Category: Teaching

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!

Advertisements

DoctorAl Digest 6

Quite a bit of excitement for me this week as I participated in my first radio interview with the local CBC station on challenges faced by women in science. I posted on my preparation for the interview here . The link to the interview with myself, Anne Wilson, and the researcher who was the driving force for the display, Eden Hennessey is here.

A very informative and interesting article on the phenomenon of “plant blindness” from the guardian. Despite the fact that I’m a plant biologist, I’m as guilty of having this disease as the next person.

A cool gallery of contenders for the Agar Art contest being run by the American Society for Microbiology. Some of the images are quite stunning!

Stephen Heard has a neat post up on his blog about “The one thing I teach that nobody ever forgets. Perhaps as teachers this is worth thinking about?

Flexibility in Course Selection During Undergraduate Degrees

I completed my undergraduate degree in Biology from 1994 to 1998. One of the things that I really appreciated about my degree program at the time was the number of electives that I was able to take during the course of the degree. In this post I’m defining electives as courses that you take that are outside of your department and likely outside of your faculty. Our first year curriculum was very structured, but after we declared a major in second year there was space for electives during the rest of the degree. I had mistakenly assumed that this was the norm, but talking with colleagues in a faculty meeting last week revealed many different experiences with the number of electives taken in their degrees.

During my undergrad I took elective courses in Archaeology, Classics (Greek and Roman Civilization), English, and Ethics alongside my courses in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Math. I viewed the courses that I took through the Faculty of Arts as a welcome break from the school of thought in the Faculty of Science. I was able to look at the world through different lenses and I think that this was valuable. I think that this experience has made me a better researcher and teacher and has given me a broader appreciation of what a university as a whole has to offer students.

My perception is that the academic curriculum of our students is becoming more streamlined and constrained in the name of efficiency of completing the degree within the required time frame. I’ve come to the recent realization that I don’t believe that this is a good thing and that some exposure to other ideologies and ways of teaching and learning is a positive thing.

How much academic freedom did you have during your undergraduate degree? Do you remember a particular non-Science class with fondness?

Classroom use of Twitter

I’ve been on Twitter since December 2012 and am still learning how to use this platform in a useful way. After attending the Western Conference on Science Education in July, I’ve been thinking about how I might be able to integrate Twitter into my courses. In the past few weeks I’ve been investigating how other professors use Twitter as either a teaching tool, or how they build it into class assignments and course credit. I’ve listed a few uses that I’m mulling over below.

1) Several professors run a Twitter back channel during their lectures. This allows students the opportunity to ask questions in real time and is especially great for shy students who may not feel comfortable speaking in front of a large audience. One example of a person who did this fairly early is Monica Rankin.

2) A Twitter feed can be used to remind students of upcoming tests and assignments. Our internal course management system already does this, but using Twitter is another quick and easy way to issue class updates.

3) Collaborative event watching. One professor teaching film studies had students live Tweet as they watched the movie Blade Runner.

4) Creating a course hashtag and asking students to post links to news stories relevant to course material.

There are many other great uses suggested for bringing Twitter into the classroom. Two sites that summarize ideas can be found here and here.

I probably won’t do anything too wild this upcoming term, but perhaps I’ll ask the students in one of my courses to dip their toes into Twitter.

Feel free to share any comments, ideas, and success stories in the comments.

Western Conference on Science Education 2015

Last week I attended the Western Conference in Science Education in London, Ontario. My goal in attending was to pick up some ideas for new things to try in my classroom and get some tips on possible assignments to try in the future. I also presented on my experiment in my graduate course last fall on using blogging as an assessment tool for learning .

Below is a list in random order of ideas that I’ll be ruminating on in the next few weeks before teaching again in fall term:

1) Have your 1st assignment early. It gives students a chance to see how you write questions and to prepare for future assignments.

2) If you use in-class quizzes, let the students teach each other for a few minutes before you evaluate them. This allows peer learning to take place in the classroom.

3) Lists of learning tasks and learning outcomes are important. This is definitely an area where I can improve.

4) Start a teaching mentoring community for faculty so that we can discuss strategies, successes, and challenges and learn from each other.

