of course but the goals we have as teachers will determine the kind of teaching we do. And for some, teaching is just the price for working at a university, the goal is get by doing as little as possible. But in general, it seems to me that we as teachers should mindful of our goals and do what is best able to achieve those. It seems to me that there is a fair amount of evidence that straight lecturing isn’t the best way to achieve learning. However, there are many different ways to engage students.

Another assumption is that technology = engagement. Students can be just as engaged with chalk as with clickers. A YouTube video is just as passive as a lecture. What I find interesting is that using some forms of technology such as clickers can force you as a teacher to be more purposeful with engagement. Maybe it doesn’t come naturally to you to get students engaged, so directly incorporating activities aimed at engagement will make that happen. But one of the things I’ve taken from my teaching is that for anything to be successful, you need to think through what you’re trying to achieve.

Are the data truly scant? It seems to me that there is a lot of research on teaching and learning. I’ve only dipped my toe in the literature but it is its own discipline.  I don’t think I’m really qualified to assess whether there is enough data on particular techniques, etc. I’d have to read much more. But it seems to me that we as teachers could benefit a lot from knowing more about what has been studied. Some of the best exams I ever took as an undergraduate were in a psychology class called simply “Memory”. Now that prof knew how to cut through our crap and ask a multiple choice question that actually tested our understanding. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, that course impressed upon me that understanding how our minds work could lead to better teaching and testing materials.

But one of the big questions I am left with is: Why can teaching be so difficult to talk about? I worked hard to ask questions in the survey in a very neutral tone. I was curious, but not coming from a place of judgement. I wanted to know what people were doing but am a far cry from knowing what the best practises are/should be.  But despite that, even asking about teaching leads some to think that the results will lead to critical conclusions about the field, without even knowing the outcome of the questions. But what are we so protective of? If the data exists that we’re doing it ‘wrong’, shouldn’t we change? And what if we’re doing it ‘right’? How can we know without investigating, both the teaching practice and the learning outcomes? And does discussing teach techniques always come off as moral/preachy? I’ve certainly had different experiences. But I wonder about where the preachy overtones come from—is it the presenters or perceptions of the receivers of the information? I’m sure it varies from situation to situation. But why is it there at all?

Honestly, I was a bit nervous to send out the survey broadly in the first place. I wasn’t sure how people would respond and it was a new kind of data collection for me. Overall, I got a lot of very positive responses to my doing the survey and sharing it on this blog. But I still wonder why resistance to discussing teaching exists. Are we so sure that we know what it takes to be a good teacher? I know I’m not. I certainly look for feedback on my research from experts in the field—why should teaching be any different?

What are your thoughts? Do you think teaching seminars/workshops are too preachy? Are we paying enough attention to the outcomes or getting caught up with flashy new technologies? Should there be more data on what works? Do we pay enough attention to the data that exists?

*for those interested there are some other posts on the results of the survey to be found: here (and links within)

Teaching Tuesday: Interviewing–the teaching test lecture

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This week I’ve been a bit distracted by instructions I’ve been given for a demonstration teaching lecture. It is for a permanent position in my department so the interview is stressful, important, and far from certain. There are three others interviewing for the spot, all colleagues and/or collaborators*, all friends, and all deserving of the position. It is also a little strange in that you can exactly know the CV of your fellow candidates and that all of us will show up for work after the interview, regardless of the result of the job search. The only difference is that one of us will have a permanent job and the others will not (still). I have talked a bit about the Swedish interview process previously and the upcoming one will function in a similar way. One major difference is that in addition to a short research lecture, we’ve been asked to give a 20 min teaching lecture. The topic is outside everyone’s expertise (Ecology of Plant-Pathogen Interactions), so in some senses an even playing field.

I have taught classes previously but not on this particular topic. But given that I’ve never done a demonstration lecture, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to tackle the task. Unfortunately, teaching talks don’t seem to be a common feature of the interview process, so unlike the research seminars and chalk talks, there isn’t so much out there (see Meg Duffy’s post on links for tenure-track job searches, for example).

However, I did find this helpful post about giving test lectures with a focus on those given to actual students in an on-going class (yikes!). It would be tough to drop in on a class that has already established a rhythm between the students and teacher, although I think it would be a good test of your teaching. It might not be fair to the students in the course, however, if they are continually interrupted by different interviewees. The teaching talks I’ve heard of are more commonly to faculty and maybe grad students. Anurag Agrawal compiles some advice on finding an academic job with this bit of wisdom on the teaching lecture (you can find more advice here; HT: Meg):

Teaching talks: Many places will have you give a teaching talk—they may give you a topic or let you choose one from a list. Some will want a sample lecture—others may actually want a verbal statement of your teaching philosophy. In general, ask those around you that actually teach those subjects for outlines or notes. It is usually fine to have notes for your teaching talk. They will probably ask you to not use slides, but overheads and handouts may be very useful. The faculty may interrupt you during your talk and pretend to be students asking questions. Try not to get flustered by them, but rather have fun with them.

Even before reading this, I began my canvasing of people for lectures on plant-pathogen interactions. So far I haven’t found it to be a common topic in ecology courses (if you lecture on the topic and are willing to share, yes please!). So after researching for this interview, I might also advocate for including the lecture in one of our ecology courses (I have funding for two more years regardless of the outcome of the interview).

I’ve only had one experience with this sort of interview requirement and that was indirect. When I was a masters student, my department was hiring a number of people to expand and we were also going to an Integrative Biology model from an organismal division (merging depts). So there were a lot of positions (~6) and likely a lot of opinions on how to best fill them from colleagues who hadn’t worked together before. In any event, I got to witness a bunch of job talks and meet with a lot of candidates. It was a useful lesson as a grad student but the one portion that was closed was the test lectures. I’m guessing these were to distinguish people’s ability from very different fields but I don’t know what the exact instructions were. We (the grad students) did hear rumours that some people’s talks were terrible, so it clearly doesn’t do to blow teaching talks off. But how to do it well?

