I came into the WID Writing Fellows project with one goal on my mind. I wanted to become a better teacher. I wanted to be more effective in delivering important concepts to students and have them retain them and understand how they apply to their lives. I also wanted to make our content-heavy biology courses more manageable and fun for students to aid in my overall goal.
My main objectives have been to incorporate new activities into my class, better design formal assignments, and improve the way I evaluate and give feedback to students. My main concern is time. How do I fit new strategies into an already packed course? How can I accomplish my goals without drastically increasing the time I spend correcting and giving feedback to students?
The ideas discussed in this project introduced me to several strategies for incorporating writing and critical thinking into my classroom as part of informal and formal assignments. I was also introduced to several strategies for evaluation and giving feedback to students. While many of the ideas were new to me some of them I had already thought of. However, these ideas were dissected and we discussed strategies for incorporating them into a class. The underlying theme in many of these strategies is to minimize the time spent correcting and providing feedback. Here are a few changes that I have made to my classes by incorporating some WID philosophies.
B. INFORMAL ASSIGNMENTS
I have started to include short writing exercises in my courses. The goal of the writing exercises is to solidify a student’s understanding of a biological topic and relate these topics to each other or their society. These writing exercises also help students use biological terminology properly and prepare them for discussion-type questions on exams. One type of writing exercise that I have used is presented here. The idea is to ask a question relating two or more topics presented at different times in my class. I ask students to complete a concept map to help them with the framework of their answer. I then ask them to formulate their answer in a paragraph.
Framework and Timeline
The framework and timeline that I used this semester for these writing exercises is described in the Informal Assignments document posted.
So far, I have not designated a portion of a student’s final grade to these writing exercises. However, I include at least one question used in these exercises in their exams. The fact that students know that are preparing for an exam question is sufficient motivation for them to complete the exercises and seek feedback. I do pick up writing samples from students throughout the semester (especially early in the process) and evaluate them with a three-mark system: Good (++), Room for Improvement (+), and Below Expectations (-). I tell students that ++ reflects an 80% or more, + reflects a 60% or more, and – reflects under 60% and would receive a failing grade on an exam.
My Assessment of the Effectiveness of the Exercise
In my limited experience using these writing exercises over the past two semesters, I am pleased with the results. I am especially pleased with the results so far this semester. This semester, I clearly stated the goals of the writing exercises early, presented the tools that they would need in steps, and followed a timeline. More students can see the importance of these exercises and are putting in the effort to complete them well. I see this aspect in their preparation before class and interest in seeking feedback on their responses (no matter what grade they receive). I find that students are thinking about the material presented in class in a different way by asking larger-scope questions. For example, many questions asked by students link two topics presented at different times. I also see an improvement in their ability to organize their thoughts for a response to a question and use biological terminology properly. I feel much more confident asking discussion questions in an exam setting even when the students have not seen the question before.
I would like to include different types of short writing exercises in my classes. For example, one type of writing exercise that I think would work well in our general biology courses for science students is a believing/doubting exercise carried out on current biology models presented in class. The idea would be to present a model and have students discuss what they believe or doubt about the model. This type of exercise will help student realize that what we understand about biology are not proven facts but are hypotheses based on observation and experimentation. This type of exercise will help students think critically about what we know about biology and help to explore how these models are built.
C. FORMAL ASSIGNMENTS
As many of our biology courses have formal assignments as part of their evaluation, one task that I undertook was to rethink their design. I focused on a project that we give to non-science students as part of a Human Biology course (101-921-DW). In the past, I have been disappointed with the end products that I have received from students. I would mainly get encyclopedic reports about a topic in biology. I was disappointed because the students did not demonstrate comprehension of biological concepts and the ability to apply course concepts to their lives or society. I set out to redesign the way that I assign this project.
