Thursday, February 18, 2010

Student Centered Learning: Successes, Failures & Strategies

"It's not that student-centered instruction doesn't work when done correctly,  [...]   Although the promised benefits are real, they are neither immediate nor automatic.  The students, whose teachers have been telling them everything they needed to know from the first grade on, don't necessarily appreciate having this support suddenly withdrawn.  Some students view the approach as a threat or as some kind of game, and a few may become sullen or hostile when they find they have no choice about playing. 
Good lecturers may feel awkward when they start using student-centered methods, and their course-end ratings may initially drop.  It is tempting for professors to give up in the face of all that, and many unfortunately do.  But giving up is a mistake."
--Felder & Brent (1996)

In this session we take a look at some of the common challenges and how to address them.  

  • Introduction (10 min): The data on SCL & mapping common challenges
  • Break-out groups (20 min): Solutions to common challenges
  • Synthesis (20 min): group Presentations


Sample case-study:
Some meta-analyses of SCL:
And an excellent discussion of Challenges & suggestions

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Interdisciplinary Teaching, Part II

For the past two fall quarters, I have taught Entomology 1, which is an interdisciplinary, art-science fusion class that supplements its lectures with art studios, rather than lab sections. Diane Ullman is the professor of the class and the primary lecturer, although she invites several guest speakers to give lectures on their area of expertise throughout the quarter. The lecture portion of the class covers basic insect biology, including morphology, basic taxonomy, behavior, and communication, but also continually references ways in which insects have influenced human art, culture, agriculture, and technology.

There are three studio sections students can choose to take: ceramics, painting, and textiles. Each studio section incorporates assignments that reinforce students' understanding of insect biology and a final class project that is installed as public art somewhere on campus. I have taught the painting studio the last two years and my students have created educational artwork for the Bohart Museum of Entomology and the Honey Bee Research Facility, both on UCD campus. At the beginning of the quarter I have an idea of the overall structure of the class project, but students ultimately determine the themes represented in their artwork, and the design of their paintings. Perhaps what distinguishes the type of artwork produced by these students is that all images must be scientifically accurate and educational in nature. For example, in 2008 my students were producing artwork to be displayed outside the Bohart Insect Museum. The museum gives tours to large numbers of school children and are primarily concerned with documenting and preserving insect diversity. Based on this, my students chose to represent the diversity of insects found in various California habitats. Because of the museum's emphasis on education, insect morphology in the paintings had to be very accurate, but students controlled the composition of their design and often exaggerated the scale of insects to emphasize their importance.

One of the most exciting aspects of teaching this course is that the content and projects are continuously evolving. Each year we create public art for a new site, thus we must continuously redesign old assignments and adapt the format of class projects to meet new demands. While this maintains excitement on the instructor's end, it also allows more room for student creativity. When I teach the class I am often only a few steps ahead of the students in the design process so they have many opportunities to help me make decisions that directly impact the outcome of the project. In 2009 my students produced artwork for a new honey bee garden that has been installed at the Honey Bee Research Center west of UCD campus. Students knew they would be painting the outside of bee hive boxes, but together we came up with the final plan for how they would be arranged three-dimensionally in the garden. In addition, students chose the themes and specific topics they would represent and created their own sketches for their design.

In my presentation I listed several positive outcomes of using the art-science fusion paradigm of teaching. In particular, this approach:
- encourages creativity
- teaches students an alternative method to communicate ideas
- builds a strong sense of community among students/ between students and UCD campus

I suppose the first two actually refer to the practice of using methods of one discipline to teach another, while the third applies to any class project that makes a connection to the local community. This goes beyond the scope of interdisciplinary teaching per se, and I think it is a powerful way to create a sense of community in the classroom and promote student ownership of, and personal investment in, their education.

Benefits of Interdisciplinary Education Part I

Monday's meeting drew a packed room as we gathered to hear and discuss our experiences and practice with interdisciplinary education.  From Sarah we heard a fascinating story of Entomology 1, where students explore the biology of insects through art (post to come!), and from Jenni we heard how scientific concepts bolster polydisciplinary exploration in introductory literature courses:
First, content can require knowledge from multiple disciplines, as when I ask my students to prepare presentations on topics from physics (e.g. the Schrodinger's cat thought experiment), from cultural history (e.g. the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties), and from literary studies (e.g. dramatic satire) to facilitate the class' reading of science plays. In my freshman seminars on science plays, my students about equally frequently choose to learn an entirely new topic and to present on subjects they already know fairly well.
Second, reaching out to students outside the discipline can help draw them in to service courses. I use, for example, poems by James Clerk Maxwell and a contemporary short story about a relationship between humans and aliens that is arguably either symbiotic or parasitic, in my introductory course in literature.
Third, analogies to other disciplinary methods are another way to help students into the material I am teaching. I offer analogies between the form of the lab report and that of a literary essay.
Fourth, and rarely a significant part of my own teaching practice, are studies drawing not only on interdisciplinary knowledge but also on multidisciplinary methods. I've never felt comfortable attempting this level of integration on top of the other objectives of the courses UC Davis has allowed me to teach.