5) Get over the need to feel that every minute of every lecture has to be perfect.

6) I usually have students evaluate my teaching using a paper survey that I hand out in class. Other teachers found that allowing the students to use 15 or 20 second audio or video clips to deliver feedback led to more authentic responses.

7) Investigate the PeerWise platform.

8) It’s important to teach our science students how to communicate science to non-specialists and to tailor their communications to their audience.

9) I attended a great workshop that discussed strategies for teachers to maintain their well-being during our busy teaching semesters. Lots of valuable tips that I hope to implement!

10) Think hard about my classroom policy on electronic devices and their use. Tanya Noel and Tamara Kelly gave a neat presentation on “Does the digital have to divide us?”

Mental Health First Aid

Many of us in academia have taken first aid or CPR training. The first time that I had to learn some of these techniques was during swimming lessons as a child. I later took an intensive first aid course during my undergraduate degree. I’ve thankfully only had to use this training twice; both times involved successfully using the Heimlich maneuver to prevent someone from choking. I would therefore like to think that I would help someone out if I knew that they were in some kind of medical distress (e.g. having a heart attack, hit by a car, broken limb, etc.) You’ll notice that the examples that I’ve given here are physical ailments that have obvious symptoms. I’ve recently had to ask myself the hard question of whether I know what to do and would be willing to provide assistance to someone having a mental health crisis. Prior to last week, I would have been ill equipped to do so and probably would have hoped that some other bystander would step up to the plate and render aid. The easier choice in the moment is to turn a blind eye to mental illness perhaps out of fear, stigma, or ignorance, but I will argue that we have as much responsibility to render aid to someone experiencing a psychotic episode as we do someone who has suffered a concussion.

Last week I participated in a two day workshop on Mental Health First Aid offered by trained volunteers at my university. The program was put together by the Mental Health Commission of Canada . I would strongly encourage faculty colleagues to take part in this workshop or a similar one if offered on your campus. Many mental illnesses have an age of onset that overlaps with the ages of many of our traditional students. You may be in a position to recognize mental health problems experienced by your students and be able to provide assistance. The goal of this program is not to make you responsible for diagnosing mental illness, but to educate you so that you can provide initial support to someone who may be developing a mental health problem or is experiencing a mental health crisis.

The course also goes a long way towards combating the stigma that still accompanies mental illness. Mental health problems are common, but many suffer in silence due to a lack of knowledge about supports available and fear that they will be ridiculed or discriminated against due to their health condition. Mental health problems include substance-related disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and psychotic disorders; chances are that many of your colleagues, friends, and family have or will have a mental health problem. According to the Canadian statistics, one person in five will experience some problem with their mental health in the course of a year, while one person in three will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime. The economic costs from lost productivity and medical leaves are huge, but it is the personal costs to the person with the illness that is the real tragedy here. Contrary to what we see on TV and in the movies, a person with mental illness is much more likely to be a victim of a crime than the perpetrator of one. People with mental illness are often ostracized, belittled, disbelieved, judged, or told that “it’s all in your head” or to “snap out of it”! These are real medical conditions; imagine telling someone with cancer that their disease would go away if only they “stopped being so lazy”. We have a long way to go in educating ourselves and fighting against ignorance.

I feel fortunate to work for an institution that recognizes the value of training its members to offer assistance to those experiencing mental illness. I hope that I will never have cause to use my training from last week, but that is an unrealistic wish and I recognize it as such. I look forward to the day when the stigma around mental illness is eradicated and the needed social supports are accessible and readily available. Until that day comes I will stand ready to offer assistance to those who need and want it and to dispel the myths that abound about mental illness. It is my wish that you will do the same.

Book Review: McKeachie’s Teaching Tips 14th Edition

One of the more challenging aspects of my first year as a tenure-track faculty member was teaching a university level course for the first time. I had previously served as a teaching assistant in several labs and had done a few guest lectures prior to starting my faculty job, but I had never prepared, designed, and delivered a full semester course before. It was a terrifying prospect!

