Field of Science

Course evaluations III

Alright the plan was to compare my current course with my old course but that will have to wait. Instead I want to talk about my current course some more. My blog, my rules.

First off I think the "official" evaluations are a necessary evil although not that specifically useful to me. How do the generic and vacuous questions asked directly help me improve the course (See Course Evaluations Part II for the official questions.)? Obviously I think they don't. I have a course website that I use to post the papers used in class and for the course discussions. At the end of the semester I posted a set of questions to get some specific feedback from students that I thought would provide information to help me improve the course. I also asked for any additional comments/suggestions that the students had to help make the course better.

So here are my questions, thoughts about those questions, and my synopsis of the student's responses

1. Would having more scientists come in to talk about their research and answer questions be a good idea? I am thinking in the manner of our one guest lecturer this semester. Some pluses: The one guest lecturer was overwhelmingly looked at favorably, guest lecturers break up having to hear from me incessantly, which I think keeps the course more interesting, and it is a good way to talk with active scientists and hear how they approach their research. Some minuses: I have no control over how good or bad a guest will be, and everyone will be different which can make for difficult transitions/expectations.

Based on the schedule this year, I had one slot for a guest lecturer. The format being the lecturer provide a relevant review or two (to provide any background) and one or two primary research papers for discussion. All the students then read the papers and post questions to the web site. Students can respond to each other and the lecturer gets to peruse those questions ahead of time. During the class, it was essentially a conversation between the lecturer and the students about those questions or additional issues. The feedback from the students was outstanding following the class. They enjoyed getting a perspective a little different than my own and talking to the actual person who did the studies and getting deeper insights into the decisions that when into a given scientific approach.

The student responses (paraphrased to protect the innocent):

-We should have had more scientists discuss their work.
-One student noted that there were ample opportunities to here researchers talk, but the class was more conducive to interaction.
-I enjoyed learning what the guest lecturer's thought process was when she was writing the papers.
-During our regular class discussions we make assumptions about what the author was thinking, so it was nice to hear it directly from the author. I think the pros overrule the cons on this one.
-I enjoyed this part, you really get a chance to figure out what they were thinking.
At this point the student's raised a new issue.
-I like the idea of having more speakers and going to seminars, its more interesting than just reading a paper. You could require seeing 6 seminars per semester or something, or have the seminar speaker come to class. A student suggest I require more outside work! I advertised when seminars were being held on topics relevant to the class and am happy to say several students attended
-I, also, think students could be required to attend one or more formal seminars/lectures on any eukaryotic microbiology topic being presented and then write up a one or two page summary from it.
-I agree, it would be a good idea to require students to attend one or more formal lectures. I also think it is good to have a couple of guest lecturers because it is always valuable to hear the thinking process they went through when designing experiments, what directions to take after they obtain their results, and changes requested by the editor. Sometimes I wonder why the authors took a particular approach to a problem and having the author come in is the only way to really clear this up.

For me, this is extremely useful information. Students appreciate the intellectual benefits of guest speakers and valued actual seminars. Further, they suggested a writing component. Both of these are issues I have been considering in some form or another (reminder: this was the second year this course existed and the first year I had it solo, so changes were not plentiful this year). Students value the type of guest lecture I had and would like at least one more despite the risks. Formal seminars are useful in the context of this course and could warrant being included as a requirement. Much better than "Instructor's rapport with you as a student. Mean 6.3 SD 1.0 Median 6.7"

2. Currently, I have you turn in a written set of answers to your presentations. This is strictly a mechanism to help you prepare. Potential changes: This could be a more significant assignment that then is graded as part of your presentation.
I could include an additional significant writing assignment that is graded. Taking some of the points from the examinations/presentations.

Student's give a short presentation on an assigned paper 10-15 minutes. I ask the students to address 5 questions. What is the problem the paper addresses, what are the main conclusions, which conclusion do you think is most important/interesting and why, what data best supports this conclusion and explain it in detail noting the limitations, and why is this conclusion important. I also require that the students turn in a written response to these questions as a way to ensure the presenters have prepared. However, this course could truly benefit, I think, from a significant writing assignment such as a critique of a paper or report on a topic etc. What did the students think?

-I actually think that would be a good change. Not that i think there should always be more homework, but this class was interesting but easy to forget information since it was not again until the test.
-I agree. Some students are great "test takers" while others may be better at read/write/research-type activities. This would give everyone a better chance at success.
-I think that writing assignments would help to learn the material better. I would definitely have them next year.
-I would like it if we found a paper we were interested in (not any that was assigned for the modules) and critiqued it. This could also give you ideas of papers for the year after that. see, here is an example of the "evaluation" getting valid student participation. I think that from my approach with these questions, the students understand that they are helping to improve the course. Because they enjoyed it, I think they have a vested interest in the course's progression. Maybe its me, but I think that is really cool!

-This might just be me, but I do enough writing in other classes, although it might be ok if this course were made writing intensive. Our biological science students have to take several "writing intensive" courses, however we are moving away from this to have some writing in all courses (about time), so this latter point will likely not be an issue in the near future.
-The presenters could provide a significant summary of the paper they are presenting greater than currently being done.
-I dont think adding significant writing assignments would be good unless the course is "writing intensive". Although turning in summaries to the papers weekly would be ok, as it forces you to read and outline the papers. favoring more smaller writings than one or two larger writing assignments. This also brought up a theme that came from this message board and a class discussion, ensuring all the students were actively participating. I don't think there is a good way to do this without hampering the course, but it was interesting to me that some of the student's were not thrilled that their colleagues were less involved. Im a cynic, but I think the motivation of those with the concern is that they were missing out from not having additional perspectives from their colleagues.
-Have each student pick 3-4 of the organisms and find a paper on current research on that organism and summarize it. This would expose them to the scientific databases through PubMed or Medline, a benefit to those who are not familiar with it.
-Adding an extra exam or a writing assignment would take some of the pressure off. Writing assignments take longer but also require organizing thoughts and a lot of research. Usually, I remember more after writing on something specific. Also, thank you for considering our ideas.
-Having a formal writing assignment on one or more of the organisms would be a good idea since some people are much better at writing their thoughts although you should then make the course "writing intensive". I don't necessarily think it would be a good idea to require a more formal writing assignment for the paper you present. The goal of the presentation is presenting and writing should be saved for a different time. Here is where the "conversation" is apparent, this is in response to a previous post to simply increase the significance of the current writing format. Again, the student's care enough to take the time to disagree with each other.

There is more but I'll leave this at its current length so you won't have to make another cup of coffee. I want to point out that here are valid useful comments regarding the course. Particularly focused on new ideas to improve it, but also there is (at least coming up) some discussion of what didn't work. I find this much more useful than to vague bullshit on the generic form. One last thing to consider, from the message board nothing was anonymous (and many of the comments came from after the course was completed, so there was no issue with grades). Our generic evaluations bend over backwards to make sure they are anonymous and everyone knows it, this allows students to put down some despicable and horrid comments without any concern about repercussions. Personally, I think the anonymous nature of most evaluations makes them less useful not more useful.

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