Turning to advice on how to give lectures can give some clues. Improving lecturing has a bunch of hints and tips for generally improving your lectures. Another list of practical pointers for good lectures is focused mainly on the classroom but can also be helpful in thinking about how to demonstrate your teaching. I had to link this good talk advice for the hilarious nostalgia it created for the overhead strip tease (advice: don’t do it, and I think this also applies to powerpoint reveals).

From the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center (many useful pdfs here including one on giving effective talks), it is better to:

  1. Talk than read
  2. Stand than sit
  3. Move than stand still
  4. Vary your voice’s pitch than speak in a monotone
  5. Speak loudly facing your audience rather than mumble and speak into your notes or blackboard
  6. Use an outline and visual aids than present without them
  7. Provide your listeners with a roadmap than start without an overview

There is also this simple and eloquent advice from a twitter friend:

My plan is to demonstrate how I would give a lecture to a course, including emphasizing where I would stop lecturing and turn things over to the students. As I move away from straight lecturing, it feels a little strange to demonstrate my teaching through lecturing only. But I only have 5 minutes to describe the structure of the course, where this lecture would fit in and how I would evaluate learning, followed by the first 15 minutes of the lecture. Given all that is required to pack into 20 mins, this teaching talk is really a demonstration, rather than a lecture. I won’t prepare for it as I would do for a regular course lecture and given my unfamiliarity with the topic, it is also going to take a fair amount of research. This is a job interview, so I know it isn’t really a teaching lecture, it is a performance. One I’m hoping will convince the committee to let me get on with actual teaching for years to come.

I’d love to hear from anyone who’s done a teaching lecture as a part of their interview! Advice on how to nail this will be greatly appreciated by me but I’m sure others on the TT job search will also appreciate pointers.

*

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Teaching Tuesday: Incorporating primary literature into courses

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As academics, we spend a lot of time reading primary literature (although we often feel it is not enough). It is a real skill to learn to decipher how journal articles are written and how to read them effectively. One barrier is the language and learning a discipline involves learning the language. However, even if you know all the words and concepts, the format of papers is different from most everything else we might read.

From a survey I did of ecology teachers*: many think that reading primary literature is important in teaching ecology. I included answers for reading textbooks as a comparison. I wasn’t surprised that there was a bit less emphasis on textbook reading but it is obvious still a useful resource for teaching ecology. I certainly also had the impression that reading journal articles was important as an undergraduate but I wasn’t quite sure how to do it.

reading

So if you are using or want to use primary literature in an undergraduate class, how should you go about it? There are perhaps 101 ways to effectively use journal articles as teaching tools. The link is a detailed article which outlines what you can use primary literature for, how to identify good articles, challenges with using primary literature and how to overcome them and finally how to assess learning. There is tons of good advice there, so if you are looking for ways to incorporate the literature but are unsure how, it is a good place to start. Here’s a more personal account of one professor’s approach to integrating the primary literature into a class. I like the idea of building up understanding and directing the students so that their reading is productive.

I found when I was an undergrad, I basically learned how to read primary literature by doing it a lot. My first attempts felt a bit like looking through a fog. I would attend discussion sections where we’d read papers and there were a few students presenting each time. I don’t think I learned anything until I presented a paper myself. Before that, it seemed that every time I missed the main point of the paper.

So when I started running my own section for a writing intensive group of an ecology course as a teaching assistant, I realised I didn’t want my students to be stuck in the rut I had been in. We were to discuss many papers during the semester and I couldn’t wait for the end for all of them to be comfortable. I also didn’t want the focus to be on me (the section was meant to facilitate their independence), so I didn’t want to break down every paper for them. Inspired by discussions in a class about how to teach writing that I was taking, I came up with a simple plan to get students to overcome any issues they might have with discussing primary literature.

The methods were simple**:

  1. Choose recently published papers on topics that students will be able to understand without much background.
  2. Describe the general layout of a paper and how to read it (be brief to give students as much time as possible to read).
  3. Break students into pairs, and have each pair read a different paper for 10-15 minutes.
  4. Allow the pairs to discuss the paper for ~5 minutes.
  5. Give each pair 2-3 minutes to tell the class what the paper was about.

As instructors, we often discuss how to approach reading a paper but we rarely address the intimidation that many students feel when reading scientific writing. Often students get so bogged down in the details of a paper that they can’t see the forest through the trees. So I wanted students to avoid getting caught up in details they didn’t understand (e.g. statistical methods are particularly prone to this). My hope was that I could help students overcome their fears of both reading primary literature and then having something to say about it. I have to admit the first time I tried this I was terrified. I knew that I could briefly read a paper before a discussion and contribute if I needed (sometimes happened more than I’d care to admit as a grad student) but I wasn’t sure how they would do. I wasn’t asking them to describe in detail the paper and I specifically choose papers that were relatively easy to understand the main points.  I hoped this was enough. To my relief, it worked!

Student comments on this activity:

  • “An invaluable skill! Keep encouraging this. Thank you!”
  • “Was useful because it helped me think about the essential information”
  • “Speed reading will be a skill I keep-usually I spend so much time I get confused in the readings.”
  • “Great. Not only familiarized us with various ecological concepts and studies but helped with the ability to skim/read scientific papers for pertinent information.”
  • “Speed reading was helpful in understanding take away messages from papers—it is a great skill.”
  • “very useful”, “relevant and important”, “practical”

I was able to describe paper reading very briefly in the beginning of section because my students had all been exposed to reading primary literature in previous courses. If this is the first time your class has seen a journal article, maybe more effort would be needed here. At the end of class I would also take a few moments to point out what they couldn’t pick up from their quick reading. For example, I’d ask some directed questions to the teams about the articles that I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t have picked up on. My goal was to get them to be able to figure out the main story of a paper and realise that they could understand that without knowing all the details. But I didn’t want the take away message to be that fully reading a paper is never necessary. The rest of the semester we discussed many papers and they also needed to read and summarize papers working up to their final proposal so there was many opportunities to teach them about how to read and learn from the literature.

