I had been reading John Bean’s Engaging Ideas over the summer prior to meeting up with the WID group for Fall 2011 and I already had a very strong feeling about the specific course in which I was going to apply the principles of WID. In WID we typically like to think across the disciplines – where we foster student involvement to think critically in all their courses, across all disciplines from Physical Education, to English, to Humanities, etc … And here I was thinking (and actually believing!) that I was going to apply it to one specific course within the Electronics Engineering Technology curriculum. Yes it is a tall order, but there is a very sound reason behind this idea.
My target for implementation? It would be the first time that our third year students get exposed to Fiber Optics. Fiber Optic Fundamentals is a 5th semester course which has a 3-2-2 ponderation and is offered in two 1.5-hour lectures and one 3-hour lab session per week. Of course, I expected some students to have heard about fiber optics or even have used this technology prior to this course. Officially, it would be the first time students in the Electrotech program would actually perform fiber optic lab experiments. Typically we would like to complete anywhere from eight to twelve laboratory experiments for this type of course ranging from the simple fiber optics transmitter circuit to the more sophisticated duplex communications between users in a Local Area Network environment using fiber optics.
An aside: Fall 2011 is the first time this course has ever offered by our department. Essentially, it is a brand new course. We are currently into our third and last year of revision. Winter 2012 would be our first graduating cohort. Students are coming into this course with no exposure to the technology. I thought (and still think) that this was an awesome card to play (as an instructor). I get “senior” students instead of kids fresh from high school. Typically, third year students are more confident than first-year students. By third year, semester five, they have written well over 100 laboratory reports. Third-year students usually have a more experienced and somewhat more sophisticated viewpoint. These students traditionally are one semester away from obtaining their DEC and finding employment in the field. I had taught seniors before. I also had taught these specific students in previous courses, either in their first or second year of the program. I felt comfortable and excited at the same time that things would actually work out. Perhaps I was expecting miracles. Perhaps it was my own experiences in the workplace that made me realize that if there was an opportune time to plant and to foster critical thinking, it was now, at this junction. This close to the end, they can and would be considered “professionals” by me. Since they were this close to graduating as Technologists, they were going to be treated as Technologists by me and therefore required to assume some responsibility and act as Technologists. Technologists, among other responsibilities, have to produce reports. They have to send emails and communicate. And that means understanding who their audience is.
As an instructor, I am always excited to use innovative methods to expose these future technologists to critical thinking while they are still “in the sandbox”. At school a student can make errors and “only” lose marks. In the workforce, an error usually equates to “down time” which translates to lost productivity and lost revenues. The difference is huge.
So, let’s learn about my experiences in using writing and critical thinking in the Fiber Optics Fundamentals course.
B. Exploratory Writing Assignments
What better way to start the first lecture of a new course than with some Exploratory Writing. Bean gives many examples in Chapter 6 of Engaging Ideas of short, informal writing activities.
First thing I did was assess what level students were at with the understanding of fiber optics technology. I started with the first in-class writing exercise: Writing at the beginning of class to probe a subject. I asked the class to take five minutes – maximum one sheet, double spaced – and write everything they knew about the topic.
Usually topics were chosen according to where we were according to the course outline. For example at the start of first lecture (Week 1) I asked the following question: “Describe what fiber optic technology means to you. How does it work? How much capacity (bandwidth) can we have? What is fiber optics? Where can we find it used today?”
At the start of Week 2’s lecture, in another exploratory writing sample I asked students to “Describe, in words, no diagrams or schematics, how a fiber optics transmitter (and receiver) circuit works. How can we get light to travel through the fiber optic cable?” And so on.
I collected the works and read them to myself, but I would not grade them per se. I would either make a check mark or an “X” and hand them back to the students so they would be able to use these notes to build on. I used the following grading scheme; the check mark indicated that the student was on the right track and the “X” meant the student was off track. Basically an “X” would signal that the student needed to pay more attention to the lecture topics, since their explanations were off the mark. An “X” should not be perceived as a Fail or as poor work. It simply meant that the student did not understand the basic principle(s). Remember, this writing was required of the student “cold,” without any prior warning. This was just to get them going, just to see where their knowledge level was.
Herein lies the challenge. This student (who received an “X”) needs to get to baseline by being an active listener in the lecture class as well as an active learner and using their study time effectively. What I soon realized is that throughout the semester, when a student received an “X,” it turned out, for whatever reason, they were not using their study time effectively. They may have paid attention in the lecture class, but they did not gain any new knowledge. And this was evident as I graded their homework assignments and their laboratory experiments and class tests. Their grades were lower, indicative that they had not picked up on the basics. When I probed deeper I soon realized that some students had too many distractions. Perhaps there were other laboratory reports due at the same time. Perhaps other courses had homework assignments due at the same time. Whatever their reason they did not spend the time necessary to gain that “critical” knowledge, and so their homework assignments and laboratory reports took the hit.