Relevant Workshop: Learning Through the Arts in Higher Education

While it's arguable that all teaching workshops are relevant to the GTC, Learning through the Arts in Higher Education is particularly so considering our discussion about Interdisciplinary learning yesterday. Because this upcoming workshop (it's on Thursday, folks) is being facilitated on by some fellow TA Consultants (Mara, Richard and Jorge), I had the privilege of getting a sneak preview of what they have in store for you. And let me say this, it's going to be really good! As long as my schedule allows, I will be there. I've posted the advertisement below. Also, stay tuned to the blog for a brief recap of what we talked about in the highly attended "Interdisciplinary Education" meeting yesterday, it should show up here in a day or so.

Learning through the Arts in Higher Education

Thursday, Feb. 11

4:00 p.m.- 6:00 p.m. | Teaching Resources Center, 25 Wellman

Do you wonder why your students are always looking gloomy in class and their best part of your class is when it is time to leave? Do not worry! Hope is in sight! Learning through the Arts in Higher Education could be an innovating, non-conventional and contemporary approach to teaching. You can bring some life into the classroom by improving your teaching techniques through the arts. No registration necessary. For more information about this workshop please contact Sharada Balachandran Orihuela at Sponsored by the Teaching Resources Center.

Mission Statement

As students in higher education progress through school and through life, “the visual and performing arts not only provide avenues for creative expression, but also assist in the fashioning of cognitive tools and the enhancing of interpersonal understanding. Drama, music, dance, visual and digital art, help bridge differences among academic disciplines, cultures, and generations. The sense of wonder engendered by the arts encourages wide-ranging interests that may support more systematic inquiry” throughout the students’ academic careers and life. The purpose of our workshop Learning through the Arts in Higher Education is to create new strategies for Teaching Assistants to actively engage students in the learning process, stimulate students to expand the scope of academic thinking and increase the possibilities for a more interactive and diverse way of learning and living.


1. Teaching Through the Arts. November 28, 2009.

2. Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks Current Curriculum Frameworks. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. November 28, 2009.

3. Massachusetts Mathematics Curriculum Framework. November 2000. November 28, 2009.

4. Brouillette, Liane. Significant New Study Affirms Life-Changing Impact of Intensive, Long-term Arts Involvement. Journal for Learning through the Arts. 5 (1)

5. Center for Learning through the Arts and Technology. University of California, Irvine. November 28, 2009.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Professional Writing Workshop for Undergrads

Today's meeting was to help me develop a "Professional Writing Workshop" for the undergrads I mentor in a club promoting minorities in the environmental sciences (SEEDS - Strategies for Ecological Education, Development, and Sustainability). But before I get to that I want to pose a question to all of you readers; What are the red-flags you notice when reading an email or personal statement that makes you think the writer is unprepared, uninterested, or otherwise a bad candidate for admission to a graduate program?

The two main types of writing I wanted to cover were writing an introductory email and personal statement. In the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology most graduate applicants MUST get in touch with a faculty member six months to a year prior to apply to a graduate program. This is in order to develop a relationship and get the faculty member(s) support for sponsorship. Applicants with good grades but no sponsor are unlikely to get an interview or be admitted.

For the emails I wrote two writing samples, one good and one bad, using Lord of the Rings and Fellowship of the Rings as an example. The recipient of the letters was King Aragon, aka Strider. The writers were Grimli the Dwarf and Boromir the Steward of Gondor. The emails were as follows (slight modifications to improve my Grimli email):
Date: 1 Feb 2010
Subject: Potential member of your Fellowship of the Ring

Dear King Aragon,

Bilbo Baggins and Gloin Longbeard recommended that I contact you about joining your Fellowship of the Ring. I am currently a guard at Ered Mirthin where I protect the mines with my battle-axe. During the 30 years I have guared Ered Mirthin, I have repelled Orc, Trolls, and Balrogs.