I was lucky because I had small groups of students to work with. I can see ways in which you could modify the activity for larger groups. Maybe having them share what the paper is about in smaller groups rather than the whole class, for example. Mainly I think it is important for them to have to say something about the paper. It is through being forced to quickly summarize the points that students actually learn to ignore all the detailed methodology that they tend to get caught up in. We can tell them to focus on the big picture but most of them (including me as an undergrad) won’t. By not giving the time to get bogged down, they quickly learned to look at the big picture. I was really pleased that both times my students were able to use this experience throughout the course. The discussions were more lively than I’d ever had before as a TA and I did very little talking.

In general, I think incorporating primary literature is important for learning in the sciences. Whether it is exposing students to the papers themselves or their products in an deconstructed way, efforts we make to teach students how to read the scientific literature can only expand their understanding of what science is all about. Now whether they should be able to access the literature after their degree is complete is a whole another debate…

*if you are new to Teaching Tuesdays, I’ve been doing a series of posts that have derived from a survey I distributed broadly to ecology teachers earlier this year. If you are interested in knowing more about what ecology teachers are up to, you can read more here (intro, difficulties, solutions, practice and writing).

**after doing this activity with my students in a couple of courses I remember reading something similar. I think the article was maybe in an ESA newsletter (Eco 101, perhaps) but my cursory searching hasn’t found it. Although I had thought I downloaded it, there is nothing on my hard drive either. If you know of this article, please send me the link! (Update: link, thanks Gary)

Teaching Tuesday: Writing in Ecology

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In my continuing series on teaching ecology, I am going to focus on using writing in ecology classes. The following is a lot of my opinion, some of the results related to writing from a survey of ecology teachers and a few links to writing resources that I find helpful. If you are interested in exploring past posts stemming from the survey I did of ecology teachers you can read them here (intro, difficulties, solutions, and practice).

Writing is a particular interest of mine, stemming from before I taught a ‘writing in the majors’ section of ecology as a graduate student. Students applied for this section and they attended two sections a week with me with their grades based on my section rather than exams. I was given an amazing amount of freedom to run the section and both times it was incredibly fun. I didn’t need to give lectures (they attended those with the rest) but I had my first opportunity to organise a syllabus and be in charge as a teacher. It was a wonderful experience as a graduate student. In conjunction to teaching a writing-intensive section, teaching assistants for these writing-intensive classes also took a short course on how to teach writing. I learned an incredible amount by taking the course and teaching myself. My advice to any PhDs out there is if you have the opportunity to do something like this: do it! The skills I learned teaching these sections have been invaluable to me as a teacher.

I think that learning to write and specifically scientific writing is an important skill. Of course, writing is crucial if you want to go on in science, but scientific writing is also something that students can benefit from regardless of what they ultimately do. So I’m showing my colours and biases here. I think writing is essential and if we haven’t made an effort to teach students to be better writers, than I think we have failed as university teachers. Of course, it is possible to divide the responsibility of teaching writing skills across classes in a program and there are places where it is easier to do (fewer students, for example). However, I always find it disappointing when I see upper level undergraduates that have been able to get by without being able to write well. I know that some think that their subject should take precedent over skills like writing (they should have learned that elsewhere!). Given how important the ability to write is for science careers and so many others, I think we need to have some focus on writing in every course. After all, what is the use of knowing an answer if you can’t communicate it?

Maybe we ecologists are just a communicative bunch, but 62% of the responses said that writing is essential for teaching ecology.

writingimportance

So how many use writing assignments in their courses? Well, a quarter rarely or never assigns writing research papers or proposals. So there seems to be a bit of a contradiction here. It could also be that teachers are using different forms of writing assignments in their courses or make exams that emphasize writing as well as content. Being a skill, writing takes practice, so if we want students to learn to write we need to give them the opportunity to do so. I think with effective time management and teaching, writing can be incorporated to any class. For example, I’ve had students write exam questions and figure captions as very short writing assignments. Of course one of the best ways to learn how to write, as well as how ‘real writing’ works, is to have multiple drafts. I was lucky enough to be exposed to forced multiple drafts as an undergrad. Without the forced part, I wasn’t really learning how to improve my writing but that is only something I realised after the fact. For an upper-level plant ecology class I took, Elizabeth Elle had a clever way to use her time efficiently by doing not quite multiple drafts of the same work. We had a report early on in the class that was heavily commented on and then a larger paper towards the end. Even though these papers weren’t the same topics, capitalizing on the fact that students tend to make many of the same general mistakes again and again, we had to show that we had improved any issues in the final paper. Later working with Elizabeth and my masters advisor, Chris Caruso, really helped me hone my writing. I am still appreciative of their patience. It was only working through many drafts of my writing that got me to think directly about the writing, rather than just the content I needed to include. For me, writing is an on-going learning process. However, multiple drafts are time-consuming for students and teachers and only 15% of ecology teachers always use them. The trend is generally that fewer who have writing assignments also get students to do multiple drafts but the difference isn’t by much. To me this suggests that many who emphasize writing in class are also utilising feedback on drafts to help students learn the skill. I think that with effective time management and

writingassignments

So if writing is important, than how should we teach it? I’ve gathered a few sources that are mostly directed towards professional scientific writing but I think they contain lots of good tips than can be adapted to use in classes as well.

Here’s a detailed post on clear writing including a macro that detects your most verbose of sentences. Honestly, I’m a little afraid to use it, I tend towards long and involved sentences where I include lots of information that I end up needing to break up into smaller pieces in the revision process but I would probably benefit from getting those run-on sentences highlighted in red straight away. Here’s some more tips on how to write a scientific paper and on the beginning, middle and end of scientific papers. There is also this simple intro to writing for scientific journals and as mentioned by Brian McGill in his post about clear writing the Duke scientific writing site is also useful.

