Category: Teaching

Reflections on Teaching a Three Hour Evening Class for the First Time

Since I’ve started teaching courses at the university level, the classes that I have taught have been 1 hour timeslots three times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, or 1.5 hour slots on Tuesdays and Thursdays between the hours of 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. This semester I taught a 3 hour class for the first time and it was on a Monday evening.

I think that when dealing with timeslots that you haven’t experienced before that it is important to go into the experience with an open mind. Prior to teaching this particular course I spoke with some colleagues who had done 3 hour classes before to get an idea of what they liked and didn’t like about the experience. I also went online and looked more broadly about what other professors said about preparing for and teaching a 3 hour class.

Here are my lists of pros and cons that I experienced:

Pros

1) I liked teaching once per week as opposed to 2 or 3 lecture slots per week. I think this considerably decreased my overall stress level because my days weren’t as fragmented this term. While I enjoy teaching, it was great to know that my classroom time was completed by 10 p.m. on Monday. I felt like the rest of the week was open and full of possibilities.

2) Monday evening was a good timeslot as my students were coming off a weekend and were definitely more lively than if the class had been scheduled in the early morning. Getting them to participate in class was fairly easy.

3) I never felt rushed going through my teaching material. I also felt that I could deliver the material more efficiently and in less time in a single 3 hour block compared to three 1 hour blocks.

4) I was able to offer my students some class time to work on a major group project.

Cons

1) Three hours is a long time to teach and to hold the attention of students. The first hour was always good. I then gave a 10 minute break and we launched into the second hour. After that I gave a 5 minute break and moved on to the last hour. I have to admit that the 3rd hour was pretty tough. I was starting to get tired and holding the full attention of the students was very challenging because they were reaching the limits of their ability to focus.

2) It was disheartening to lose a few students after each break. The vast majority did stay for the second hour, but larger numbers left during the second break. This was at its worst on my very last day of class.

3) I found it harder to run active learning exercises in a 3 hour class compared to a 1 hour class. This might have been because there was more time and less urgency to get through an activity and I think this threw off my sense of timing a bit.

4) If a student missed class on Monday evening, they missed a lot of material.

Overall, I liked teaching a 3 hour class Monday evenings and it’s given me a lot to think about in terms of my teaching, classroom management, and pedagogy.

 

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Attendance at University Events

This blog post is a vent about people who don’t show up for events for which they have registered. This is easily one of my biggest pet peeves in both my personal and professional lives. I think that I find it especially irritating due to the fact that I grew up in an era when cell phones didn’t exist. I long for a return to a time that when you made plans your word was worth something. You couldn’t easily back out at the last minute because “something came up” or because you got a better offer for some other activity that you’d rather do. If we made plans to go to a movie on a particular date and time, then you’d better show up unless you had an emergency. There was a respect for people’s time and co-ordination efforts. Perhaps this makes me overly rigid and I need to learn to go with the flow.

I was reminded of this particular irritation yesterday because I attended our university’s Teaching and Learning Day. I attend this event most years and I always find it useful and insightful. This year I ran a one-hour workshop for educators to swap course assessments or active learning activities. I was fortunate to have enough participants (8) that the workshop could run. Unfortunately, I know of several colleagues that only had 3-5 participants for their sessions which made facilitation challenging. I was shocked to find out over lunch that 80 people had registered for the event, but easily half of them did not show up. This resulted in low attendance at several sessions and a huge amount of left over food (that ended up feeding random students, so it didn’t go to waste) due to the no-shows.

When I make a commitment to attend a university event I show up. It’s not hard, it’s respectful, and demonstrates that I have integrity. This is doubly true for events that require registration; anyone who has organized a conference knows the importance of having an accurate head count. Failing to show up for something that you’ve registered for is thoughtless and rude; you’re an adult-do better. It’s called time management.

 

Common Problems Experienced during Graduate Student Theses and Defenses

By this point in my career, I’ve been on both sides of this scenario; I’ve written and defended 3 theses (undergraduate, M.Sc., and Ph.D.) and I’ve evaluated a number of theses and presentations from my own students and those from other labs. Here’s my 2 cents on common problems that I’ve experienced, or have heard about from others. I’m focusing on issues that can occur after the thesis has been written and submitted to the committee members up to and including the oral defense of the thesis.

Challenges for the Student

  1. Figures in the thesis aren’t as good or robust as those used in the presentation.

I’ve been in several defenses where many concepts that were challenging to figure out while reading the written thesis have been cleared up by the inclusion of additional figures in the presentation. It would be great if students just included these additional figures from the get-go as this would really improve the experience of the reader.

