TAPcast S1E8: Neeta Yousaf and Amy Gage on Being a TA in General Biology

In this episode of TAPcast, we sit down with Neeta Yousaf and Amy Gage, PhD students in Food Science and Ecology, respectively. Continuing the conversation about General Biology at Rutgers from the last episode, Neeta and Amy share their experiences being TAs for the course. Additionally, Neeta shares some insights from her experience as the current head TA. We discuss the role of TAs in the course, including weekly training, expectations of the students during their class meetings, and expectations of the TA before, during, and after class. At the end, Neeta and Amy share some advice for new TAs and offer suggestions on balancing teaching and research.

Resources Mentioned in this Episode:

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TAPcast S1E7: Dan Stern Cardinale and Christy Beal on General Biology Course Transformation

In this episode of TAPcast, we talk with Dr. Dan Stern Cardinale and Dr. Christy Beals about the recent course transformation of Intro Biology. They tell me about the course structure both pre- and post-transformation, as well as the factors that provided the push for change. I ask them about how active learning is incorporated in the new model and how that is reflected in the course assessments. Finally, they share some insights and advice for other programs looking to revamp their mega-courses.

Resources Mentioned in this Episode:

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TAPcast S1E4: Matt Charnley and Sandra Medina on Active Learning

In this episode of TAPcast, we talk with Matt Charnley and Sandra Medina about their experiences with active learning. We discuss some potential difficulties in using active learning techniques as well as their strategies for overcoming those challenges. They share some of the activities they’ve incorporated into their classes that have gone well. Finally, they share some advice for new TAs who want to try using active learning.

Resources Mentioned in this Episode:

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Active Learning: What it is, Why we Care, and Resources at Rutgers

Active learning has had growing popularity in recent years, with departments and educators touting its importance and professional societies calling for broader implementation of it. But what is active learning? What evidence exists for its effectiveness? And what resources are available at Rutgers for those who want to incorporate more active learning strategies into their classrooms? This piece will provide some answers to those questions.

What is Active Learning?

There’s little consensus in the education literature on a concrete, self-contained definition of active learning – or of lecturing for that matter, as Hora (2014) points out. It tends to follow the paradigm of “I know it when I see it.” In most instances, however, teaching methods that involve student participation during class time outside of taking notes or listening to the instructor tend to be those considered “active.”

Even without a comprehensive definition of active learning, one can discuss some of the many forms it can take. The active learning spectrum is wide, with options for every type of class. Active learning can be used by the most hesitant educators looking for a small activity to incorporate into their lectures, staunch supporters eager to expand its use, and everyone in between. The American Mathematics Society has an article summarizing many of these options. Though the intended audience is Mathematicians, much of the content of the article is applicable to other fields. For more information and ideas on types of active learning, the challenges to implementation, and resources at Rutgers, check out the teaching tools from the Rutgers Active Learning Community or see Resources below.

Making the Case for Active Learning

Like any new teaching method, active learning needs to be scrutinized for its effect on student learning outcomes. Thankfully, there is a mountain of educational literature studying exactly this. Some examples include Prince’s 2013 literature review and McCarthy and Anderson’s (2000) study of role-playing in History and Political Science. Of particular note is the meta-analysis in Freeman et. al. (2014). In this study, the authors analyzed hundreds of research projects which compare active learning to traditional lecture in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) courses. The results are dramatic, and they are best illustrated by the oft-quoted line on page 4 of the article:

“If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial. ” (Freeman et. al., 2014 page 4)


Resources for Active Learning

Excited to give active learning a try, but don’t know where to start? Have you used active learning already and want some fresh ideas to incorporate into your teaching? Here’s a few resources at Rutgers that may help.

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.

Engaging Students in the Lab

Teaching a lab? This TAP session will offer advice and tips to help instructors actively engage students in labs.

Date: Thursday, November 5
Time: 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Location: Room 120ABC, Busch Student Center, BC

Register online

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)

Digital Storytelling: An Electronic Mode of Active Learning

Digital Storytelling: An Electronic Mode of Active Learning

Happy spring semester to you!  

As you prepare your course assignments for the new term, check out the following Faculty Focus article on digital storytelling — an innovative, student-centered assessment approach that promotes creativity and critical thinking skills in learning new course content.  The article defines digital storytelling in the statement, “Students choose a topic, whether a personal experience or a persuasive essay, then find images to illustrate the topic and add a voice narrative. The experience teaches students how to understand the underlying significance of experiences and issues and how to express that significance to an audience.”  How do you see digital storytelling fitting in the assessment infrastructure and student learning experience for your course?