Writing in ecology assignments can also include summarizing existing research, so this plain language summaries post might give you some useful tips for students. It is written for scientists who want to communicate their findings more broadly but it seems that this is a good way to also assess if students really understand the literature they are reading.

Further guidance for writing detailed research proposals can be found as an example in TIEE (teaching issues and experiments in ecology). Here the students build upon data they collect and then create proposals but it also provides lots of good tips on helping students to come up with ideas and write proposals.

Finally, a list of common writing errors.

Up next week: ? I have a few more posts in mind from the survey results, including getting into the demographics and potential biases of the answers. I also haven’t included all the questions thus far and there are a few interesting things to discuss from the comments section. I want to reflect a bit more on what I’ve already written about and what might be left that is interesting to say. If you have anything in particular you want me to address, just leave it in the comments and I’ll see if I can include it.

Teaching Tuesday: How do ecologists teach and are there barriers to change?

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Continuing on in my presentation of results from a survey of higher education in ecology, I am going to spend this post summarizing how teachers are teaching ecology to (mainly) undergraduates and whether they think there are barriers to changing the way they teach. If you are just coming upon this Teaching Tuesday now and want to know more, you can find a brief introduction, what ecologists find difficult to teach and effective teaching tools in past posts. (update: links should be fixed)

To follow up everyone’s favorite teaching tools, I want to dissect a little more what ecology teachers are actually doing in their courses. The majority of respondents were basing their answers on what they are doing in undergraduate courses (43%, introductory and 43% upper level).

First, I wanted to tease apart the time spent lecturing by teachers and the amount of course time students spent listening to lectures. There is a lot of evidence out there that simply listening to lectures is not an effective way to learn, but I wanted to assess how common it actually is for students to only listen to lectures. Because ecology courses can often have separate sections for labs/field work and these might be taught by different people (teaching assistants, for example), I thought it was useful to contrast the teachers’ role from the students’ perspective. Following are the answers to: What percentage of your in-class teaching time is spent lecturing? and For your students, what percentage of your course is spent listening to lectures?

lecturing listening

Indeed, students seem to generally spend less time in lectures than the teachers are lecturing, suggesting that students might be getting some of the non-lecturing time with other instructors/teaching assistants. But just to be sure, I also came at this question from another angle and asked how frequently teachers used extensive lecturing. Many do frequently use extensive lecturing and the majority think that lecturing is important or essential for teaching ecology.

lecturing2lecturing3

There is a lot of lecturing going on in ecology classes, likely because the teachers think it is important but there is also obviously more to the story. So what is happening when teachers aren’t lecturing?

We saw last week, few ecologists are using clickers in their courses but think-pair-share (basically getting students to talk to each other about an issue before a larger class discussion) was mentioned as an effective teaching tool. There are a number of people using the technique, but about half are basically not. However, I think that there might be a bit of skewing here because some might actually use similar techniques without realising there is a name for it. Although it is impossible to know specifically what kind of class discussions these include, the majority of ecology teaching does include class discussions.

TPS discussions

Further on the theme of students talking to one another, group work is common, and a similar pattern was seen in the answers for cooperative learning. Therefore, ecologists are getting their students talking and learning from one another.

groupwork

Letting students decide course content is not common but interestingly, it is not unheard of in ecology classes. Almost half of the people said students select topics at least some of the time and about a third occasionally use just-in-time teaching.

StudentTopicsJITT

I expect in line with many of our experiences, ecology instruction involves quite a bit of lecturing but this is spiced up with other activities. But say that you wanted to change the way a course was run or try a new technique, what are the biggest barriers for ecology teachers? Well, I’m sure that this won’t be a shock but it comes down to two basic things: time and money.

timeresources

But what about large class sizes and students who are resistant to change? Well, people do seem to find some issues there, but not nearly as strong as time and resources:

classsize students

What about the classic stereotype that ‘professors’ (in quotes because the survey includes  different positions involved with teaching) don’t care about teaching and just want to do research?

motivationdistraction

With the strong caveat that people who take time out of their day to answer a survey about teaching may have some strong opinions about teaching and be personally motivated to change/try new things, personal motivation is not a strong barrier to change. (Or, you could take the negative view and say that people won’t admit that it is.) Probably related to the time issue, distraction from research is seen as a stronger barrier to change than personal motivation. Time invested in one activity must come from somewhere, thus a somewhat classic tug-of-war between teaching and research can occur. However, if people had more access to the logistics of trying a new technique and knew better how to make that efficient, than perhaps changing teaching styles/techniques wouldn’t be such a time sink. As a commenter on last week’s post said, maybe we shouldn’t be reinventing the wheel for every course but instead can learn from one another.

knowledge training

But here is the real kicker: if teaching effort is not appreciated or rewarded, than it becomes harder to put those activities to the top of your list. effort

Of course, there is a bit of circularity here. If teaching is appreciated by your department/university, than they will likely also invest in ways to create time and resources, including training, for their teachers. But for those with limited time, resources and appreciation, it is not surprising that people continue to teach as they have in the past. I definitely got a taste of this with a course I was asked to teach. Everything happened fairly last minute with changes to the course leadership and teachers (including me). Given that I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, I generally followed the previous lectures and activities given in the course. Now I am looking for ways to improve my section of the class but of course, it would take up much less of my time if I just retaught the way I (and those before me) have done before.

Despite some of these challenges to change, if this survey is any indication, ecology teachers are doing some innovative things with their classes.

Up next week (if I can manage to get some time to write surrounding the pollination conference I’m attending): Writing in ecology.