Since that time I’ve learned a lot from the experience of teaching multiple classes, but I’m always on the look-out for resources that could improve my teaching effectiveness and enjoyment of interacting with my students. I just finished reading the 14th edition of McKeachie’s Teaching Tips .

The book is divided into several major parts: Getting Started, Basic Skills for Facilitating Student Learning, Understanding Students, Adding to Your Repertoire of Skills and Strategies for Facilitating Active Learning, Skills for Use in Other Teaching Situations, Teaching for Higher-Level Goals, and Lifelong Learning as a Teacher. I liked this book because it does talk a bit about theory, but also offers tangible examples and exercises that you can try in your course preparation, in the classroom, during testing and evaluation, and in the future. This book offers a fairly robust coverage of most of the challenges that I’ve run into as a university teacher and suggests ways that these issues can be avoided in the first place and realistic solutions that can be applied when necessary. It’s very practical and has led me to think quite a bit about the structure of my courses and the assignments that I’ve been using to evaluate student learning. I’ve picked up several ideas that I might implement moving forward and found myself nodding in agreement several times while reading the book.

I think that it would be a great resource for new teachers in a university setting and is also a worthwhile read for experienced teachers. A bit of thinking and planning before launching a course is time well spent and this book is full of multiple gems of advice and knowledge for university teachers.

The 10 minute in-class essay

When I was a student I hated writing tests and examinations with the intensity of a thousand flaming suns. Now that I get to set the curriculum, I actively look for alternative assignments to tests and exams that I can use in my classes. One assignment that I’ve had a lot of success with is the 10 minute in-class essay. It’s quick to administer, flexible, and doesn’t take a lot of time to mark.

At the beginning of the semester I tell my students that I will be offering 7 opportunities to write an in-class essay during the course and that they should make sure that they always bring a few sheets of paper and a pen with them to class. I ask that my students complete 5 of the in-class essays. Each essay is worth 2% and the total towards their final grade is therefore 10%. The dates of the in-class essays are not disclosed to the students, but at the beginning of the semester I work out which dates I’m going to be offering the essay opportunities and try to spread them out over the semester. This is where the flexibility comes in. Since I only require 5 essays to be completed, a student could miss 2 opportunities completely (due to illness or other life events) or could do poorly on a few and still earn a good mark on this assignment category. A student could complete all 7 and I will then calculate their mark based on the best 5 essays. The assignment also encourages students to come to class because they don’t know when I’ll offer an in-class essay and it forces students to keep up with the material because the essays are based on the content of that class or the class before. The students like the flexibility of the assignment and the fact that each one is low stakes, so it doesn’t cause a lot of stress. It also provides me a quick way to check in with my students to see if an important concept is not being taught or learned effectively.

Prior to a class in which I’m going to do an in-class essay I put together a slide that contains the question that I would like the students to answer. I try to make this question as open ended as possible and ideally it could have several correct answers depending on how the students are interacting with the course content. In class we do our normal activities and lecture and I use 15 minutes of our in-class time to run the assignment. It takes the students a few minutes to get their paper and pen out and to put away their notes and laptops. I put the question up on the screen and give them 10 minutes to write a few paragraphs in order to answer the question. I circulate around the room to address any issues and then collect the essays. Depending on my schedule I run the in-class essays at the beginning of class (this very effectively discourages tardiness), the middle of class, or at the end of class. In the next class period I take 5 minutes to explain several of the possible answers and to clarify concepts if I saw that common mistakes were being made.

So what does one of these questions look like? As an example, in my Endosymbiotic Theory course we do a section on the origin of mitochondria. The prevailing hypothesis is that mitochondria were once free living bacteria until they invaded or were ingested by another cell. We talk in class about the various lines of scientific evidence that support this particular hypothesis. My in-class essay for this section of the course is the following:

 Antibiotics in medicine that are used to treat infections in people are very effective in disrupting metabolism, cell walls, membranes, transcription and/or translation in bacteria. Given the hypothesis that mitochondria are derived from bacteria, explain why antibiotics are not toxic to humans.

An answer that would earn the full 2% might talk about how mitochondria possess an outer membrane derived from the host organism and an inner membrane derived from the bacterium. They might suggest that the antibiotics have no effect on the outer membrane or cannot penetrate it and therefore the mitochondria are impervious to the drug’s mode of action.

