Fall 2011: Methods for improving teaching and increasing students’ science literacy

Week 1 – September 29 and 30

Why Not Try a Scientific Approach to Teaching Science by Carl Wieman

Discussion: The structure and focus of SciLit Journal Club for Fall quarter.

Week 2 – October 6 and 7

Arts and Humanities Assessment: A qualitative Approach to Developing Program Objectives by J. Joe, J.C. Harmes and C. Barry

Discussion: A key goal over the next few weeks is to formulate a set of learning objectives for our Science Literacy courses at UO.

For Next Time: Write a few sentences about what you think ‘should’ be the broad learning objectives of Science Literacy courses at UO. This is a follow-up to this week’s reading about the humanities objectives and how to decide them.

Week 3 – October 13 and 14

Putting the Horse Back in Front of the Cart: Using Visions and Decisions about High-Quality Learning Experiences to Drive Course Design by Allen, D. and K. Tanner.

Discussion: A summary of this week’s reading (“Putting the Horse Back in Front of the Cart”) was given:

  • It provided scenarios of two different teachers who worried that they were not effectively conveying the ideas they had for their courses, even though test scores and student feedback were positive.
  • Don’t have vague ideas for the concept of the course, instead, come up with concrete goals for learning objectives.
  • A few different ways to structure learning objectives: Bloom’s Taxonomy, backward design model (Wiggins and Mctighe), integrated course design (Fink).
  • It provided information on how to design learning objectives, as well as a few concrete examples of them, applied to the introductory scenarios.

Our homework from last week was to each come up with three high-level learning objectives for our Science Literacy program courses.  We wanted to keep in mind that these will cover broad varieties of classes, even within science literacy.  Each individual presented his learning objectives to the group, a sample of which follows:

  • Learn how a scientist thinks.
  • Appreciate what a model is and how it can be used.
  • Learn how to test a hypothesis.
  • Learn how to use the library website / database / ask for help.
  • Learn to appreciate the scientific method, and learn this by applying it to a particular subject.
  • Learn how to approach a problem.
  • Eliminate preconceived notions.
  • Build up more complex ideas from more simple ones.
  • Know how to access good scientific information.
  • Assess scientific claims in the media.
  • Understand the social impact of scientific issues.
  • Understand the limitations of science.

We then talked about how we might go about sorting and categorizing these learning objectives, as many of them were either similar to one another, or touched on closely related topics.  We discussed whether Bloom’s Taxonomy might be a relevant way to organize them – do learning objectives need to “hit” every level of the taxonomy?  We concluded that for our purposes, our learning objectives would probably focus more on the “higher” levels, like Application, Analysis, and Synthesis, rather than Knowledge.

We also discussed alternate ways of organizing our learning objectives, such as writing each on a 3×5 card, then grouping them together by likeness, and finally giving a name to each grouping.

Finally, the question was raised of how helpful or necessary learning objectives are at all.  A point was brought up that it is difficult to come up with a learning objective that is broad enough to cover the necessary elements and yet still narrow enough to accurately assess.  The consensus was that they are at least partially helpful in designing a course, and may be especially useful in Science Literacy courses where the goals for the course are less well-defined than in a science course for science majors.

Week 4 – October 20 and 21

The Comprehensive Course Syllabus, from Tools for Teaching , 2nd ed., John Wiley and Sons, 2009

What Does Your Syllabus Say About You and Your Course?  (Teaching Professor blog)

Death to the Syllabus !, Mano Singham, Liberal Education, vol. 93, Fall 2007.

Time for an Extreme Syllabus Makeover , MPB Reflections: 21 st Century Teaching and Learning. (blog)

Discussion: The Thursday section of the Science Literacy Journal Club appeared to informally divide our discussions into two sections: The Rigidity of the Syllabus/Class and Methods to Increase Student Reading/Use of the Syllabus.

We began our discussion looking at the idea of an open, fluid syllabus, roughly following the experiment in the Singham article. Our discussion topics included:

  1. The ability to give students input into what they want to take from the class (versus possible frustration that the professor might not lead them down the path they had wanted)
  2. Using the students shared educational histories and shared classes in upper-division courses as a benefit to having them agree on the course topics and evaluation time table
  3. The concern that there might be a large subsection of the student body whose only interest in the syllabus is getting a calendar to help them plan their study habits.

