Jaelyn J. Eberle
Department of Geological Sciences and the CU Museum of Natural History
Vertebrate Paleontology (GEOL 4474/5474; MUSM 5474) is an upper division course offered through the Department of Geological Sciences and cross-listed through the Museum & Field Studies (MFS) graduate program. The course is small (12 registered CU students and 1 senior citizen registered through Continuing Education), and students come from a variety of disciplines, including geology, biology, anthropology, and museology.
Areas of Improvement:
1. Changes to the overall style of the course: Vertebrate paleontology courses are most often taught as survey courses in which the major vertebrate groups (past and present) are discussed, but mostly of a descriptive nature (e.g., what is a dinosaur? What are the primary characteristics of the various kinds of dinosaurs? etc.). Having taught the course three times (2004, 2006, and 2008) as a traditional, single-semester survey course, I wasn’t happy with simply describing and discussing the various fossil vertebrate groups, and I don’t believe that this style is the best and most engaging way in which to teach vertebrate paleontology. Following discussions with other colleagues, including faculty from other departments who attended the 2-day FTEP teaching workshop in January, faculty in Geological Sciences, and Science Education Initiative (SEI) postdoctoral fellows, I decided to re-organize the vertebrate paleontology course along larger themes (or modules), rather than the traditional survey of vertebrate groups. For example, instead of describing the various species of ostracoderms and a whole bunch of other Paleozoic fishes, I instead raised the questions: Bone is what defines a vertebrate, but where did bone come from? What can we say about its origins, based upon our understanding of the fossil record? In order to answer these questions, ostracoderms (early fishes with bony exoskeletons or ‘shells’) were necessarily discussed, as were a lot of other Paleozoic fishes, BUT in the context of understanding the origin of bone (and NOT in the context of learning all there is to know about ostracoderms).
Results: This approach seemed to engage the students more, as I changed my focus from a survey course to one that tried to address the question of why a particular group of vertebrates is important to our understanding of vertebrate origins and evolution. It also allowed us to delve deeper into topics than the textbook did. The textbook is one used by the majority of vertebrate paleontology courses in the U.S., and it is written as a survey of vertebrate groups. As my course has evolved, I can see that a new ‘textbook’ (perhaps a collection of papers from the primary literature) would serve the course better than a general survey text. Importantly, I enjoyed teaching the course much more this past semester, in large part due to the new style and focus, and my enthusiasm was picked up by my students too.
2. Increase student participation and interaction in the course: Among the goals that I identified during the January FTEP workshop was that I wanted my students to take ownership in the course and their learning through increased participation and interaction. In order to hold all of my students accountable for readings and information covered in lecture and during class discussions, I involved them in course content from the get-go. I gave a survey on Day 1 that asked about their background, experience, and interests, and I incorporated their interests directly into my syllabus (see attached). I modeled my syllabus for vertebrate paleontology after the fall 2009 course syllabus for the Foundations in Biology course taught by Professors Elmendorf and Hickey at Georgetown (syllabus posted on the FTEP workshop website). Overall, the survey that I conducted on Day 1 was very helpful! It gave me an idea of where the students were coming from (both discipline and experience-wise), and there was a clear range of understanding with regard to fundamental concepts in paleontology (e.g., how to build a phylogeny or family tree). Also, simply knowing each student’s interest(s) in vertebrate paleontology was helpful when I later put them into lecture teams – that is, I put my teams together based upon common interests. This seemed to work quite well.
As the course progressed, I increased in-class discussion time (at the expense of more traditional lectures). In order to increase the engagement and participation of students in the lecture part of the course, and to hold them accountable for their learning, I assigned journal articles to read, write a short summary, and discuss during lecture. In past iterations of the course, I assigned articles to read for subsequent discussion, but I found that few students spoke up during in-class discussion. During the January FTEP workshop, another attendee suggested that I require written summaries of the journal articles and include them as part of the course grade. This past spring, I posted several papers on CULearn, and required 7 written summaries (for a total of 10% of their grade). I consulted with other faculty in Geological Sciences, in particular a colleague who taught a Critical Thinking course, on how to grade the written summaries, and I ended up using a Check, Check +, Check – system. I also modified a grading rubric used in the Critical Thinking course, and gave this to my students, so that they knew the expectations for their written summaries. I assigned the paper usually two lectures prior to its discussion in class (which is when the students also turned in their written summaries), and during in-class discussions, I would change things up a bit (depending on the overall class ‘mood’) and sometimes put the students into discussion groups (that were different each time). As we discussed the papers in class, I would capture the students’ discussion points in my PPT lecture, and this would be posted as part of that day’s lecture.
