Eric Chwang

Philosophy

Course Context:

PHIL 1200-007 (Philosophy & Society), introduction to applied ethics, ~35 students

What did you do?
Target of improvement/evidence: At the most abstract level, I wanted to combat student apathy. But that’s a hard problem to tackle, so I mainly used indirect methods to get at it. Also, I wanted to try strategies that would not increase the amount of time I or my students have to spend in the course. In other words, I wanted to pick the lowest hanging fruit, making effective changes that required the least amount of additional effort.

What did you do?
1. Instead of summarizing the previous session at the beginning of every class, I asked students to summarize the previous session for me. Usually they would say a sentence or phrase, and I would elaborate from there.
2. I used to require weekly graded email questions about the readings from my students. I would answer every one. This was very time consuming, and I’m not sure how useful they were. (Many students would ask stupid questions.) I stopped doing that this semester.
3. I added anonymous feedback sections to the end of my three in-class exams.
4. At the beginning of every class I asked, “What was the most confusing point from last session?”. However, this took too long (2+minutes), so I stopped doing it and reverted to asking “was anything from last time particularly confusing”, where I would wait only about 30 seconds.

What happened?
What difference did it make?
1. I’m not sure if #1 helped, because I had no good control group against which to compare whether students remember more if they are forced to summarize something (often badly, requiring correction) versus if they merely listen passively to me summarize (correctly).
2. #2 probably decreased student learning, but it saved me and the students a lot of time, and probably made them a lot less annoyed than my previous students, who had been required to submit email questions and who often perceived these assignments as stupid busy-work, had been.
3. #3 was useful for me for correcting some bad habits, such as scribbling a lot of stuff on the board (I now try to write more neatly, though at the cost of writing less stuff) and not labeling who believes what. It will also be useful for my content selection in the future, as students were pretty vocal about which topics they liked and disliked.
4. I stopped doing #4 about two weeks into the course, because it was taking up too much precious class time. Instead of asking what the most confusing point from last time was, I instead asked if anything was particularly confusing. I got about 7-8 responses over the remaining ~20 sessions of class by phrasing the question in this way. Again, lack of rigorous controls means that I can’t really assess whether this is good or bad for student learning.

How did the classroom assessment (feedback gathering) help you make adjustments mid-course? Mostly my adjustments mid-course stemmed from #3 and #4 as noted above. See those sections.

What did you learn? What's next?
What worked? What did you learn? As mentioned above, I’m not sure how well my strategies worked, mainly because I have no control group against which to compare outcomes. For example, maybe students learn more when I scribble a lot on the board than when I neatly write less. One thing I’ve come to appreciate from this experience is that my in-class time is very precious. I can’t afford to spend 2 minutes of it waiting for students to think about what was particularly confusing from the last session; I’d rather spend that time summarizing things for them or teaching new material. One strategy I used this semester that I will definitely continue to use in the future is the optional anonymous feedback sections attached at the end of every in-class exam. That’s an easy, cheap way to get feedback as the course is on-going, not even requiring its own dedicated class-time or extra time from the students outside of class. Further, it helps me adjust to what the students want, mid-semester, and it also helps me fine-tune my syllabus for future semesters.

Sharing with colleagues? I have already discussed these strategies (and pros and cons about them) with several colleagues who are also attending this seminar. I’ll continue to discuss these ideas, along with other aspects of pedagogy, with them and others informally. I have a lot to learn from my colleagues.

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