Teaching Tuesday: teaching tools ecologists find effective

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As an antidote to last weeks challenges to teaching ecology, here I’ve collected all the responses to the question: What teaching tools do you find most effective in ecology courses? As before, text in italics is quoted from responses.

It was somewhat heartening to me that the most common effective teaching tool used by ecologists is the outdoors. Field trips were mentioned 55 times as the best way to teach ecology and they are also frequently used in courses.

field trips 2field trips

Now I know that all ecology isn’t field-based but getting outside seems to be a good way to inspire students and getting them thinking about the world around them in a different way. On this general theme, laboratory exercises and hands-on-activities were also frequently mentioned. There were also a couple mentions of using videos as an effective teaching tool and if you are thinking about incorporating videos into your classroom you should stop right now and head over to Dynamic Ecology. There you will find an amazing list complied by Meg Duffy of all sorts of ecology/evolution videos handily categorized by subject. Videos can be also be a way of “getting outside” in courses where this is tough to do by giving real world examples of ecological phenomena.

 A second theme to emerge was “active learning” techniques. Active learning basically refers to any technique that involves a more student-centered approach than straight lectures. In part, the involvement of labs and field exercises for ecology courses and the importance that most place on these activities already adds active learning to an ecology course. However, there was this little gem of a comment to remind us that our job as teachers is to create an integrated course with a purpose to the various activities: Making sure lecture and lab are well integrated. But it also seems that ecologists are finding it useful to break-up or replace lectures with active learning activities like clicker questions, think-pair-share, and the like.

Clickers—some love them, some do not and it seems that most ecologists do not use them. Meg Duffy also has a pair of posts on why she uses clickers in her courses (Part 1 and Part 2) with some links to pedagogy behind them (found in part 1). As you can see below, Meg is quite the maverick in the field (only 12% use clickers sometimes to always) but there is a growing acknowledgment that these kinds of teaching tools can be highly effective for teaching (e.g. this article in Science is behind a paywall but you can listen to the podcast for free). And here’s a glowing account of clickers in science classrooms. Another suggested TopHat, which is a platform where you can use cellphones, computers or tablets instead of buying a particular clicker system. But, of course, it is important to remember that it is all about the questions you ask using clickers and that to be effective these need to be thoughtful. Unfortunately, we are at the stage where most of us aren’t using clickers, so there is not a resource of questions that you can modify for your course.

clickers

I also want to share this anecdote of one person’s experiment with how to change up a lecture. It highlights some of the pluses of engaging students during lecture time—it can be more fun, tell you about where the student’s understanding is at and demonstrate to the students what they do and do not know. As the author suggests, there are probably many ways that this kind of engagement can be involved but the game show style seemed like a fun idea. I find that it’s easy for students to sit in lecture and think they understand a concept without knowing that they don’t really get it. This year I started having 3 students at a time come up to the board and I’d ask them a question (e.g. draw a graph of productivity and how it would be influenced by different levels of disturbance). They could get help from their “fans” behind them (1 student from the left, 1 center and 1 right were chosen so their audience behind them was their fan base) so there wasn’t so much pressure on the selected students up front. It was actually a great way for me to find out what they knew. For instance, the first time I did it I learned that nobody in the class knew how to draw standard error bars… If I had just drawn it, I think they’d all just nod and think “oh yeah, I knew that” but when they were pressured to stand up and do it themselves, even with help from the fans, nobody could do it. It showed me that I had a different expectation of what they knew than what they did know (I just assumed everyone in their Junior year of college would know how to draw standard errors). Later in the class I asked them a density dependent question and they all got it in under 10 seconds – I was so surprised! I thought that one would stump them. I think the same thing can be done with clickers, I just haven’t taken the time to figure out how to get clickers to work in my class (and frankly the game-show environment of the 3 contestants up front is sort of a fun way to break up the monotony of a lecture.

In direct contrast, there was the following comment: I have tried lots of alternative techniques but students like straight lecture the best. I think there is a real issue here; whatever the teaching tool or technique you use, you need to make it work for you. We are all different in our teaching styles and there is no one solution fits all. And not to pick on this one commenter, there are a number of potential reasons for this problem. It might be that the teacher likes to lecture best and therefore puts more effort into that activity, stacking the cards for lecturing. Or it might be that they never got training on how to make the alternative techniques they’ve tried effective. Whatever the reason, this comment also made me ponder whether we should care what students like best. Of course it is nice (and sometimes very important) to get back good student evaluations of your teaching and course. However, if we are in the business of teaching and care about it, than we should be more concerned with whether students learn than how much they liked how they were taught.

Discussions can be a useful way to get students thinking about the material and gaging how well it is understood. Think-pair-share is a basic technique where students first think about a question, then discuss with their partner/neighbour and then the results of these discussions are shared with the class. I suspect even the person who commented that they didn’t know what this was, has some idea of it in practice. But even general class discussions were frequently mentioned as useful to teaching ecology.

Flipped classes are an approach where students learn content at home (via video lectures, reading, etc) and do “homework” in the classroom. Class time is then used to interact with the instructor and fellow students, rather than passively listen to lectures. One person answered by saying that they wanted to do this more and it is what I imagine you’d see in Terry’s classes. I plan to do some more of this next spring for my Ecological Methods course. I have been slowly shifting from the lectures that were given in the past in this course to more active techniques, in part because lectures on things like quadrat size and shape tend to be dry for both the students and me.

Ecology is a science, and many suggested that the best way for students to learn is by doing. Everything from reading primary literature to designing experiments to writing proposals to conducting studies/experiments to analyzing data to presenting findings, basically teachable versions of what ‘real’ ecologists do was suggested as a useful way to teach ecology. I hope that every student walks away from their ecology courses at least knowing how scientists study ecology.

Finally, a number of people suggested particular tools or sites that they find useful.

