What lab reports can learn from literary analysis (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

The lab report is a staple of introductory science classes, so anyone who’s taken such a class knows how it goes. There’s a hypothesis, then an experimental procedure, then some data, then a discussion of whether the data agrees with the hypothesis. While the spirit of the assignment is good — emphasizing the importance of empirical verification through an experiment — it perpetuates some key misunderstandings about how real science is done. Continue reading “What lab reports can learn from literary analysis (Throwback Thursday)”

Teaching Non-Majors (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

One important aspect of being a teaching assistant is learning to teach non-majors, since in many cases, these students don’t come to class with a strong interest in the subject or with particular or special motivation for the course (it is, after all, not in their major subject). In my experience in mathematics, I have seen that the plurality or majority of teaching resources seems to be spent teaching students outside their respective department (at least by some measures, e.g. number of courses offered). This is probably true of many other departments. Teaching majors being a serious and core priority, teaching non-majors should nonetheless be a different, but still important, sort of priority. Continue reading “Teaching Non-Majors (Throwback Thursday)”

Teaching Issues: Behavioral Ethics

As graduate students, we share our opinions with the force of fact.  In many fields, this unwavering confidence is necessary for ideas to be considered.  We are required to frame our ideas so we receive thoughtful insight,  constructive criticism and no nit-picking.  Typically, this means significant amounts of preparation and burrowing into the ideas which we support.  What a fantastic skill to develop!

Have you ever considered what happens when you stand up in front of an audience with this strong bias towards your own ideas?  As a presenter, you are serving as an “expert” on a topic.  While you may want to persuade your audience of an opinion (yours, your advisor’s your department chair’s), doing so without all of the relevant information, including opposing points, is deceptive.

As teachers and mentors, what is our responsibility to our students?  Is it ethical to share your opinion without letting them form their own?  Or to present one side of a research argument without at least mentioning the other?  The one-sided or incomplete seminars I have experienced left me skeptical and unexcited.  The classes I’ve taken taught by stubbornly opinionated professors have left me questioning the expertise of the professor.  Perhaps these are conscious choices of the presenter, but it is unclear if these individuals understand the mistrust they instill in their audience by forcing their own perspective or missing important information.

I found an interesting series of videos on behavioral ethics that discusses social influences on individual choice.  As leaders in the classroom, laboratory or organization, graduate students have influence on undergraduates and peers.  It is important to acknowledge this influence and use it carefully and thoughtfully.  When you prepare for your next class just consider what you are sharing, or not sharing, with your audience.  Consider if you are being honest about what you do and don’t know to support your conclusions.

Have you ever considered this perspective or your responsibility as an authority figure?  Leave comments on the post to continue this discussion…

5 Teaching Tips for New TAs

A year ago, I was starting my first semester as a TA in the new Biology Workshop set-up. This change was going against decades of pedagogy as TAs were asked to act as facilitators rather than re-lecturing content that professors explain in lectures. Now, I had taught some informal pass/fail classes before, as well as done some science outreach teaching middle school students (Rutgers Science Explorer Bus), but this was my first experience teaching course content to college students. To make matters worse, I hadn’t taken biology since my first year of college! But over the past year, I’ve not only learned more about biology than I ever thought I would need again (as a chemist!), but I’ve learned even more about teaching and controlling a classroom.

1. Learn Student Names

After my first year teaching, I was appalled at how few TAs actually took the time to learn student names. I’m actually very poor with remembering names but as an instructor I think it’s important to know who your students are as it makes you seem more personable, as well as holds students accountable for their actions. If you have a Sakai site, getting photo rosters from them is extremely easy. I’ve actually made use of seating charts to help me early on each semester. From a student’s perspective, it might be the only time during their first year that an instructor of a class knows their name.

2. Be Yourself

Whatever your personality, find a way to integrate that into your teaching style. I feel most first year TAs try to portray an image of them acting like a professor, I know I did when I first started teaching, but I often find imitating the intimidation of a “scary” real-life professor can sometimes curtail questions from students. If you like to joke around, find ways to connect to your students that way. If not that is fine too, but students need to see you as knowledgeable AND approachable before they’ll feel comfortable in your class.

3. Be Prepared

I try to account for every situation imaginable but I’ll be the first (hopefully!) to tell you things will go wrong sometime this year. You will make mistakes, but that’s okay!! As great as technology is, it can lead to problems. This happened to me this week as 35 minutes wasn’t enough time to prevent tech issues from showing up 1 minute after class started. As someone who has a strict routine in almost all aspects of my life, teaching helped me think on my feet and innovate on the fly! You’ll need this in any job, especially teaching.

