“Bad Reactions to Bad Reactions”

Mercedes Taylor, a UC Berkeley teaching assistant, offer the following  advice on how “to prevent undergraduates from reacting emotionally to ‘bad’ [lab] results and help them learn the intended concept.”

1. Be positive.

2. Walk students through the possibilities of why they ended up with the results they did.

3. Use the opportunity to discuss the philosophy of science .

Read the article. It’s worth your time.



Working with Different Levels of Academic Preparation

Most classes include students of varying levels of academic preparation. At first, it may seem an insurmountable task to make class time worthwhile for both academically-prepared and under-prepared students. This challenge, however, can be addressed with several techniques.

Know Your Students
It is not possible to address various student needs until you know what those needs are. There are several ways to accomplish this.

  • Solicit feedback during class by encouraging student responses and class discussion.
  • Give regular assignments that require students to demonstrate understanding, not just repetition.
  • Give a pretest. This test, given before material is covered may help to set a baseline for what students know and understand, and can help you tailor future class sessions to meet student needs.
  • Administer attendance quizzes. Attendance quizzes are given for 5 minutes at the end of a lecture and do not affect student grades. They serve as a day-to-day litmus test of how successfully students have learned that day’s material. Allow students to use their notes. After an attendance quiz, sort solutions by common mistakes, and address those mistakes by email or in the next class.

While none of these ideas will work perfectly in every class, experiment until you find which feedback techniques work best in your particular setting.

Planning Lectures
Once you know the needs of your students, you face a new question: for what level students do you plan the lecture?

If you change between easier and more challenging material frequently, you run the risk of confusing your students. If a class is tailored to leave absolutely no student behind, students with more advanced preparation will quickly become bored. If a class is tailored to meet the needs of the most advanced students, much of the class will not have the background to understand the lecture and may become frustrated. To resolve these issues, many experienced instructors recommend leading a class so that it is aimed to the middle of classroom preparation. This way, as much of the class as possible understands what is going on.

Providing Extra Resources
No matter what level class is conducted at, at least initially you will have multiple levels of student backgrounds to address. Providing the extra resources needed to address students’ needs outside the classroom is important as well.

A first easy step is to be aware of tutoring and learning centers that can assist your students. When students ask for help, having this material readily available from the beginning will enable them to quickly get the help that they need.

You may wish to collect both remedial and enrichment material to assist and to challenge as many students as possible. This may be distributed in several ways. You may choose to assign readings on multiple levels. As the semester progresses, you may wish to distribute additional resources through a class website or Sakai page as well.

Final Comments
Although teaching a diversely prepared classroom may at first seem intimidating, it does not have to be an insurmountable task. Make sure that your classroom policies are helpful to all students, and be prepared to provide extra materials, but most of all, be approachable to help students of all backgrounds find and make use of the material they really need.


Encouraging Classroom Participation

When students have the opportunity to react to material during class time, the instructor gets immediate feedback on how material is being received. Also, from the students’ perspective, the oft-quoted proverb holds true: “Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand.”

But how can a TA encourage students to participate? Listed below are several suggestions that experienced instructors have used successfully.

Bring a positive attitude

Realize that your attitude can make a huge difference in how students respond to you. Invite questions and genuinely listen when students participate. Make a point to smile at your students. If students perceive you to be an inviting instructor they will be more at ease in responding.

Learn students’ names

Use students’ names when talking to them or calling on them in class. In large courses this may be more easily said than done. However, when students notice that an instructor knows who they are, they feel valued. A student who feels valued will feel more comfortable in the classroom and be more likely to actively participate.

Take a poll

An easy way to test student understanding and intuition without putting one student “on the spot” is to take a poll. Ask a question and offer several possible answers. Have students answer by raising their hands. A student who observes that others agree with them may be less shy about speaking up to defend their answer. This is also a fast and easy way to check that students understand the material.

Red light, green light

In a large section, it may be difficult to include many activities or detailed discussions that require every student to participate, but this does not mean that class time cannot be an engaging experience. At the beginning of the term, give each student red, yellow, and green note cards. Students are responsible to bring the note cards back to each class.

During the lecture, if students understand what is going on, they should place the green card on the front of their desk. If they somewhat follow the material, but have many questions, they should use the yellow card. If students are completely lost, they should place the red card on their desk. This activity puts more responsibility in the hands of the class to give accurate assessment of how well they follow the material being discussed. It is also an unobtrusive way to solicit instant feedback.

Give an “attendance quiz”

Consider giving a quiz at the end of lecture that does not count towards the student grade. Ask only one or two short questions and allow students to use their notes. Emphasize that the quiz will not affect their grade other than to show that they were present. This will give feedback on how well students processed the information gleaned from class, and will encourage them to actively pay attention.