2. Figure and Table captions are not sufficient.

I always recommend to students that figures and tables should be able to stand on their own without any help from the written text of the thesis. This can be achieved by including an appropriate level of detail in your captions that explains what the reader is seeing as well as making any jargon and acronyms clear.

3. Interpreting questions or concerns as a personal attack.

It is very hard not to take concerns or questions about your writing, data, or presentation personally. While you should definitely not be a doormat, you should be respectful and thoughtful when receiving the feedback and opinions of your committee members.

4. Lack of knowledge on the basic theories, techniques, or information of your field.

Often committee members will ask what we see as very basic questions about your project and your field of study. If you mention something in your thesis or presentation, expect to answer questions about that content. Be sure that your focus has not narrowed so much that you neglect to explore and understand the theory or basic tenets of your research area. For example, if you are showing images of Western blots, I will likely ask you to explain the theory of how this technique works. It looks very bad if you can’t explain technique that is in your thesis.

5. Absent or inappropriate use of statistical analyses.

I’m not a statistical wizard, but even my Spidey senses start tingling when I can’t understand why you’ve chosen particular approaches, whether they are appropriate, and what they are telling you about your data.

Challenges for Examiners

  1. This is not the time to retaliate for a slight that occurred in 1999 from another faculty member on the committee.

Focus on the student’s work and accomplishments and let it go. Stop being so petty and giving professionals a bad reputation.

2. Come prepared and be on time.

Respect the time and efforts of the student and other committee members. Come with useful and insightful questions and suggestions.

3. Clearly communicate the student’s strengths and accomplishments that impressed you.

Be kind and sincere in your praise. A thesis degree is a tough slog and we don’t compliment our students enough and should celebrate their successes.

4. It isn’t about you.

Check your ego at the door. We all know that you are smart. You don’t need to convince us of this by your preambles to a question, your expositions on a particular theory, and your recently published work. Keep the focus on the student where it belongs.

What other insights can others offer about the thesis and defense experience? Leave your answer in the comments!

DoctorAl Digest 19

An exciting article in University Affairs about Laurentian’s new MSCom (Master’s in Science Communication) program launching this fall.

Samantha Oester’s (@samoester) Twitter feed from yesterday drives home the fact that it isn’t just harassers that drive women out of science; the clueless and unsupportive other members in the community also contribute.

I’m really enjoying the Period Podcast by Dr. Kate Clancy.  You’d think as a middle aged woman I’d know all that there is to know about menstruation…but you’d be wrong.

When I became a principal investigator of a lab I began managing people for the first time. I’ve found the Ask a Manager website an amazing resource. Some of the stories are so wild that you’d think that they can’t be true! A great source of examples of how not to manage, and excellent advice from Alison on how to solve problems and effectively manage your staff.

 

4th Year Undergraduate Research Thesis Opportunity #2

Investigation into the Structure of the Oyster Alternative Oxidase Protein

An undergraduate student position is available to conduct a BI499 or HE490 thesis research project in the McDonald lab in the Department of Biology at Laurier. The McDonald lab prides itself on being a diverse and friendly working environment.

Description of the Project:

Research in our lab focuses on the mitochondrial protein alternative oxidase (AOX) which is involved in the electron transport system in mitochondria. This project will focus on developing a protocol for isolating mitochondria from the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae that are expressing the oyster AOX protein. These yeast mitochondria will then be exposed to various chemical cross-linkers in order to determine whether oyster AOX is monomeric, dimeric, or oligomeric by using protein gel electrophoresis and Western blots.

Skills Required:

Ability to effectively conduct literature searches and to analyze and synthesize information from primary research papers.

Knowledge of the theory of protein gel electrophoresis and Western blotting techniques.

Attention to detail and ability to work safely in a biological laboratory.

Strong written and oral communication skills.

Effective time-management and project management skills.

Highly self-motivated and resilient in the face of project challenges.

Interested students should email Dr. Allison McDonald at amcdonald@wlu.ca by Jan. 31, 2017 with a resume/CV and to set up a time for an interview in early February.

4th Year Undergraduate Research Thesis Opportunity #1

Searching for Animal Alternative Oxidases

An undergraduate student position is available to conduct a BI499 or HE490 thesis research project in the McDonald lab in the Department of Biology at Laurier. The McDonald lab prides itself on being a diverse and friendly working environment.

Description of the Project:

Research in our lab focuses on the mitochondrial protein alternative oxidase (AOX) which is involved in the electron transport system in mitochondria. This project will focus on conducting a literature review and searches of molecular databases using bioinformatics to look for AOX sequences in animals. The final goal of the project will be to identify taxonomic distribution trends and to reveal phyla/orders of animals that are lacking data about the presence or absence of AOX.