An additional interesting topic that came from this discussion was the fluidity of course topics. Peter mentioned that in some of his courses the syllabus acted as a point of reference telling students exactly what material they were expected to learn during the course, but individual classes would not necessarily focus on that material, rather topics would be fluid and discussion would follow whatever paths it found itself going down (please correct this general description if it is grossly wrong). This lead to an engrossing conversation of ability to have meaningful, extended topical asides in science courses as opposed to other fields (specifically with respect to political science).

The second general theme of the meeting was the Student-Syllabus relationship (while our first topic might be referred to as the Course-Syllabus relationship). It seemed to be fairly quickly accepted that, in general, students do not read the syllabus in the kind of detail that was expected. A few methods were discussed as how to address this:

  1. Having students sign “contracts” saying they had read it or were present during the class discussion of the syllabus.
  2. Giving quizzes on the syllabus.
  3. Using attractive syllabuses to entice student enrollment, course retention and reading of the syllabus (as in the The 21st Century Teaching and Learning blog post).
  4. Using Blackboard features as a way to check on what sections of the syllabus students have read.

Specifically, topics (3) and (4) were longer discussions than the first two.

On the topic of attractive syllabuses, a distinction was drawn between required courses and elective courses (elective both within a major and elective science literacy courses to fulfill the University’s general education requirements). For required courses (such as normal organic chemistry for chemistry/biology majors or electro-dynamics for physics majors), a “fancy” syllabus is probably not necessary for various reasons. However, as for elective courses, having the attractive syllabus as a “hook” might be a good thing. The goal of scilit courses is to make the opaque into the transparent and having well designed and interesting syllabuses might be beneficial to garnering interest in the course and topic. Additionally, it might help departmental majors chose between different elective courses within the department. One concern expressed with this idea was that students might look favorably on a fancy syllabus only for an instructor who they view as “good”, while they would view the nice syllabus as irrelevant for “bad” lecturers.

On the topic of Blackboard, there was a rough idea proposed by Dean Walton (I hope it is alright to call you out for suggesting this) of using Blackboard as a means to gauge what students were reading from the syllabus. The general idea was to have a syllabus on Blackboard that mostly linked to other sections of blackboard, such as having a syllabus section labeled “Course Readings” take students to a new page with a short description of the expectations for reading (and possibly to the readings themselves, if they were posted on Blackboard). You could then use software that is probably included in blackboard to keep track of exactly how many times students clicked on that section of the syllabus. So you could guess that if no one ever clicked on the “Learning Goals” section but there were 400 clicks on the “Course Schedule” section, few students were interested in what they were supposed to learn as opposed to when they had to turn in homework or take exams. This was suggested as both a method to try to figure out what students are looking for in a syllabus as well as a method to try to test out different syllabus styles, comparing how much of a syllabus students read and what sections are appealing in different syllabus types.

In Friday’s group we first discussed methods to actually read/pay attention to the syllabus including:

  • Quiz students on the content of the syllabus
  • Talk through the syllabus on the first day of class
  • Pair down syllabus to only the pertinent information
  • Break syllabus into two separate documents: general information for course (grading policy, office hours, etc) and course outline/learning objectives
  • Directing students to the syllabus when they ask a question that has been outlined in the syllabus (ex: when is our homework due?)
  • Including figures in syllabus (while we generally agreed images might not be appropriate, we came to the conclusion tables/flowcharts/bulleted lists could be useful)

It was also suggested that it could be beneficial if students thought they were somehow involved in putting together the syllabus, either by allowing them to make a choice (ex: making something worth a quiz grade vs a homework grade) or by getting them to develop learning goals (or have them suggest ways they can meet a learning goal you present them).

Other ideas that were discussed included

  • Getting students to talk to other students BEFORE asking the prof
  • Starting the class off with a “class business” slide (homework due, readings for next time, etc)
  • Having a “Class FAQ” on Blackboard – ultra-condensed syllabus
  • Typography of the syllabus
  • Clearly laying out grading policies
  • TENTATIVE syllabus
  • Getting students to provide evidence that they met a learning goal

We wrapped up our discussion with a quick brainstorming session of what we wanted to do with the rest of the term. We decided that we’d like to discuss ways to determine how effective a SLP class was (pre/post surveys?) and what our learning objectives are.