Have students teach each other

As time allows, break students into smaller groups and have them work on an exercise together. When students work in groups, stronger students may learn by explaining concepts to weaker students, and their knowledge will be solidified. Weaker students may be more comfortable asking questions of their peers than of the instructor. Mix up the groups with each discussion.

Have students grade each other

For some assignments, allow students to grade their own work, or exchange assignments and grade a peer’s work. Seeing why answers are right or wrong while the topic is fresh in students’ minds helps to reinforce course material. Peer grading also encourages students to be alert and engaged during discussion so that they grade correctly. This tactic has the added advantage that it saves you grading time; however, you may also choose to spot check students’ grading.

Use discussion questions creatively

Shyer students may feel self-conscious during class discussion, but there are several ways to circumvent this nervousness. Consider handing out discussion questions in advance so that students have the chance to gather their thoughts before coming to class. Alternately, ask students to submit possible discussion questions a day or two in advance. Then, class can be tailored to student interest and needs.

Remember that not every method will be successful in every classroom

Each new group of students will have techniques that work better for their unique dynamic. However, adding variety to the classroom dynamic will help keep students on their toes and more likely to be active participants in the class.

As you set the tone for your students this semester, remember, finding new ways to involve your students in class will take more planning. The payoff of an interactive and engaging learning atmosphere, however, is well worth the effort.

Using Wikipedia as an Educational Exercise

Wikipedia has a bad reputation among many educators. As a source of information often written by non-specialists how can it meet the same standards as traditional encyclopedias, books, and peer-reviewed articles?

The short answer is: it can’t. It’s not the same kind of source as peer reviewed materials. Entries in Wikipedia are constantly reviewed, edited, updated, and discussed by sometimes hundreds of people (in the case of controversial topics) or just a few (in the case of more specialized topics). Some of those involved are professionals, some are not. Some changes are accurate, some are not.

So in the interest of not simply telling your students to avoidWikipedia and having them ignore you, this post suggests an exercise that will teach your students to evaluate the site while helping them to improve it.

Entries and Discussion Pages

The majority of entries (topic pages such as “atom,” “George Washington,” or “literary technique”), have two sections—the public entry and the discussion page. The public entry is the first page you reach after searching a topic. It contains the description, discussion, and explanations about the topic and often includes diagrams or pictures. All versions of the public entry are archived, so when changes are made, the old version is still available.

The discussion page is the place where contributors discuss issues in the article. Issues can include questions of reliability, fairness in representation of perspective, and connections between articles. Various perspectives are debated until an agreement is reached. Because all changes are archived, if a change is made that is not compliant with Wikipedia’s policies the original can be retrieved.

Since pages must be edited by users and editors, it can happen that only biased or inaccurate changes to the most trafficked entries, or the most blatantly wrong data, are corrected quickly. So how do we teach our students to evaluate this information source? First, by making them aware of how the entries are written and the standards to which they are held.

Policies of Wikipedia

Among Wikipedia’s many policies are the three core content policies:

  1. Neutral Point of View
  2. Verifiability
  3. No Original Research

When entries do not meet these policies, contributors and editors are asked to make changes as quickly as possible.

Using Wikipedia

We can teach our students to evaluate this, and other web sources, by directly engaging with the site and its materials in the context of our classes. The goals of the following exercise are twofold. First, teaching students that critical evaluation of the site (and really, much of the material available online) is crucial. Second, the exercise turns the site into a collaborative exercise in knowledge production. It also has the added benefit of producing an accurate entry that others can rely on.

So what do we do? First, start with a little research. Search the website for topics in your course that you would like students to learn by the end of the semester. Choose key terms (i.e., literacy or modernism), people (i.e., Noam Chomsky), dates/time periods (i.e., 12th century or 1978), or places (i.e., Guiyang or Hyderabad). Remember, the site works like an encyclopedia so phrases or technical jargon may not appear.

Next, assess the entry. A well-written, well-cited entry may be less instructive to the students than a very inaccurate entry. However, a topic with subtle inaccuracies or an extensive discussion page will also provide an important learning opportunity for your students.

In general, you are looking for entries and/or topics that will allow your students to see a range of quality of both entries and discussion. Entries on the site range from complete, well written, verifiable articles down to “stubs” (minimal and/or incomplete entries). By using the full range in your class, students will discover that the site is not really a coherent whole. Each entry stands alone and must be evaluated as such.

Once you’ve identified a few entries, you may want to create a handout with some of Wikipedia’s policies from above. Since the final goal of the assignment is to create a “publishable” entry, students’ submissions to you should meet these criteria. This also has the additional benefit of educating your students to the goals of the site which will help them evaluate this and other online sources—all sites are not equivalent!