TIEE, Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology, was brought up twice as an effective teaching tool and I can personally second the use. Last year, I revamped the diversity section of the course I am involved with teaching (Ecological Methods). Instead of using a made-up dataset that had been used in previous years, I tried the lab on diversity in tall grass prairie. Students really appreciated being able to relate the diversity estimates to real data and I think it was a useful way to approach the subject before they collected their own data.

Simulations of ecological processes are an alternative to running labs and field exercises. SimUText got this this endorsement “Love it!” and the associated EcoBeaker was also recommended. Judging from the answers to the question: “What tools would you like to be more available for use in teaching ecology?” cheap affective computer simulations are one of the top requests. Clearly there is a desire to use these tools, especially as resources for courses diminish and lab/field components seem to be under increasing pressure.

Although directed at high school students, one person suggested this site for good activities for non-majors. When I was a TA for a biology major required evolution course, we also used the activity for demonstrating natural selection. So in some contexts these might also work for entry-level majors courses.

And then there was this: chalk (seriously). There is definitely something to be said for writing things out for students to follow your process.

This is a class I would like to attend: I prepare 2-5 slides/lecture about news stories or papers I’ve read since the last lecture that are relevant to the course, to make the point with the students that what they’re learning has relevance to the rest of their lives, and that my goal is to make them educated voters, citizens, taxpayers. A high goal but one I certainly hope that we can achieve through our teaching.

Next week: How do ecologists teach and are there barriers to change?

Teaching Tuesday: What do ecologists find difficult to teach?

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by Amy Parachnowitsch

Today I begin in earnest a series stemming from results of a teaching survey I sent to higher education people teaching ecology (introduction here). In describing the results, I decided that the best place to start was in the middle. In later posts I will include more information on the analyzable data that came from the survey and, although it is definitely interesting, some of the most revealing information was found in the free-form answers. So to kick off the series, I summarize what people find most challenging to teach and in following weeks we’ll explore some of the tools and techniques people use to overcome these challenges.

The exact question that the following responses answered: What ecological concepts do you find are commonly misunderstood or difficult to teach? Here I am pulling together all of the verbal responses to the question (was a voluntary question answered by 138/220); anything in italics is quoted from individual response.

I’m sure it is no surprise that mathematical concepts ranked high on people’s minds as a difficult/misunderstood component of teaching ecology. Statistics and modeling (with many mentions Lotka-Volterra) figured prominently in the answers. Roughly 45 responses involved mathematical/statistical concepts suggesting the prevalence of the issue. As a particular component of statistics one person mention the philosophy of null hypotheses and the general concepts of variability, uncertainly and probability can be problematic. Probability is also a fundamentally misunderstood concept in terms of risk and risk assessment or genetic drift/evolution. And more basically, data interpretation is a stumbling block for many.

The following quotes nicely summarize the general feeling that many have about the resistance to math:

  • Anything involving mathematics, which many biology students consider an unfair imposition. Students who like science but not math seem to believe that by choosing a biology program they have entered into some unspoken pact whereby they will not have to look at equations again. With this Theoretical ecology comes up against a brick wall (and an enduring one – how many theoretical ecologists do you know that actually came through a biology stream?).
  • My students struggle with anything that involves even algebra. They come from high school thinking ecology is all about memorizing biomes and are not ready for the quantitative aspects of ecology.
  • anything involving math and modeling; students want to solve equations rather than understand them
  • And about pre-med students: they think that Ecology is a class where you think about your feelings about trees and flowers

But it isn’t only about the math itself. As three further responses suggest, we also have a hard time getting students to translate the statistical/mathematical concepts to anything ecological. One specifically referred to understanding statistical interactions in ecological terms, another talked about the difficulty of getting students to relate graphical interpretations to the underlying ecology and another mentioned the difficulty of relating models to ecology. These problems can than translate into students (in this case, senior undergraduates) that still struggle when discussing primary literature and relating it to common ecological concepts.

So we as teachers are up against the perception that ecology is easy and about facts that can be easily memorized. That means that students are not only challenged by the mathematical concepts presented to them but can be resistant to learning them as well. As an undergraduate I think I came into my first ecology classes with a similar perception, although honestly it is tough to reconstruct how I thought then. But I do distinctly I remember my first mid-term exam in Animal Ecology with Larry Dill at Simon Fraser University (BC, Canada). It was a transformative moment for me—all of a sudden I was asked to think and understand, rather than memorize. It was incredible and tough. I can’t remember how I did on that exam but I remember a stern talking to the class by Larry afterwards. Looking back now, I’m pretty sure this was a practised speech that he gave almost every time he taught. This course (followed by those taught by some other great people at SFU) was the beginning of me understanding what ecology was really about. For me, I never looked back, but our challenge as teachers is to get all our students to understand what ecology (and science in general) is, whether or not this turns into a life-long pursuit.

From a more topic centered approach, biodiversity, along with its alpha, beta and gamma types, was frequently mentioned. Competition and species/trophic interactions, population dynamics/growth, life tables, and the niche where also mentioned more than once. Nutrient cycling is a difficult subject, perhaps because it is drier than other aspects of ecology and requires memorization (as was mentioned by two commenters). So some students seem to want to only memorize facts rather than understand, but not when it comes to the nutrient cycle or taxonomy (another person’s comment). But at a basic level, students are misunderstanding basic concepts. For example, where organisms get their energy and the idea that ALL living things respire and produce CO2. So photosynthesis and respiration also showed up in the answers. Overcoming the concept that there is a balance in nature and therefore what ecosystems are and are not is also challenging. For myself, growing up in a hippy, back-to-the-land, part of Nova Scotia certainly coloured my perception of things like herbal medicine. Along the way, I had to face my own inconsistencies and now when I’m visiting old family friends, I have to decide when to get into those discussions about homeopathy or the like. But these kinds of attitudes are not unique and you don’t have to be surrounded by hippies to have them. Knowing whether these ideas are prevalent in your students can only increase your ability to reach them.