4. Grade as You Go

If your students are handing you work that needs to be graded, don’t take any new assignments until you hand them back. If you are expecting students to generate content, you should be generating feedback. As a side bar, hand out previous assignments/quizzes at the end of class as low grades can increase side chatter as well decrease motivation to listen during class.

5. Don’t be Afraid to say “I don’t know”

There have been times when students have asked me a question that I couldn’t answer. These are maturing adults. Copping out with an answer like “That’s a good question, look it up!” or merely avoiding makes you seem like you don’t know the answer AND you don’t care if the student finds out either. Try looking it up yourself, asking another TA, and if necessary follow up with the student the following week. It’s actually a nice way to review content and build connections from past material to what you are covering that week.

Most importantly, if this is your first semester teaching, good luck and I hope you learn from your students as much as they do from you.

What I Learned This Summer

Summer teaching is a unique experience for many graduate students. For students in many disciplines, it may be the first, primary, or only chance to teach one’s own class. In addition to being an opportunity for graduate students to transition to instructor roles, summer courses also give students and instructors alike different opportunities than a Fall or Spring term.

For me, this summer presented the chance to develop new and exciting (to me, at least) materials for the course MATH 244, which is a course on differential equations geared mainly to engineers. Without changing the overall curriculum of the course, I decided to integrate computer-based exercises (small & large) to give students the chance not only to learn computer skills that accompany the mathematical material in the course, but to use computer-based work to aid them in learning the rest of the material.  The goal of these changes was to improve learning.  Although the course was not long enough to establish serious, long-term, in-depth skills, the experience should serve as a useful introduction to particular sorts of software and to computing skills.

an epidemiological model

I also believe the use of the computer modernizes some of the other instruction, and benefits students with algorithmic, visual, or kinetic learning styles. I believe the ability to manipulate mathematics and see significant visual output in real-time has a profound impact on how students understand concepts like the stability of equilibrium-solutions to differential equations.

I would also argue that this approach helped better organize the course, both logistically and in students’ minds, as components of the course related to computation and visualization were not segmented into awkward places throughout the term. By making computation and visualization more central, and more hands-on, students more easily integrated this material with the theoretical and non-computational methods.

an information flow model

This also effectively separated the computational and visual elements of the course from exams, where asking students to perform tasks better suited for a computer limits the assessment. Students were instead asked to delve into complex computer-based tasks over a longer period of time, as “projects”. (This, as a side-effect, provided some relief from high-stakes testing.)

Students used complex computational and graphical methods.

Student evaluations seemed to indicate that students perceived this part of the course as beneficial: Instructional survey scores for “I learned a great deal in this course,” “I rate the teaching effectiveness of the instructor as,” and “I rate the overall quality of the course as” were substantially higher than average. Individual comments reflected positively on the use of computers for assignments and for in-class demonstrations. Five respondents to the instructional survey (over 25% of the class) indicated that computer-based work was how “this course or the instructor encouraged [their] intellectual growth and progress.”

A population dynamics model

Of course, this was challenging for students, but despite the fast-paced nature of a summer course, most students did not feel overloaded with work. For every student who believed there was “extra work” due to the additional computer-based workload, there was another who realized that this was eliminating a significant amount of alternative work to be done without computer to cover the same material.

Here is an interactive demonstration similar to those used and produced by students. The Wolfram CDF Plugin is required.

Images used in this entry are used under fair-use guidelines. They are excerpts from student-generated work in the course described in this blog post.

What lab reports can learn from literary analysis

The lab report is a staple of introductory science classes, so anyone who’s taken such a class knows how it goes. There’s a hypothesis, then an experimental procedure, then some data, then a discussion of whether the data agrees with the hypothesis. While the spirit of the assignment is good — emphasizing the importance of empirical verification through an experiment — it perpetuates some key misunderstandings about how real science is done.

As many commentators have previously complained, standard labs teach students that doing science means following a recipe (e.g., the instructions from your lab book), and there is a “right” way to do it and a “wrong” way to do it. (Of course, the “right” way results in data that agrees with the hypothesis.) Practicing scientists know that actual science looks nothing like this. You rarely start with a clearly-defined hypothesis and straightforward experiment to test it. Instead you usually just have some vague idea you want to investigate, and then you do some calculations, perform some experiments, whatever you can think of, but with no guarantee they will work or solve your problem. And often you end up addressing a problem different from the original one you were trying to solve (see my post about this here).