For Next Time:
Homework for next week is to condense learning objectives for SLP.

Week 5 – October 27 and 28

Science Lectures: A relic of the past? Physics World, Mazur , E. 1996.

Crouch , CH and E Mazur. 2001. Peer Instruction: Ten Years of Experience and Results. Am. J. Phys., 69, 970-977.


Discussion: This week’s assignment: read about learning goals and discuss what we found and how it applied to our science literacy classes.

The results of that research were apparently less conversation-worthy than discussing what we thought the goals of our Science Literacy classes ought to be, so we spent our time doing the following activity.

We took seven minutes to write learning goals that we thought appropriate for our classes on sticky notes.  The notes were then collected and sorted with group input on which notes contained similar goals.  The group then split into smaller sub-groups, each with some number of groups of notes, and found appropriate category names for the groups they had (e.g. ”promoting the use of scientific thinking”).  We then put those names up on the board.  The results are posted after the break:

The full set of notes is available here: Learning Goals (Fri. Oct. 28th).

The categories written on the board were shorthand.  Math skills was divided into (a) information about mathematical thinking, i.e. understanding how to properly interpret statistics), and (b) problem solving (i.e. being able to do math/arithmetic for science). “Who to Trust? [in the] Media” is about media portrayal of science and skills for being able to tell if good or poor quality research is being discussed.  Info Literacy is a term that we got from our library scientists, and has to do with finding, absorbing, and maybe even evaluating the credibility of information from any of a variety of sources (maybe somebody can offer a better definition in the comments).  The scope of the scientific method ended up labeled as “Beliefs & Limits, Angels”.  ”Fun, Cool, Beautiful” refers to teaching students that science is the aforementioned things. I find it interesting that “Content Mastery” was not on any sticky note, but we added it to the board when we noticed that it was absent.

Here’s a bubble image of the learning goals we came up with: SciLit Learning Objectives Concept Map

For Next Time:
Recommended “prework” to help you get the most out of Stephanie’s Presentations:

  • Required:  Watch “Clickers, Students and Teachers Speak” at http://STEMclickers.colorado.edu
  • Optional:  Watch “Using Clickers Effectively” at above website. Read/discuss some ideas in the “Instructor’s Guide to Clickers” at the above website.
  • Brainstorm and create a list of “What are the benefits of using questioning in class?”
  • Bring Clicker questions that you’ve used/learning goals you’ve written for your courses.

Week 6 – November 3 and 4

Handouts from upcoming workshops:

For Next Time:

  • Required:  Watch “Clickers, Students and Teachers Speak” at http://STEMclickers.colorado.edu
  • Optional:  Watch “Using Clickers Effectively” at above website. Read/discuss some ideas in the “Instructor’s Guide to Clickers” at the above website.
  • Brainstorm and create a list of “What are the benefits of using questioning in class?”
  • Bring Clicker questions that you’ve used/learning goals you’ve written for your courses.

Week 7 – November 10 and 11

Handouts from upcoming workshops:

Week 8 – November 17 and 18

Designing effective questions for classroom response system teaching, by Ian D. Beatty, William J. Gerace, William J. Leonard, and Robert J. Dufresne, Am. J. Phys. 74, 31 (2006)

We discussed how to best assess a student’s understanding of scientific information. We used the following “Muscling in on motor” article and the corresponding questions as a starting point:

Muscling in on motors assessment activity

For Next Time:
Submit improved questions about “Muscling into Motors” article.

Week 9 – November 24 and 25

No meeting due to the holiday.

Week 10 – December 1 and 2

We will be focusing on eliciting student feedback on teaching effectiveness and using it to improve teaching and student learning, with forays into effective survey construction. To prepare, please read Midterm Feedback from Students: Its Relationship to Instructional Improvement and Students’ Cognitive and Affective Outcomes. Also, bring a few midterm surveys along, either ones you’ve used before or ones you find using Google (there are lots out there!).  We’ll talk about their effectiveness and if they’re likely to be helpful.