My interests are in protecting Middle-Earth from Sauron by destroying the One Ring. I am aware that your tracking skills are vital to this endeavor and I hope to learn from your experiences in tracking to become a better tracker myself. I believe I could add a unique skill, close combat with a battle-axe, to your party and in turn benefit from the exposure to different races and cultures.

Attached is my CV, which includes a list of people who can speak to my qualifications for your party. I look forward to discussing this opportunity with you further. I can be contacted at 555-555-5555 and at the above email address.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Grimli Longbeard

And for the bad letter I threw in a bunch of "Blah blah"s to indicate that if letters get too long professors start to glaze over. In other words, be concise otherwise your letter may get overlooked! To help with this John P. suggested looking at your email in "Print Preview" to check the length.

Date: 1 Feb 2010
Subject: Fellowship

Hello Strider,

My name is Boromir Boer. I’m writing because I think you need me in your Fellowship of the Ring. Well, you don’t actually need, NEED me but I think I could help out alot. Right now I’m a steward of Gondor while we wait for the true king to return to Gondor. I think that’s you right?

Anyways, I think I’d be great for your party because I’m strong and smart. In fact I think I’m the smartest person in Gondor. I want to save Middle-Earth from Sauron and become a hero of Middle-Earth because it’s the right thing to do and I think I am worthy of and capable of doing it because I have lots of experience. I think humanity should be saved because we are great.

For the last 10 years I’ve work with lots of humans to fortify my kingdom. I’ve never worked with Elves or Drawfs, but I think I can teach them alot. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

Blah blah about details on specific projects I’ve been a part of Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

Blah blah I’m qualified because I’ve taken these specific courses but I’ll give you course numbers instead of course titles cuz everyone uses the same course number. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

If you like I can send you my CV, but I have to write it first so I’ll need a few days.


Boromir Boer

These emails will be presented in tandem. I'll also write up a third fake but more realistic email that the club members and I will improve together from what we learned from these two sample emails.

For the personal statements I wrote a bad personal statement made from an amalgamation of ineffective personal statements that I've read over the past 5-6 years. For the good personal statement I'll be using one of my personal statements for admission into graduate school or for fellowship applications. Prompts for personal statements are usually along the lines of "please tell us what personal experiences have shaped your desire to pursue this path and how those experiences have prepared you." Below is the bad essay:

“Make sure,” I said, “to turn off all the lights before you leave any room.” I was talking to a bunch of 6th graders at Fake Name Elementary School teaching them simple things they could do to save energy and in turn save the world. Even though I’m not the type of person who people would normally think of when they think of environmentalism because I’m an Asian female and not your typical Caucasian male I love the outdoors and I want to save it.

Ever since I was a little girl all I wanted to do was run around barefoot in the back yard catching frogs. I loved frogs. I had frog clothes, frog bedspreads, frog backpacks, and frog books. I knew all the frogs there ever were by heart. Now I want to study frogs for my phD.

At first my parents were appalled that I would play with slimy creepy-crawlers but in the end they said what the heck she’s having fun. After that they encouraged me to be outdoors by sending me to camp where I learned about how most of the water for California comes from snow pack which feeds the rivers that can be dammed and turned in to reservoirs. But I later learned in college that dams can have horrible effects on the environment. They can make it hard for fish to swim up or downstream, they change the landscape, they create habitat for invasive species, and they take water away from frogs by preventing the natural flow in creeks! It just goes to show you that not everything your taught as a kid is true. That’s why I make it a point to tell the kids I teach all the facts about their environment.

But getting back to my parents. They have been great, so supportive. Not all Asian parents would let their let their innocent daughter play in the woods like my parents did. But they were so supportive it’s turned me into a strong woman who can do anything. I’ve traveled all around the world, to Thailand, Costa Rica, Egypt, and Germany. Everywhere I go I try to prove that Women can do anything and be anyone they want to.

For a while my parents wanted me to take over the family business. I tried but I just couldn’t stand being indoors. My feet need to be bare in the dirt and my skin needs to feel the sun. Sure I’d have it made working for my parents and I’d make lots of money, but the environment is so important to me that I want to be a graduate student.

I think I’d be great for this graduate program because I am a strong women from a unique background who can teach other women to be strong. Also being in graduate school will put me in a position of leadership where I can mentor underrepresented minorities and women.

Any comments to improve the good email or make the ineffective email and essay worse are more than welcome. Also, since we didn't get to cover it in class, please also post red-flags. Thanks for all your help today!