But I contend the lab report fails to teach another important aspect of science: how to craft a persuasive, evidence-based narrative. Real scientists almost never write anything that looks like a lab report. A lab report is, well, just a report: rigid, sterile, lacking any point of view. Reports are what police officers write after they investigate a crime. Scientists write papers for scholarly journals. And scientific papers, in my opinion, are much more like the literary analyses I used to write for humanities classes. They’re persuasive. They have a point of view. You start off with a thesis, which can be pretty specific and quantitative (“My model in equation 1 describes the data well”) or broad and qualitative (“Protein folding stability is the main determinant of protein evolution”). But just like in literary analysis, you’re advancing a point of view, and your job is to convince the reader that it’s valid. To support the thesis you build a narrative based on evidence — in literary analysis, this may be quotations from the work being analyzed or historical facts about the author, while in science the evidence is experimental data and calculations. One professor I had in college described scientists as “lawyers for the natural world.” Your paper describes your case. You are trying to make a persuasive case about some phenomenon in nature, convincing the readers (the jury) that your thesis is correct.

The cold, rigid nature of the lab report pretty much kills this aspect of doing science. To students the lab report mainly serves as proof that they did the experiment “correctly,” and any discussion of the data is perfunctory and merely reiterates what they think is obvious, that the data agrees with the hypothesis. We need to break free from the rigid structure of the lab report and allow students to see their write-ups as opportunities to craft convincing narratives in support of a (scientific) point of view, supported by evidence. We should select topics that allow students to form a non-obvious point of view that must be carefully justified with data and argument, rather than giving them experiments where the outcome is obvious and the data is self-evident. Not only would this teach a much richer and more accurate version of science, but it reveals a major place of harmony for the sciences and humanities: how to use evidence and logical argument to support an idea through writing.

Teaching Non-Majors

One important aspect of being a teaching assistant is learning to teach non-majors, since in many cases, these students don’t come to class with a strong interest in the subject or with particular or special motivation for the course (it is, after all, not in their major subject). In my experience in mathematics, I have seen that the plurality or majority of teaching resources seems to be spent teaching students outside their respective department (at least by some measures, e.g. number of courses offered). This is probably true of many other departments. Teaching majors being a serious and core priority, teaching non-majors should nonetheless be a different, but still important, sort of priority.

An important factor in teaching non-majors is identifying the goals of the course. Generally, saturating students with content is how most syllabi and curricula seem to look on paper, but when I teach a calculus course, I know that our major goals are to build mathematical and quantitative literacy, develop the skills involved in calculus, and give students the required background for their majors and for their careers. This is universal, independent of the intended audience (biological sciences, social sciences, engineers) or the level (we have 4+ semesters of mathematics for non-majors, depending on their curriculum). Quantitative literacy is an important goal of mathematics education, and is a reason mathematics is a component of many majors (and of other general requirements). As Michael, another fellow blogger, mentions in his recent post, scientific literacy (and I would say quantitative literacy, statistical literacy, and other such matters) are important for our civil discourse and our society in general.

It is important for non-majors to understand expectations, especially expectations surrounding assessment. Alexandra mentions this in her post this month. Student work should be legible and comprehensible – this is very important in mathematics I can say from experience. Establishing the expectations and assessing students fairly, but firmly, makes an assessment tool more effective (and easier to grade not just in itself, but by soliciting good responses from students). Remember that this is not a non-major’s “native language,” so to speak.

Brian mentions in his latest post that sometimes students are hopelessly out-of-touch. That is certainly the case, but when teaching non-majors (or introductory classes, or interdisciplinary classes) it is especially important to adapt to students’ interests and abilities – otherwise, they are indeed pushed more and more out-of-touch. There is usually a reason students are required to take a course, but they don’t necessarily see it that way. Many students (freely!) confess that courses are often things to “get out of the way” – if a lecture, quiz, homework set, or discussion can develop their interest and give them some hands-on time with the course material, it may spark interest and make the course meaningful and connect them better to goals like quantitative literacy (or a respective equivalent).

Fellow-blogger Jennifer speaks about the enthusiasm of TAs in her most recent post, and to tie that discussion into this post, I would assert that non-majors do not usually share that enthusiasm. It is important to identify the level of interest students have, and if there are enthusiastic students, give them opportunities to extend and enrich the course. But if, as is likely, the majority are not especially interested, it would be a mistake to disconnect from students by expecting them to connect with that level of enthusiasm. Not that enthusiasm is bad (it’s great!), but it’s important to meet them at their level – and also to meet them at the interface of the course and the topics about which these students are enthusiastic.