There was two topics that were consistently brought up that maybe difficult to understand/teach in and of themselves but can also be political issues: climate change (11) and evolution (19).

For those students who think that they can avoid evolution in ecology classes, the number of responses involving evolution suggests otherwise. Four responses were “natural selection” and fifteen involved evolution/genetic drift/adaptation/population genetics. Of course as an evolutionary ecologist, I’m excited to see that many are including evolutionary concepts in their ecology courses. However, it is a challenge that so many find this difficult both to understand (student’s perspective) and to teach. I am guessing that cultural context plays a role in the difficulty of teaching evolution as expressed in one response: evolution is difficult to teach without being seen as preachy or offensive. Interestingly, not all comments that suggest teaching evolution is challenging/misunderstood came from that large country with issues of teaching evolution in schools, highlighting that evolution can be a difficult subject in its own right. Further, the connections between ecology and evolution are often misunderstood such as the fact that species interactions evolve as well as the relationship and scale of ecological and evolutionary processes.

Teaching is an interaction in itself. Therefore the difficulties can come from either side of the equation. Many responses spoke of student-centered issues that impact learning.

  • I find the human-centric and animal-centric bias among our students to be a barrier to learning.
  • I feel that some simply have developed effective study skills and some have not.  As always, the latter seem to have trouble “knowing what they don’t know” – they feel as though they have mastered content when they really haven’t.
  • And on not doing homework: Many students do not read the assigned reading which also limits their learning. And from another: Difficult to teach: Discussion seminar when students haven’t read the literature.
  • Math is not the only thing student’s think they can avoid in Biology: scientific report writing (Students often take Biology as they do not want to write).

But others acknowledged their own role in the teaching equation:

  • the less well I personally know an ecological concept, the harder it is to teach.
  • I find diversity patterns especially hard to get across, partly because I have trouble myself linking them to biology.

Since every class is a unique combination of students and teacher this likely plays into why challenges vary from year to year.

As a counter to all the individual topics people have difficulty teaching: No individual concept is commonly misunderstood or difficult to teach in my opinion, but making connections across concepts is difficult for students and is challenging to teach. These two further comments speak to the complexity of teaching ecology: anything complex and all complex and therefore counter-intuitive issues, which, however, are quite common in ecology.

I want to note that not everyone had a particular difficulty and there were a few answers that said as much, as well as the many who chose not to answer. The wording of this self-assessment was amusing to me: misunderstood = evolution; difficult to teach = none. Sometimes it would be nice to have that kind of confidence but I certainly find some subjects more challenging to teach than others. And it seems that I am not alone.

So the moral of this story is that there is no magic bullet concept that once solved will make all ecology teaching smooth sailing. No surprise there. Although I wasn’t surprised by the diversity of answers to this question, seeing what they were has been very interesting. It seems many of us have a lot of challenges when teaching ecology, both from our students and ourselves. I hope these challenges don’t set a negative tone to the series and in future posts I will explore how ecology teachers overcome these hurdles.

Up next week: effective teaching tools in ecology.

Ps. After I have completed these posts, I will provide a link to the data for anyone interested in accessing it.

Teaching Tuesdays

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by Amy Parachnowitsch

This isn’t a real post but rather a heads up for the coming weeks.

As a part of a course on scholarly teaching I took last winter, I began to think more deeply about teaching styles and techniques. I was finding a stark contrast between what I was discovering about effective teaching and learning and the experiences I had as a student or a part of the teaching team. So for my project in the course, I decided to ask ecologists about how they were teaching and why. I created a survey (link still active here if you want to add your voice: teaching survey) and sent it to as many ecologists as I could reach through various list serves, facebook and twitter. I summarized a portion of the results (from Swedes) for a teaching conference at my university in the spring but haven’t had the chance to share the dataset in its entirety with the ecology community and especially those that so kindly took the time to answer the survey. This blog seems to be the perfect venue to share the results. And so I begin a series called Teaching Tuesdays. Over the coming weeks I will share the insights into ecology teaching and practice I’ve gleaned from the survey. Hopefully I will succeed in summarizing the data into some digestible chunks.

Before I start the series, I want to acknowledge all the people who took the time out of their busy schedules to fill in the questionnaire. I truly appreciate the generosity of the ecological community. Without you this would not be possible!

Next week: What do ecologists find difficult to teach?

Please don’t hold out-of-class review sessions

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Some professors are so dedicated to the success of their students that they are generous enough to hold review sessions before an exam, outside regular class hours.

This is a tremendously poor idea, for one big reason and one smaller reason.

The big reason is that it is inherently unfair to the students. Not every student is equally available to make it to an additional session outside class hours. Holding a session that not all students are available to attend confers an advantage to the students who are more available for the times designated for a review session. (This rationale is similar to the one fort why we shouldn’t offer extra credit.)

Students are aware that these review sessions are a moment of the big reveal about what is going to be on the exam, where professors give hints about what is important to study and what is less important. Even if this isn’t true, this is the widespread perception. I know that when I was a student, not attending one of these sessions was a huge disadvantage.

Therefore, students will go to all extremes to attend a outside-class review session. I know students who have skipped out on their work obligations to make such a session, and I also a student that once missed an important and difficult-to-schedule medical appointment for this kind of session.

A standard lecture course at my university has about 45 contact hours. If that’s not enough time to cover the curriculum and prepare students for exams, then the solution isn’t to add another hour of optional class. Instead, the curriculum, or how it’s taught, should be fixed so that everything that students need for exams can happen within the time scheduled for class.

Students who might feel that outside-class review sessions are unfair are likely to not complain. Such a complaint would arouse the ire of fellow students, would be particularly upset if the gift of a review session were revoked because of a spoilsport.