Skills Required:

Ability to effectively conduct literature searches and to analyze and synthesize information from primary research papers.

Knowledge of bioinformatics tools and how to conduct sequences similarity searches (the ability to code is a strong asset) and maintain a database of sequences and their associated information.

Strong written and oral communication skills.

Effective time-management and project management skills.

Highly self-motivated and resilient in the face of project challenges.

Interested students should email Dr. Allison McDonald at amcdonald@wlu.ca by Jan. 31, 2017 with a resume/CV and to set up a time for an interview in early February.

 

Using Games in the Classroom

At the beginning of April I went to an excellent workshop facilitated by Dr. Scott Nicholson called “Games Beyond Screens in the Classroom”. Scott is the director of the Brantford Games Network game lab and teaches and chairs the program in the Bachelor of Fine and Applied Arts in Game Design and Development. The program has been wildly successful and they are looking to hire another faculty member who focuses on digital game design and project management.

Scott took us through several games during the course of the workshop and each had elements that I could easily see incorporating into my classrooms. He made the important point that after you run a game you always have to debrief. There is no point in running an activity without exploring how it made you feel, what was experienced, how it relates to your world, how you could see incorporating it into your space, and learning from the experiences of other people. Failing to debrief after a game is a very common error.

The other take-home from the workshop is that games do not have to be fun and they do not have to be fair. You are perfectly within your rights to manipulate the game in order to achieve the learning outcomes that you’d like for your students. This was a bit of a surprise for me, but having seen it in action at the workshop, I can see how it would work.

This past Monday I shared what I had learned at the workshop with some colleagues who are members of our SCAFFOLD (Student-Centred Active Flexible Face-to-Face Online Learning Discussions) community of practice. At our next meeting in May we’ll be discussing how to bring fun into our classrooms.

Do you run any games in your classrooms in order to facilitate learning? What has worked and what has been a disaster?

 

Giving students some control over their own learning

There was an interesting column written by Jim Lang over at the Chronicle Vitae website this week. Any column that starts with a photo of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones is alright in my book! The content of his post “Small Changes in Teaching: Giving Them a Say”  is part of a series that Dr. Lang has been writing over the past several weeks.

In his post he explains the two ways that students often approach their learning. Some students are oriented towards performance and want to excel on activities that result in a good grade (e.g. tests, assignments, etc.). Other students are mastery-oriented learners and enjoy learning for learning’s sake. I would prefer to have mastery-oriented learners in my courses.

One way to do this is to give your students choices and allow them some control over their own learning process. I tried this as an experiment in my course during the Fall 2015 term, but this was before I’d read Jim’s column obviously. I was looking to give my students options in terms of how they would be evaluated in the course in the hopes that it would lead to better engagement in class and with the material. It was my hope that students would self-select the evaluation method that would make them more comfortable and that this would be reflected in the course grades.

For this particular class I offered two evaluation options. All students had to complete one term test, five 10 minute in-class essays, and a protist trading card during the first two months of the term. During the second half of the term, students could either take a second term test (Option #1) or they completed a group case study presentation and two take home essays (Option #2). I think that this option allowed my students the ability to play to their strengths and perhaps avoid their weaknesses. Out of a class of 60 students, 36 chose Option #1 and 24 chose Option #2. Based on the written feedback that I obtained on course evaluations the students really appreciated having a say in the criteria used to evaluate them in the course. I consider this experiment a success and will likely use it again.

After reading Jim’s post I think that I could take this approach a step further and he gives some excellent examples worth thinking about.

 

Double standards, miscarriage, and “slow professors”

A sarcastic and bang-on take on the situations and double-guessing that women face when speaking on academic panels.

An excellent piece on an experience faced by many women that no one talks about. The taboo of speaking about miscarriage. The analysis from a feminist perspective was particularly thought provoking.

Stop the ride! I want to get off! How the “slow professor” movement is gaining speed…

 

 

Public Service Announcement: Don’t Date Your Students

With all of the recent news about PIs who sexually harassed their students, this piece by Janet Stemwedel is important and timely. It is excellent.

Do not use your students as your dating pool.

If you have romantic or sexual feelings about one of your trainees, then transition them out of your lab to another lab before you remotely entertain the idea of acting on those feelings.

I know many couples who met in graduate school, and in some cases one was the PI and one was the trainee. If the relationship started before the student transitioned or moved out of the lab (or if the student never left the lab during the relationship) this means that I give the PI the side eye for the rest of their career. It also makes me wonder what other boundaries they are violating. I will never trust that person.

Love can wait in order for you to do the right thing.