Next, divide your students into groups and assign one entry per group. Their task is to assess the entry, evaluate the writing (for POV, validity, and verifiability) and then write a new (or revised) entry. In order to complete the assignment, students will need to use library materials in the form of books or journals. They will read any sources already cited in the entry, assess their inclusion, and add new sources (cited correctly) as necessary.

While you are probably their best resource to contextualize their entry (maybe in course materials or lectures), they will be responsible for filling in the gaps, making connections between course materials, and learning that all online sources must, for university purposes, be evaluated against published and/or peer-reviewed material.

At the end of the semester, evaluate the entry:

  1. Is the information conveyed in a “neutral point of view?”
  2. Is the entry verifiable—did they provide citations for all evidence presented?
  3. Is there accurate evidence for all claims?
  4. Did they cover any nuance or disagreement in the topic and were they fair to all sides?

It may also be a good idea to end the project by having student groups present on what they found in terms of accuracy, how they improved the site, and what they now think about the site. This way, the students are able to see the full range of entries and can then discuss how what they learned in this exercise might change their use of the site in the future.

Nine Ways to Improve Class Discussions

Faculty Focus has an article on “Nine Ways to Improve Class Discussions” that’s worth a look.


Using Article Reviews to Teach Writing in Large Classes

Over at the TAP website, we have many interesting and useful articles. One such example is Using Article Reviews to Teach Writing in Large Classes by Audrey Devine-Eller. A brief excerpt is below.

One of my great dilemmas teaching large classes at Rutgers has been how to get my students writing. I wanted them, especially the first year students in my Introduction to Sociology class, to practice writing and to get engaged with sociology in a deeper way than filling in scantron bubbles. But none of us get paid extra to grade papers, and in fact, my class sizes were already swelling above 100. And it’s not just the crunch of having 100 papers to grade; it’s the crunch of how to grade all 100 in one week.

In this article, I lay out how I negotiated this problem, describing the writing I assigned and how I managed it in class. I drew on other experienced teachers to develop this system, and I hope it can be of use to other teachers to use or modify. After outlining the nuts and bolts of how I managed this in class, I discuss the instructional side.

I decided to use article reviews as the basic writing assignment for several reasons… (read more)

Creating an Effective Lecture

Combining short lectures with active learning keeps students engaged. This also allows the instructor to provide context and information. Remember, a lecture is not a paper. The types of things that may make for a good paper (e.g., analytic detail and deep engagement with the literature) don’t make for good presentations.

Don’t try to cram all of your knowledge on a given subject into a lecture. Your purpose is to help your students learn. Do this best by limiting the number of points you make and the information you provide. Students will retain more if you provide them with less material.

  • Have one central topic and a few main points
  • Tell students what you will cover and how you will do so
  • Put the material in context (explain how it relates to the course as a whole)
  • At the end, reiterate the main points

In addition:

  • Avoid complex sentence construction
  • Use simple, direct language
  • Offer aural guides along the way (e.g., “The second argument against…”)
  • Use illustrations and memorable examples
  • Don’t simply go over the textbook or reading material

Planning Ahead for the Spring Semester

Welcome to the Spring 2015 semester!  In light of the “new semester” feeling, this blog entry explores some useful college teaching tips to consider when supporting students to “study smarter, not harder” in your lecture and recitation sessions.  The Faculty Focus article, It’s Not Too Early to Begin Preparing Students for Cumulative Finals, shares strategies to be incorporated throughout the course experience that support students’ preparations for final assessments.  These discussed strategies include making connections to earlier content, assigning students to develop meaningful final exam questions, and forming semester-long study groups.  Tomorrow’s Professor e-newsletter entry, Note-Taking Pairs, highlights the teaching technique of pairing students as note-taking partners and how this looks across different college classroom structures including large lectures and online classes.

Mark your calendars!  The Rutgers TA Project is hosting a panel discussion, Recitation Planning across the Disciplines, led by experienced TAs from the Anthropology, Ecology, and Plant Biology departments who will share their insights on useful ways to engage their undergraduate students during recitations periods.  Join us on Wednesday, February 4th at 12:00pm in the Busch Campus Center (Room 117) for this TA professional development panel discussion.  Register here.

Student Engagement in Online Learning Platforms

Are you currently teaching an online or hybrid course?  Are you planning to prepare an online or hybrid course for the spring semester?  Check out the following Faculty Focus articles about increasing student engagement via online learning platforms including thoughts about overall course design and online discussion question development.

Four Crucial Factors in High-Quality Distance Learning Courses

Online Discussion Questions That Work

Office Hours: An Out-of-Class Learning Opportunity

As the fall semester is underway, TAs and course instructors will be readily meeting with their undergraduate students during regularly scheduled office hour appointments.  Check out the post from Tomorrow’s Professor entitled “Enhancing the Effectiveness of TA Office Hours” that offers useful strategies on how to make office hours a more productive learning experience.