Field of Science

Course evaluations IIIb

More follow up on the evaluation questions I asked my students in an effort to improve the course. See Course Evaluations Part III for the initial premise and first couple of questions.

3. Currently the discussions are informal yet generally good. However, WebCT is not uniformly used. Make postings mandatory: I am hesitant to do this as I think it will overall diminish the quality of the postings since some students may be posting to cross off a requirement. Leave it as is: This is my leaning but I am happy to consider other ideas.

As I have outlined in previous posts, the course is set up in a module format, each module represents an introductory lecture given by me, paper presentations and brief discussion given by two students and myself, and a discussion session based on questions regarding the topic/papers/etc generated from questions posed by the students to a class website. Certain students are assigned to post questions must be posted before the second session, although any person can post at anytime. Further, students or myself can respond to the original post resulting in a "discussion" prior to the discussion. Throughout the course there was some fairly deep discussions on the website with students cogently responding to each other, finding new information, or posting things they had found that they thought would be of general interest to the class. I thought the website discussion board worked beautifully. However, it was a few students that drove the discussions (not surprising), with a fair number at least reading the discussions and occasionally posting, and a few that did not contribute. So, my question here was essentially do I make posting a requirement? The limitation being, I know that if I do, more students will post because they have to, not because they are intellectually motivated. Will a large number of "required" posts diminish the more rigorous and curiosity driven posts?

The students respond (paraphrased by me):

-I say leave it as for the reason you said. Sometimes I didn't have any worthwhile questions to add. Although postings include responding to others thoughts/questions/ideas.
-I agree. A discussion board filled with clutter would annoy everyone and would happen when people are merely asking questions for points. On the other hand, I wish there was some way to encourage everybody to post - I've learned so much from other students this way. This harkens back to a note I made in the previous post, students wanted more participation from their colleagues because they feel they are missing out on other insights. I would also say one of the best ways to learn is to ask a question, propose an idea, etc. and then find out what was wrong with your question/idea/etc. This format is good for that, because unlike an exam you don't lose points for making an error.
-I liked the mandatory questions for certain people every week. I think you should leave it as it is but maybe be take more participation points from those who never post or read the discussions. Students get 1/3 of their grade from participation, which includes speaking in class, doing the presentations/posting questions when assigned, and contributing to the website discussions. I left it open for students to participate in any way they chose. I may put more restrictions in how they get their points next year. BTW: These aren't gimme points, well they are, but you have to get them. The participation grades had a spread similar to that seen with the test.
-I say leave it as it is. Mandatory posts actually helped me a lot. This one confuses me, it seems contradictory as there are only 2-3 mandatory posts throughout the semester.
-Leave it as is is the best option. However, more thread for each module may encourage people to post. These threads could include further organism background, recent articles on organism, and something more specific to the problem being analyzed. This is a great idea, I will definitely implement it in some way next year.
-I like a hybrid approach: a number of mandatory posts, plus some voluntary posts.
-I say leave it as is for the reasons mentioned above.
-Can we post anonymously in case someone had a potentially 'stupid' question? Is it feasible? Would it lead to abuse? Yes feasible, trivial in fact, I simply click the box allowing anonymous posts. It could lead to abuse, but doubt that it would. I don't like this idea because we all make mistakes. I have made some doozies. In fact, I gave my best answer to a question in class, which I learned afterwards was completely wrong. I had told the students I was unsure and the reasons why I favored my answer. So I took a few minutes in the next class, refreshed their memories on the question pointed where I was wrong and why. I am dealing with soon to be graduates who are entering the workforce, although most are planning to go on to professional school. It's my opinion they should suck it up and open their mouths, a huge gaff may get made, but I guarantee that the school paper won't have a full page spread on it. Finally, its helpful during the discussions to call on a person to explain a comment or idea that may not have been clear on the board, an anonymous post makes this impossible.
-Mandatory posts are going to create useless questions that people throw out there "because they have to". I'd make it completely optional, that way the people on the forum would be really interested to interact.
-I think the current system is the best course of action. Mandatory postings would create redundant and/or useless questions, although increasing the number of assigned posters each week could be advantageous.

