Done but for all the grading

Scattered throughout this semester, I’ve been discussing my EcoDevo course, Biol 4182, Ecological Development. It’s done now, so I’m just going to make note of a few things that I’d do differently next time around.

  • Fix the squishiness. I envisioned this as more like a graduate level course — a 15 week conversation on ecological development, with a textbook that kept us centered. Assessment was largely subjective, based on students demonstrating their understanding in discussion. I had an oral exam, for instance, where we just talked one on one. I think that went well, but in the end, I’ve only got a few specific metrics to use to assign a grade, and much of it will be built around how well they engaged with the material.

    I don’t mind that, but students are a bit bewildered by the absence of hard grades throughout the term. I’ll have to incorporate more detailed assignments next time around, something where they go home with a number that they can work on improving, artificial as all that is.

  • Personally, I greatly enjoyed the student presentations, and I want to do more to have students bring their interests to the course. I might include a student poster session next time — a different medium, and if in a public place, bringing in new perspectives.

    The oral exam was also valuable in getting to know where their interests were. I think I’d schedule it earlier in the term, when I do it again.

  • No way will I ever offer this course at 8am again. It was stuff that required interaction and attentiveness, and somedays it was tough to wake everyone up. These were really smart students, too, so the fault isn’t in them, but in timing.

    Maybe I’d do it at 8am if the college provided a big pot of coffee with donuts every day for the students in compensation. Hah, right.

  • One of the most dramatic effects on student participation was making it mandatory that they ask at least one question a day. Late in the course I added that requirement, and it worked surprisingly well — I could tell they were paying attention to try and find something to pursue further. They also asked good questions, so it wasn’t just pro forma noise. I’ll do that from day one in the future.

    It would be nice if that provided one of those non-squishy metrics I need to add, but it worked too well — they all met that minimal requirement easily. Guess I’ll just have to give them all As.

  • I was bad. I got summoned to Washington DC for important grant-related meetings twice during the semester, which rather gutted two weeks out of 15. That was unavoidable, but while I managed to cover the material in my syllabus, my hope that we could go a bit further and get into the evolution and development side of the textbook was thwarted. But then I never get as deeply into the subjects of any of my courses as I’d like.

    Next time, if I have planned absences, I’ll try to bring in colleagues from ecology or environmental science to cover for me, and keep the momentum going. I was really reluctant to do that this term because…8 goddamn am. I wasn’t going to ask that of anyone.

What I really got out of the course was getting to go in twice a week, even at an ungodly hour, and getting to think about more than just basic, familiar stuff. The core courses I teach in cell biology and genetics are fine, but fairly routine — I know those subjects inside and out, and the challenge is in improving the pedagogy, not in getting exposed to new science. +1, would do again.

Also, one of the best things about small upper-level classes like this is that I can get to know the students a little better, and they reaffirm my faith in humanity because they actually are smart and thoughtful and likeable (I can say that now, I’m not sucking up, because they’ve already done the course evaluation and turned it into the office). Maybe I should just give everyone an A+, with gold stars and smiley face stickers.


  1. René says

    Wow. If I were half a century younger, you might have been my favo(u)rit teacher. But I would still call you out your out-of-paren full stop.

  2. blf says

    Fix the squishiness.

    Biology is inherently squishy! Some of it bites, too.

  3. robert79 says

    “mandatory that they ask at least one question a day”

    That’s an interesting idea, I might give it a try! Do you keep track or enforce it? If so, how?