An answer that would earn 1% would talk vaguely about membranes, but wouldn’t clearly explain the rationale behind the answer.

An answer that would earn 0% would be one where the student puts seemingly random facts down on the page that don’t form a cohesive answer to the question.

There are alternative answers to this question that do not involve membranes (e.g. gene transfer to the nucleus, loss of drug targets over evolutionary time, etc.) and if the student is able to make a compelling and convincing argument to answer the question I am flexible in the answers that I accept.

I find the 10 minute in-class essay to be a great evaluation tool and an effective way of assessing what my students are taking away from my classroom. I am often impressed by the answers that my students provide which reveal their creativity and problem-solving abilities.

Introducing a Blogging Assignment into a Graduate Course

This term I am teaching a graduate course on Ecological Physiology. When I was designing the course I wanted to provide the students with an opportunity to write about science for a more general audience. At the same time, I had recently started blogging and using Twitter and was starting to see the usefulness of these forms of communication and felt strongly that these are practical skills that should be taught to graduate students within the curriculum. I therefore thought that I’d like to add an assignment to my course that required my students to write a blog post.

The assignment requires my students to select a recent scientific paper (less than 5 months since publication) that they find interesting and that they believe would make an interesting blog post. We’ve had several meetings to discuss their papers and their approach to writing and publicizing their blog post. Their performance will be evaluated on the content of their post (e.g. writing style, writing effectiveness, etc.) and the popularity of their post as measured by page views.

This Friday I will feature two guest blog posts by my students on the research papers that they have selected. As this is the first time using this assignment I expect that I and the students will learn a great deal and I look forward to sharing the results of this experiment!

Active Learning Exercises for Teaching: Photosynthesis

I teach a 3rd year Plant Physiology course and a 4th year Environmental Stress Biology of Plants course. In both of these courses I go into quite a bit of detail about photosynthesis. This is material that my students have been exposed to in previous undergraduate courses, but in the context of these two courses my aim is to show students why the process of photosynthesis can be a double edged sword. I think that most people assume that plants love any level of light and that the more light that plants have access to the better. We often talk about photosynthesis as a steady-state pathway when in reality plants are constantly acclimating to their light environment likely on the timescale of milliseconds. I use an active learning exercise in my classroom in order to teach my students that photosynthesis is a dynamic process fraught with dangers for plants.
For this exercise I bring in a bag of soft plastic balls. These were left over from a ball play-set that my son had when he was younger (think the ball pits that you can find at IKEA or that used to be present at indoor play areas). I also bring in a large metal bucket. I ask for 6 volunteers from the audience to participate in the activity. Each student represents a complex/mobile carrier involved in the photosynthetic electron transport chain (e.g. photosystem II, plastoquinol, etc.) and the last student in the row is the enzyme ferredoxin-NADP+-reductase. The balls are used to represent electrons. The first student’s job is to accept the balls that I pass to them and then pass them to the next student. The other students in the chain in turn accept the balls and pass them along the chain. The last student in the chain aims to deposit the balls in the metal bucket. The bucket represents the ability of the plant to use the electrons to produce NADPH and ATP and to fix carbon.
The first time through the exercise I put balls into the chain at a very low rate. This shows the students that sometimes plants can have difficulty generating energy and fixing carbon if light is limiting. This would be similar to severe shading effects for example. I then put the balls into the chain at a reasonable rate. This represents a “steady-state” for photosynthesis where the process is running efficiently. For the last part of the activity I put the balls into the chain at an extremely high rate; as quickly as I can pass the balls to the first student in the chain. Inevitably the balls get dropped frequently at various parts of the chain and many of the balls do not make it into the bucket, or the bucket overflows. I use this to demonstrate over-reduction of the electron transport chain and to explain the generation of reactive oxygen species during photosynthesis.
Based on previous course evaluations, the students enjoy this exercise and claim that it helps them to remember key aspects of the photosynthetic electron transport chain. I’ve found it to be an engaging and effect way to teach about photosynthesis in my classroom.