I ask: why is such a review session needed? It is because the students haven’t learned as much as they needed to prior to the exam? If that is the case, it is the result of deficiencies on the part of the instructor or of the students. If it’s the deficiency of the students, then those who didn’t invest as much as others don’t need an extra boost, just like they shouldn’t receive extra credit. If the failure of students to be adequately prepared for the exam is the fault of the instructor, then adding extra optional class time isn’t a professional way to fix pedagogical shortcomings.

The smaller reason to not hold out-of-class review sessions is that this practice increases the emphasis on high-stakes testing and further drives students to obsess about what is on the exam rather than learning the material comprehensively.

Let’s face it: students who attend these sessions and ask questions are, predominantly, focused on discovering what questions will be on the exam. They may very well be seeking knowledge and understanding about the course material, but their focus is to do well on the exam rather than to learn. Moreover, I believe that’s the focus of faculty who offer such sessions as well, to help students do well on the exam by providing even more preparation. That’s an admirable goal, but all students deserve equal and fairly distributed access to such opportunities.

So, what’s the harm with offering a review session that gets students to study more than they would otherwise? Here’s the harm: it gets them studying for an exam. If students are cramming for an exam, they’re not learning in the long term. Instead of spending time focusing our teaching on getting students to jump through the hoops of exams, we could design our classes for substantial and long-term engagement with the material. The more we freak students about exams and focus on them, the less they will engage in genuine, self-driven, inquiry.

Remembering what it’s like to be a college student

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When working with others, it is good to respect differing perspectives and values, even if we don’t understand them. Professionals maintain this respect even when the behavior of others is overly selfish or inadequately respectful.

When I have read about how some of my colleagues at other universities regard their undergraduate students, I’m reminded of the saying, perhaps originally from W.J. King of UCLA:

A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, or to others, is not a nice person.

Likewise, a person who is nice to you, but not nice to undergraduates, is not a nice person.

It’s never an easy task to get inside someone else’s head. There is no universal change that happens as a 20-year-old evolves into a professor. But change definitely happens. I think back about my priorities when I was in college, and it’s hard to imagine the processes that resulted in the me-of-now evolving from the me-of-then.

The me-of-then is a not a model for my own students. Nonetheless, if I can imagine what I was like back then, it helps me keep a more open perspective when my students seem irrational to me. While I recognize that people can differ in their values and priorities, seeing the fact that my own perspective changed radically over time makes me sensitive to differences of opinion with other people.

Here are two literature-based examples. Before senior year of (private, male, Catholic) high school, we were assigned three fat books to read. One of these books was John Fowles’s The MagusI didn’t get into it, and gave up, and just didn’t do well on the exam on the first day of school. But then my friends told me what a cool book it was, so when I had the chance, before starting college, I read it. It blew me away, in a couple different dimensions. The protagonist (Nicholas Urfe) gets his mind messed with by a bizarre, kind-of-conspiracy, and so does the reader along for the ride. I felt sorry for Nicholas and felt like I related with him in some way.

Last year, I re-read the same book, more than 20 years later. It still was an amazing book, but wow, was I myopic the first time I read it! Nicholas is self-centered, small-minded and overestimates his own understanding of the world. While he didn’t necessarily create his problems, he was a partner in their making. On this re-read, l still felt sorry for the guy, not because of what he experienced but because of who he was. I was sorry for Nicholas because he was a pretentious womanizing oaf and didn’t know how to not be one.

Back then, I was oblivious. I don’t think the me-of-then would have appreciated hearing about being so fundamentally wrong about Nicholas’s character. (Maybe the me-of-the-future will think that the me-of-now is wrong.)

Here’s the second example: I was also required to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. This book has over a thousand pages of transparent characters and inane plot, designed as a vehicle for Ayn Rand’s infantile “philosophy.” (Why is it that a high school requires this book is whole other issue. As I learned at my high school reunion, my class did end up producing a gaggle of Paul Ryanesque economic predators.)

This is how messed up the me-of-then was: I didn’t think that Atlas Shrugged book was a massive piece of shit. Moreover, I read the whole thing! Any reasonable person would give up within a few hundred pages, because the book drones on about the same selfishness-is-good pablum over and over and over and that’s pretty much it. I haven’t re-read that book since then, but I remember how monotonous it was. With hindsight I see that a variety of young men of that age have a flirtation with Ayn Rand, so at least I wasn’t alone.

I don’t judge my students for any foolishness they might harbor with respect to Ayn Rand, though the topic is unlikely to emerge in the classes that I’m teaching. However, if one of my students manages to say something unwise in any other aspect, I can remember a time when I was fool, and be open to the prospect that I might be one at this moment.

If I liked Atlas Shrugged, and didn’t realize Nicholas Urfe was a pretentious prat, then I was a straight-up misanthropic fool. Or maybe I was just immature. Or maybe the two are the same.

Regardless, as a professional in the classroom, I need to give everyone the same respect that the me-of-then felt that he deserved. It is foolish to publicly complain about dealing with the occasionally foolish actions of our students, when being unwise on occasion is par for the course for anybody. If someone is going to learn a lesson from a poor decision, that lesson won’t be received any better when spiced with negativity and judgment. If a student does something slightly foolish, such as emailing their teaching assistant a simple question that could be answered by reading syllabus, that student still deserves respectful treatment of the instructors of the course.

It’s our job as college instructors to work with college students. They are adults. We need to expect them to act like adults and treat them as adults.

Keep in mind, though, that plenty of well-seasoned adults have ridiculous expectations, bizarre biases and are outrageously self-centered. If an undergraduate acts this way, it’s not because they’re an undergraduate, but because they are human beings.

If our students act toward us in a way that isn’t professional, then we need to respond with tolerance and establish an environment that minimizes the negative aspects of these interactions. It is nonproductive to assign blame to people who make poor choices.

In short, we need to treat the undergraduates in our courses with the same professionalism and respect that we show to our colleagues.

In case you’re wondering, this post is a rebuttal to something that I read last week.