Mary Kraus

Geological Sciences


3000-level course for Geology majors; 50 students ranging from sophomores to seniors; student population also includes a small number of non-majors who are students in engineering, anthropology, and biology. This course is a 4-credit hour course that includes a weekly lab.

Target of improvement/evidence:

Improve student understanding of concepts in sedimentary geology and improve student performance on multi-step problems, which are real problems that are typically encountered by sedimentary geologists. Promote student engagement in the course and their appreciation for the subject matter.

What did you do?

I worked with a Science Teaching Fellow (through the SEI) all semester. The STF helped me develop new teaching strategies and assessments.

Classroom assessment:
(1) Added a pre-assessment at the beginning of the semester that asked about student attitudes and perceptions about sedimentary geology. At the end of the semester included a post-assessment that asked similar questions to those in the pre-assessment.

(2) The Science Teaching Fellow (STF) used student interviews throughout the semester to assess whether various approaches were working or not.

(3) The STF administered an on-line questionnaire at the end of the semester that asked students about the strengths and weaknesses of the course. Those data are still being collated by the STF.

(4) The STF sat in on each lecture and lab period to assess student engagement and student learning (especially in the labs). In the lab, she was able to engage students in discussion about the pros and cons of a particular exercise.

New teaching strategies:
(1) To improve student engagement and to assess short-term student learning, added clicker questions to lectures – I used this approach daily for the first 10 weeks of the semester. Based on feedback from students and based on my own impressions regarding how this technique was working, I dropped clicker questions for the last five weeks of the semester

(2) Added in-class activities to engage students and work on problem-solving skills. This technique was used several times a week during the last five weeks of the semester, after I stopped using clicker questions.

(3) Added “warm up” exercises to each lab assignment. These are group activities done at the beginning of each lab period that introduce the concepts and learning goals of that lab to the students.

What difference did it make?

Based on the various assessment tools used (especially student interviews), the STF and I concluded that changes to the lab, particularly the addition of warm up exercises, were very successful. Student feedback on the warm-up exercises was uniformly positive. Students queried at the end of the semester indicated that the lab exercises promoted their learning in the course.

Student response to clickers was not very enthusiastic. In interviews with the STF, students indicated that they find clicker use appropriate for lower division classes but did not find them useful in an upper division majors class. In response to this student input, I dropped clicker use after spring break and turned to greater use of in-class activities.

In-class activities were typically short (5 – 10 minute) and focused on solving a problem related to material/principles covered in lecture. In the last five weeks of the semester, there were approximately two activities per week. Students worked in small teams to solve the problem, and that was followed by discussion among all of the students. I do not yet have student feedback on these activities. My impression from the final exams is that they improved student learning. I intend to increase use of in-class activities next spring when I teach this course again. The main drawback is that it is time-consuming to develop the activities.

What did you learn?

Pre- and post-assessments – These were valuable in that they helped me understand what MIS-conceptions students bring with them and how difficult it can be to change some misconceptions. In addition, the STF has interviewed some students in an attempt to understand why particular misconceptions persist through the semester. With these insights, I plan to add several in-class activities to address particular misconceptions.

In-class activities appear to improve class engagement and promote understanding of key concepts. Student interviews support those conclusions. I plan to include more activities next year in this course.

During the semester, it became apparent that students deal with varying degrees of success with homework or quiz/test questions that require them to explain something. In the last five weeks of the semester, the STF interviewed students and gave each a question that required an explanation. She judged the quality of the responses and also asked students to explain their strategies for answering “explain” questions. Preliminary results indicate that successful students use strategies they learned in high school – starting an answer with a thesis statement and following that generalization with supporting statements. By starting with a thesis statement, those students focus their answer and stick to the question. Less successful students indicated that they do NOT start with a thesis statement. Rather, they use a brain dump strategy that results in a disorganized answer that typically fails to respond to the actual question. Based on the findings of this spring, we intend to address problems with “explain” questions through scaffolding exercises of some type. We presented a preliminary poster on this topic at the SEI end-of-semester session. This is one aspect of student learning that we plan to develop and to share with colleagues in Geological Sciences and other science departments.



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