Thursday, July 24, 2008

More Thoughts on Teaching

Day Two of a workshop on how to write a Teaching Portfolio. We're learning more on how to integrate different ideas and skills into teaching.

Technology was one of the ideas visited today, and specifically mentioned was VoiceThread which is an interesting idea of integrating technology and teaching. Just a quick glance at the website, plus brief descriptions given during the workshop indicated it was a way to introduce a more interactive experience for the student.

This leads to another theme I discerned: interaction. After my teaching experience at Campbell, I am getting to realise just how important being able to interact with the students is. And, I found that the students who did make the effort to interact with me more tended to be the ones who were more successful in my classes.

Thinking back to my initial experiences as an Adjunct faculty member at Campbell, one of the first things I realised was that my approach to lecturing needed an adjustment if I had any hope of being able to relate to the students. Whilst delivering my first lecture in Intro to Forensic Science, I realised that I had lost them, in addition to the Primary Instructor (who is a police officer with one of the local police departments) within the first ten minutes.

After the class, the primary instructor asked me what my impressions of my first lecture was, and I responded, "Well, it's nothing like TA'ing a lab, that's for sure." I also mentioned that I had the feeling I lost the students pretty quickly. He seemed to have agreed with that assessment. I then added that when giving a lecture, I was quite used to speaking within the context of giving a seminar to a group of people as opposed to giving a lecture with the intent of teaching students. Sharing information versus teaching information. After making that realisation, I knew then that I had to change my approach, otherwise, I would not be an effective teacher. I thought, with a little bit of dread, that I became what my friends and I used to poke fun at: the droning professor who couldn't teach his way out of a paper bag.

Considering my position now, I also have to remember that most of the students I'll be dealing with are non-traditional undergraduate students. Most have full-time jobs and families to deal with. As a graduate student TA, I gained a reputation for being rather strict with deadlines and the like. I was merciless when it came to tardy assignments and lab reports - automatic points off. With this lot, I've had to learn to be more flexible. Yes, they have other commitments pertaining to Real Life. They are not like the typical undergraduate student who doesn't have other responsibilities outside of studying for classes. I've had to adjust my policies - as long as they've done the work, it's fine with me, just as long as they're able to perform in exams, as well as carry out their experiments in the lab safely and efficiently.

Naturally, using Blackboard as a tool to develop a "Blended Course" allows me the chance to be more interactive with the students outside of class time. It's a great place for me to refer students to external links I might find interesting or helpful and relevant to the course materials. It's a great place for me to upload files and the like, such as Powerpoint presentations, old exams, etc. that will help the students learn the materials. The Discussion Board application is another great way to continue the Interaction theme, although I'll have to admit - it's worked quite well with Forensic Science, but not so well with my Chemistry classes.

Students responded very well to the offers of exam reviews for the final. The lure of food helped as well - I had great turnouts for both of my Chemistry courses when I offered this option, which allowed for more interaction between the students and me, and I really got the chance to have a sense of where the students were as far as their understanding of the materials was concerned. In a couple of cases, it also enabled me to adjust the exam so I can ensure the questions were at a level that they can answer, but will still challenge them sufficiently that they'd have to work to get the answer.

Back to the workshop. We were given some questions to consider. I'll answer some of those questions here. Feel free to comment on my answers in the combox or contact me by email.

Why do you like teaching?
I believe I've answered this question in some of my teaching related musings on this blog. Just click on the Teaching label below this post to get a list of other teaching-related posts I've made. I'm sure the answer is buried in there somewhere.

What kinds of teaching do you do?
Most of my teaching experience lies in being a Teaching Assistant in the lab. My most recent teaching experience lies in the classroom.

How has your teaching changed over the years?
I believe it is too early to tell at this point. The main change: I am now in charge, as opposed to following someone else's directives.

How do you think students best learn the subject that you teach?
I believe they learn through hands-on experience. I can tell them to do problems until I'm blue in the face. Put them in the lab, and the subject material becomes alive to them.

Also too - the last time Intro to Forensic Science was taught, I suggested to my fellow instructors that perhaps we should consider arranging for a field trip to the State's forensic labs so that the students will have the chance to see those in the field in action. The Principal Instructor arranged for two field trips to the SBI and the CCBI in Raleigh, and both trips were very well received by the students. It was another way to make the subject matter come alive for the students.

How do you motivate students to learn?
You have to love what you are teaching. If you are lukewarm to apathetic, your students sense this, and they will act accordingly. Believe it or not, I am speaking from experience - one of my undergrad classes (I will not identify which one, or which professor) was very much like this. The professor obviously did not show much interest, and even said so (reading between the lines, this sentiment came out very loudly and clearly). Consequently, the students did not show much interest or care in the course. The abysmal average marks on the midterm exams (generally in the high 20s, low 30s out of 100) was reflective of this. And this was out of a class of approximately 70-80 students.

What are the barriers to student learning and how do you try to overcome them?
Of late, I've been teaching non-traditional students. I'd need to make the subject matter interesting; otherwise, they won't do the work, intead favouring to spend time with their other Real Life commitments.

In what ways are students "different" when they have completed your courses?
I would hope they'd gain an appreciation of the beauty and art that is Chemistry and not fear it as "the hard" or "scary" science.

In terms of student learning, what are the most important outcomes from your teaching?
If the students can learn Chemistry without fearing it, then I've done my job. Appreciating it is the cherry on top.

Which of your courses is the most successful? Why?

I believe it is too soon to tell. My General Chemistry students seemed to have appreciated the course, based on the thank you cards and Facebook friend requests I've received since the course ended.

What innovations hae you tried in your teaching and what were the results?
The main innovation is teaching both Elementary Chemistry and General Chemistry courses as Blended Courses, which means 50% or greater of the course material is delivered to the students on-line. I was lucky to have had self-motivated students who were willing to put in the work as most of the course, excepting lab practicals, was administered on-line.

I was initially uncomfortable about this set-up, however. How could the students hope to survive this course and its subject materials if their only face-to-face time with me was spent in lab? I'm not even required to keep office hours, but I emphasise to my students that they can contact me anytime via email. When discussing the syllabus on the first day, I tell the students that if they download the Powerpoint presentations, read the chapters in their textbooks, understand the concepts presented therein, and do the homework, all that work will guarantee them at least a C grade. If they want something higher than that, they'd have to work harder. Setting the bar high like that enabled the students to meet it, and exceed it in many cases.

In general, I've not been disappointed. I've had the pleasure of working with some of the brightest students I've come across. It's a privilege to work with them, and I am humbled when I realise that I have the chance to shape these minds whilst helping them to reach their ultimate goals.

I suppose that may answer the first question above: why do you like teaching? Certainly, it will be a new adventure with every class I encounter. I just hope I can help make their journeys through my classes easier to bear.

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