I have been doing a fair amount of teaching over the last 19 months at the University of Toronto, primarily in the excellent Masters of Biotech programme (MBiotech). I taught 4 half courses, co-taught 3 others, ran two workshops and assisted in a lab course. As a result, I'm a little behind on my blogs including this one on my educational innovations, experiments and learnings. So here's update on what's new as well as what's ongoing with some tweaks.
1) Application of PeerScholar
In my undergraduate course, HMB301, the students are required to do a major 7-part modular report on various aspects of a company of their choosing. Each section is based on the previous week's lecture and covers the technology, market, management, competition, intellectual property and finances. This has been an extremely successful exercise. This year I added a peer review component, based on the cloud-based PeerScholar software. The students were required to post their assignment 2 days before it was ultimately due. Two peers then reviewed it for both grammar and content, posting their comments and suggestions within 24 hours. They were pass/fail graded for their effort/participation. 24 hours later, the author was required to submit their section for grading and formal feedback, hopefully incorporating the suggestions. Not only did the students find the peer feedback very valuable, the reviewers also had the chance to learn about another two companies as well as pick up some tips as to how their peers approached their analysis. This was verified by an informal follow-up survey.
For a number of lectures, I have employed a PowerPoint-based version of the popular gameshow Jeopardy with some modifications. Briefly, an somewhat cryptic answer is given and the participants are asked to figure out the topic in the form of a question. My modification involves showing and discussing one or more standard lecture slides covering that particular topic after each answer/question. I can get through about 20 answers/questions (4 categories of 5 questions each) in about 45'. For longer classes we play a second round after a break and of course Final Jeopardy.
3) Expanded use of GoSoapBox
GoSoapBox.com is in effect a cloud-based clicker system. I use this in the class for polls and interspersed multiple choice questions to make the class more interactive. I have started using the quiz option to post 5 simple questions about the one (or two) pre-read(s) that I assign before every class (See Partially Flipped Classroom). Again this is graded as a simple pass/fail for the effort. I have found the students come to class better prepared, having read the pre-read which allows the lecture to cover the material in more depth and foster broader discussions.
I continue to use Twitter as a means to post current events relevant to the particular course I am teaching (See #BTC1820 for posts on agricultural biotech). My recent tweak (not tweet) was to post these twitter links in the Blackboard discussion forum and have the students, on a first-come-first-serve basis, write a brief summary of one tweet each. Again this was evaluated on a simple pass/fail basis. By providing a summary, the students did not need to read each tweet in its entirety (or not), but instead could read a short summary. The material covered by the tweets is not directly tested on the final exam, however many of the tweets are illustrative of important course concepts.
5) Final Exam
I do not like multiple choice exams. They are difficult to write, despite being easy to mark. In addition, in my opinion more effort is spent trying to trick students as oppose to extracting a representation of their knowledge and understanding. For that reason, I prefer short answer exams. The format that I have moved towards involves three sections in which the students are required to answer 10 of 12 questions, for a total of 30 questions over a 2-hour sitting. Giving some choice is much appreciated and reduces the "penalty" of not understanding one particular concept or from a complex or even poorly worded question. I have found that this is a fair amount of writing but not too much The marking on the other hand is a nightmare but that's the price. I can mark about 30 questions every 10 minutes so that's almost 7 hours for a class of 40! I do it page by page or the same 4 questions for all students before moving to the next page. This makes it quicker as you don't need to refresh your memory as to the question/answer and results in more consistent/fairer marking.
6) Interesting/intriguing questions
My newest and so far successful innovation (based on initial student feedback) involves assigning the class a fairly open, 2-3 page report expanding on something they came across or found novel, interesting, intriguing, or unexpected that arises from the pre-reads, lectures or even tweets. I supplied an ongoing list of items that I found and students could chose from those if they were stuck. I expected a detailed analysis/ explanation. Topics include items such as: What are the mechanistic differences between C3, C4 and CAM plants? What supports the claim that we need a 70% increase in food calories by 2050? How do you go about culturing a as yet "unculturable" microbe?
So there's the update. I still have the students present to their peers in every class. I use blackboard extensively to manage all the outgoing information and incoming assignments. I post slide sets just before class to aid note taking. I do encourage class participation and am still working on how to improve this. (One idea that I have yet to implement is my "Socratic hat" in which everyone's name is placed and over the course of a lecture or two - each student's name is drawn to answer a question or discuss an issue. If they opt not to, their name is simply returned to the hat for a future question.) And, I keep thinking and reading about additional innovations I can bring to improve my teaching as well as the students' experience and most importantly - learning.