Comparing the students who received an “X” with students who consistently received a “check” on the exploratory writing, it was evident that the results in this latter group, their homework assignments, their laboratory reports and class tests, were indicative of those who had mastered the building blocks. These students had managed to build solid scaffolding for themselves. It was easier for them to get to the answer. This “check” bunch was better at connecting the dots.
For the “X” group, then, I had to address their difficulties. I will discuss how later.
Let me go back to the informal writing assignments and lecture class for a moment. After the exploratory writing assignment I would continue with the lecture topic(s). This was usually where I presented material and engaged students to discuss, among themselves or with me, to ask questions, and basically get comfortable with the material.
For example, in Week 2’s lectures we discussed the elements of a fiber optics data link; the transmitter circuit & its variations, the receiver circuit & its variations. At this point, at the end of this lecture I would hand out a homework assignment that would add to and reinforce the lecture topics. The homework assignment was due by the next lecture class. The majority of the time, it would be solving quantitative problems. And this would tie in to a laboratory exercise where they would essentially strengthen their knowledge on the topic(s) by performing an experiment.
C. Writing at the End of Class to Sum Up a Lecture or Discussion
The hurdle I spoke about in the previous section perplexed me enough to try to find a solution. How can I use class time more effectively and get the “X” students’ confidence up while still successfully covering the lecture topics?
I went back to Bean Chapter 6 and found another angle: writing at the end of class to sum up a lecture or discussion. Obviously I tailored the question(s) to point to the actual topics and questions that we just had discussed.
I did not include this type of writing summary in all class lectures. I gauged from the informal writing as well as the discussion(s) that followed in a lecture or laboratory class. So when I did include a writing summary, students were asked to summarize their knowledge of a specific lecture topic which had been covered 30 to 60 minutes prior.
A summary prompt would go something like this: “ So now you have been exposed to what an emitter is and does; explain it like you would to a friend, someone who is not in this program and lacks technical expertise.” Another example would be, “So we have discussed and seen the various fiber optic connectors. Are you able to list at least five different fiber optic connectors and their functions, and where we might find them, say, at Dawson College?” I totally enjoyed the responses. They varied from non-technical to super technical. I paid special attention for signs from the students who were not quite grasping the fundamentals.
By the time the tenth writing summary prompt came along I was comfortable with the results. In total I used it in about 10 lectures throughout the semester. The competence in the summaries produced correlated with an improvement in grades. Let me explain. The students that were not getting it at first were now able to articulate with more ease during class lectures. They recalled the discussions and were able to answer the homework assignment questions with more ease and finally they were able to better comprehend the procedure of the laboratory experiment and discuss with more sophistication the challenge questions.
This kind of writing was not implemented without some controversy. Students like to speak their mind, and some students did give me some constructive feedback. Not all students were comfortable with this writing prompt or even the writing prompt at the beginning of the class. They felt they had little time in which to react. They felt stressed since they were not used to producing so much writing for a course, outside their core courses. It was very constructive for me to get this feedback. I too had to react quickly. So I turned class discussions into pep talks. I reminded them, that they, as seniors, should take advantage of the experience of being under pressure to produce, since they will find themselves in the workforce in the not too distant future. Any skills they acquire here will certainly assist them in their career path. Any edge they can get over their competition, the better.
D. Formal Writing Assignments: Lab Reports
The final step in Fibre Optics is to actually “show” comprehension of the topics by way of a laboratory experiment. In this course students were paired up for the laboratory experiments. In pairs they accomplished the procedure; however, each student is required to discuss the results and draw up their own laboratory report. The laboratory report was due one week after completion of the lab. The laboratory report is the “formal” writing assignment in this course. As I mentioned earlier, we expect anywhere from 8 to 12 laboratory reports per semester.
As an example, in Week 2, students had to design, build and test their own fiber optic transmitter and receiver circuits. In addition to the procedure, students had to comment on their results and discuss “challenges,” topics that would require them to connect the dots. One example of a challenge would be to get the student to comment on measured data rates versus maximum data rates. This is with respect to the laboratory experiment in Week 2.
With respect to the laboratory experiment in Week 3, Attenuation and Fiber Optic Cables, another example of a challenge would be to get the student to comment on the “type” of fiber optic cable being used. What if, instead of type A, type B were used? The type could result in either better or worse performance. What reaction do you expect to see in the effective data rate?
E. Conclusions: The Impact of WID
The results of integrating writing in these different ways speak for themselves – at least, for me they do. Not solely because of the improved grades of the students, but also the perkiness of our class discussions, and the confidence shown in the laboratory experiments. If a student gains confidence using a tool by way of writing and discussing, essentially they have built a more effective, that is to say demonstrable, skill set. I am more than satisfied; and as for the student, improved grades should follow.