So it seems the vast majority favoring keeping the website as is, although there are a couple of suggestions for modification that could improve usage.

4. Some changes I am considering: Make each module be on one organism AND one topic. Currently, most modules cover one organism and two topics. Make each module be on one organism AND one methodology. For example, one week is fluorescence microscopy, another week is mutant construction.

This is a topic getting at the heart of this course. The idea is to use euakryotic microbes to introduce the students into actual cutting edge research being done. Learn something about these organisms, often as a way to learn about ourselves, learn how questions are asked and how these questions are addressed. Currently, there are generally two topics for each organism that way the students are presenting distinct papers. However, for some of the modules during the discussion session, we spent the entire time discussing how you localize a protein and the advantages/disadvantages of different approaches (referring to the papers during this discussion). Personally I prefer the current system, with slight modification.

Wonder what the students thought:

-I like the one organism/one topic approach for next year. When there was more than one topic, we didn't cover it as deeply which made it hard to remember come test day.
-Ditto. One organism and one procedural topic would be easier to consume and to recall.
-I agree. I feel like I would really understand the methodology and be more able to remember it for test day.
-I like the organism/methodology approach, however you might want to make it two methodologies, or a class of similar procedures. While I suggested this approach, I do not like it because it constrains the organisms that can be discussed significantly and there is more to science than methods. However, there are specific modules that would benefit from having a methodological discussion. So, Im thinking of making a specific methodology a major point of the website each week (to coincide with the papers/topic/organism) and maybe take a few minutes in every discussion session to discuss the highlights of the website discussion.
-I prefer one organism/one methodology. Students could do a presentation on both a paper and a methodology.
-The topic number can be dependent on the organism and if more than one topic can facilitate learning a methodology or class of methodologies. Prefers the one organism/one methodology approach I infer
-I like the new idea. It is much easier to follow and learn when the topic is focused. Instead of a paper on something deep within a cell, then a paper on the organisms in the large scale. The papers are too long and complicated to understand both topics fully. Maybe consider one paper on one topic on the second day of the module then one paper on another topic on the third day and eliminate the discussion sessions. I dont find the discussion days helpful because I dont have enough time to dig as deeply into the papers as the discussions require. This class would be extremely successful if I were only taking 13 credits and didnt have to work or anything. It seems like this class (as it is) has more work than a 3 credit class should. Couple of issues here. First the idea of breaking things up isn't a bad one. I could have a paper mini-discussion on the second and third days of the module, but that would also eliminate the usefulness of the discussion board. I did want to point out that the class, by all estimates I have seen, was extremely successful and was not dependent on the student's other commitments. Clearly, I think the idea here is that the student would have been more successful if yadda yadda yadda. I mean, come on. Ill let the commenter handle this and move on.
-I prefer the current setup. I like that this format demonstrates the multi-faceted research occurring in (nearly) every one of the species discussed.
-Yes, I like the current setup.

Alright, so the consensus is to reduce the number of topics per module. This is useful information for me. Doesn't mean I am changing it though. A couple of issues, first the topic number appears to generally be an issue at test time. I try to diversify the topics one on molecular biology one on ecology or one on host interaction and one some basic molecular biology. I am most comfortable with the molecular genetic side of things, so you can guess which topic would get booted. One thing I try to do is provide a broad range of topics to appeal to everyone's personal interest (you know not everyone wants to go to med-school, and of those that do, many should be ready with a back up plan). Getting back to tests, there are two a mid-term and a final. I am considering adding an exam, which would reduce the number of topics/exam and/or adding a significant written assignment and reducing the weight of the exams. Also, while the students may have struggled leading into the exams, they did well so I am confident the tests were not over-the-top. So clearly, some things to think about deeply over the next few months. Regardless, I reiterate my contention that these self-generated course evaluation questions are better for me in assessing my course, and eliciting an intelligent and personal response from the students. But wait, there's more to come....only one more post regarding these evaluation questions and my course. Afterwards I compare/contrast my current course with my old course and then will take on

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