1. Course Context
The targeted course is “Introduction to Polymers” in the mechanical engineering, a mixed 4000/5000 level course, with ~30 students. This is the second time that I taught this class since I joined CU in 2008. The most challenging problem that I experience from last time that I taught the course is that the lack of background of the ME students.
2. Target Improvement
I am intended to improve the students learning the subject and fundamental concepts of polymers based on their very limited background. Particularly, to improve the students learning about polymers as a new type of materials, focus on the fundamental concepts associated with these materials that are different from conventional organics and inorganics that they have learned from their materials class. A good evidence is that they can apply the structure-property relationships from the class to interpret why different polymers are chosen for particular applications.
3. What did you do?
After the January section of the workshop, I decided to adopt couple of techniques for assessing the students learning. Which is really important for my class due to the different level of learning experience (undergrad vs graduate). The followings are what I have tried, and how effectively they worked.
1). Preconceived notion: I designed a series of conceptual questions related to the class, and conducted the survey at the beginning of the class. The goal is for me to better understand their background and their general impression of the class and context. I found the responses from the students were interesting. Many of them think of this class as an “organic chemistry” type of class, and will require significant chemistry background to do well in the class. This notion was consistently brought to my attention for some students throughout the class/exam, although during my lectures I kept the chemistry aspects to the minimum. Apparently, they preconceived this as a barrier for them, or maybe it was just an excuse for some to be lazy to avoid additional readings. Regardless, this makes me aware that how they view the overall contents of the class. I think it was helpful for me to allocate my emphasis as well. From the specific concept questions that I put in, their responses reflect that they tend to apply their knowledge from general chemistry and inorganic materials that they have been exposed to.
2). Slice of information/muddiest and clearest points: This is the one that I felt most effective for me. Because of the nature of this class (highly interdisciplinary), and the mixed level of the class (under and grad, materials focused vs mechanical focused), the level of understanding varied across the classroom. I used weekly feedback with the muddiest points. Normally, I spent additional time in the following lectures to clarify these points, assigned additional readings, and/or assign some relevant homework exercises. Students also appreciate this exercise, because this seems to be easier for them to communicate back to me than the regular office hours.
3). In-classroom assessment: I did not use clickers because of the size of the class was relatively small. Instead, I normally prepared a series of conceptual/exercise questions that related to the materials that I assigned the class to read prior to the class. I quizzed student throughout the class to see whether they understood the materials or concepts that I just covered or assigned them to read. I found this kept them reading the assigned materials, and awake (my class is M WF from 1 to 1:50 pm). If I found that most of the class could not answer the question, I could go back and re-clarify. I acknowledge that clicker is probably more effective for a larger class. But the in-class questions can be much more interactive and brought out the weakness or “muddiest” points in their understanding. I often put a question with Yes/NO option and let the student debate on either side. I felt this approach is very useful.
4). Threshold concept: This was something I planned to do at the beginning, and it was useful for me rather to think how to put my emphasis of lecturing. Students, without the proper background, often struggle with the connections between different concepts, even for a science based class. Threshold concept or some of the most critical concepts helped them to build up the backbone of their understanding of the subjects. I identified these concepts, allocated more time to them, and designed more homework based on these to deliver them to the students.
5). The online discussion: I tried this approach for about two weeks, and found it was not effective for me at all. Basically, more than half of the class (graduate students) complains about the time commitment. They have to do research in addition to the class participation. Since initially, I did not assign any credit to the online discussion, and purely voluntarily. The participations were not encouraging. I did not want to put any grade associated with the online discussion, so I dropped this approach. I think for science/engineering class, the online discussion maybe less relevant.
4. What difference did it make?
I think through these approaches and efforts were positive in the following ways: First, it helped me better understood the students’ background, and guided me to reorganize my course contents. Through the threshold concepts and the different assessments listed above, the students had better grasp of the knowledge, which reflects out from the quiz and exams that I conducted.
5. What did you learn? What's next?
1) What I learned is that the assessment tools can help me understand the class better, which will lead to the modification of the syllabus and redistribution of the emphasis. For interdisciplinary science and engineering based courses like the one I had, this is critical. Not all students are at the same level with the same background.
2) I have been discussing and sharing this with the colleagues, Virginia Ferguson and Michael Hannigan from our department, who are also participating the workshop. We have been discussing about these techniques that we used, and the impact they had. In the future, we hope to formulate better our experience of the assessment techniques to share with our department. For example, we have recruited a Learn-earn student to putting together some online materials for the department to share. This can also be integrated into our department Wiki website for all the faculty to access and share.
Overall, I found these techniques that I learned from this workshop have provided me better ways to assess the students learning throughout the lecture. The downside is that I had to drop about 5-10 percent of the syllabus at the end, because of the delay