Results: I witnessed increased engagement and active participation in the lecture, and it evolved throughout the semester. At the beginning, it was mostly the graduate students and seniors speaking up during discussion, but by the end of the semester, everyone was participating in the discussions. I also encouraged an evolution of their written summaries, in that their initial attempts were relatively straight forward summaries of the journal articles, but they evolved to include more critical assessment of the paper as well as their own suggestions for how the study could be improved. There was a somewhat unexpected result too. I noticed that if a student had a discerning opinion from the general class opinion, he/she did not always feel comfortable discussing this opinion in front of peers, BUT would include his/her thoughts in the written summary that was turned in. When I graded these summaries, I encouraged my students to speak up during class, and told them that it was perfectly fine to not agree with a particular hypothesis. After all, science is about asking questions. Overall, the combined written summary/in-class discussion seemed to work well; it engaged the students, they delved much deeper into topics that were simply surveyed in the textbook for the course, and the written summaries allowed students to ‘voice’ their opinions in a more comfortable environment than a classroom discussion.
3. Create an environment (and community) that is conducive to discussion and sharing of ideas: In-class discussions of journal articles definitely helped to build a ‘community’ in the classroom, although as noted earlier, not all students felt comfortable speaking up in class (but would voice their opinions of a journal article in their written summaries). To engage the students and give them a vested interest in lecture, I put together lecture ‘teams’ and each 2-person team was responsible for giving a lecture on a topic of their choice. Based upon results from the Day 1 survey, I tried to pair the students with common interests (e.g., feathered dinosaurs, marine reptiles, etc.), and this generally worked well. I also paired graduate students with undergraduates, in hopes of creating an opportunity for graduate student mentoring. In addition to the team lectures, I created a new lab project in which student pairs (different from the lecture teams) were assigned a particular genus of fossil vertebrate. Each team was responsible for researching their genus in the literature and through study of fossils in the Museum’s collections, writing a diagnosis, and giving an in-class presentation on how to identify their fossil genus. Because so much of vertebrate paleontology relies on proper identification, this team project seemed a good way to introduce students to the fundamentals of studying fossil vertebrates.
Results: The students seemed to enjoy the project as well as working in teams, and their enthusiasm for their fossil genus really shone during their presentations! Both the team lecture and the lab project gave students the opportunity to be the experts and to share their knowledge and ideas with the class; these projects led to some interesting in-class discussions, and helped to build a community. Particularly with the team lab project wherein presentations were given during the last week of classes at CU, the students seemed genuinely comfortable speaking in front of their peers about their fossil genus. Several of the students in the vertebrate paleontology course plan to take a course that I’m teaching this fall entitled Paleontology Practicum (offered through the MFS program), and I plan to incorporate similar changes to that course. Also, some students plan to do work-study or become volunteers in our fossil collections. I think that the community we built in vertebrate paleontology will continue well past the course itself, which is a wonderful thing!
Summary: Although the new teaching techniques that I implemented in my vertebrate paleontology course this spring had positive effects (and feedback), there is always room for improvement. This past spring, I concentrated on the lecture component of the course, due primarily to time constraints. I teach both the lab and lecture components of the course (which equates to 6 hours of face time each week, and many more hours of preparation), and I realize that next time around, I will need to modify my labs so that they better fit with the style and themes of the lecture. I learned that increased discussion time in class has a price in how much material can actually be covered during the course. Also, all of the changes that I made were very time-consuming, and without a TA or learning assistant assigned to the course, I spent nearly the entirety of my spring semester revising the course. However, I believe that my students benefited from the changes to the vertebrate paleontology course. I received a lot of positive feedback via email and other communications from my students, and the fact that they want to take more of my courses is a good sign!