Framework and Timeline
I have posted the instructions for the project given to students. The project presented here has a defined goal, which was lacking in the project guidelines that I assigned in the past. With a clear goal, students will see the relevance of the project and understand my expectations. The project is also scaffolded meaning that it is composed of smaller tasks. Each task has a specific goal and contributes to the overall goal of the project. Scaffolding will help students better understand each step, how each step contributes to the project, and receive guidance/feedback before the final product. The inclusion of a timeline for specific tasks to be accomplished will help students with time management and avoid last minute preparation. I also included team meetings where assessments are to be submitted and discussed. Team meetings allow the teacher to discuss ideas with students, which can be more effective than providing guidance through comments made in ink on paper. It also gives teachers a chance to get to know their students better and motivate students who are not pulling their weight.
This project is currently worth 10% of a student’s final grade. Each student receives a team grade and an individual grade based on individual performance and participation.
My Assessment of the Effectiveness of the Exercise
I am using this project framework and timeline for the first time this semester. Although I have not seen their final presentations yet, it is clear to me that more students understand the relevance of the project and my expectations. Teams seem to put more thought into their topics and are more motivated than in the past. Many students see the material presented in class as gateways to project topics. The team meetings and completion of tasks in a scaffolded manner have really helped me guide teams, provide feedback, and identify students that need extra guidance. I also really enjoy that fact that I get to know my students in this course better. In the past, I did not get this opportunity as students in this course do not come to see me in my office as much as the science program students.
The current format for the end presentation is a poster or slide presentation given to peers at the end of the semester. I am currently thinking of how to make the end product the design of website. The website would present the team’s topic to peers. In addition to the main content of the project, the website would include a glossary, multiple choice questions, puzzles, etc. A website-based end product may be more fun for students and provide a portfolio of scaffolded tasks completed throughout the semester for evaluation.
D. STRATEGIES FOR EVALUATION AND FEEDBACK
Evaluation of student’s work and providing feedback has been an aspect of teaching that I have been trying to improve on since I started at Dawson. The WID project was extremely helpful in looking at various strategies to accomplish these tasks effectively.
The ideas discussed in the WID project made me think about the way that I evaluate students. I realized that I use both analytical and holistic approaches for different assessments. For tests, I typically take an analytical approach to evaluation and this works well for most questions on a biology test. In some cases, such as the evaluation of a formal paper, I would draw up an analytical rubric and realize that it did not work for me. I would end up using a holistic rubric instead. I used to think that this was unfair to students and that I should stick to an analytical evaluation. I think that the only reason a holistic rubric might be unfair to students is if the students are unaware that you will be grading in this manner and they do not see an example of a holistic rubric.
Through my participation in WID, I have learned how to write a holistic rubric that I can feel confident in. One holistic strategy that I was introduced to in the project is using a simple three-mark evaluation system for short writing assignments. I use “++” to indicate good, “+” to indicate room for improvement, and “-“ to indicate below expectations. This strategy provides feedback but minimizes my time spent correcting and writing comments on students’ work. I only use this system when a student can re-submit their work or when a writing assignment is practice for an exam question. In order to improve their grade, students must determine where they went wrong and seek guidance from assignment guidelines or their teacher.
The discussion on how to provide effective feedback was enlightening. I already knew that I could be more effective in providing feedback to students when writing comments to students. However, I never thought of the fact that my written comments could be viewed as hurtful to a student or detrimental to a student’s progress.
I have made three changes to the way that I give written comments to students.
1. I think more carefully about the comments I give to students.
2. I add motivating comments in addition to comments highlighting areas of improvement.
3. I limit the overall number of comments so that a student’s work is not covered in comments and a student feels overwhelmed.
Scaffolding formal assignments and organizing meetings for group work has been a breakthrough for me to provide effective feedback to students. Scaffolding a project into smaller tasks allows me to give feedback in manageable chunks and guide students towards better end products for their projects. Group meetings allow me to provide feedback face-to-face and identify students that need extra motivation.
I am currently re-writing many of my grading rubrics. I am mostly designing holistic rubrics for many assignments. I am also developing a system for using codes to comment on formal written assignments. Using codes will help to provide clear comments and not overwhelm students. Since codes only highlight an area for improvement, students must identify how the comment applies and make the necessary corrections.
My participation as a WID Fellow allowed me to refine my teaching philosophy and was extremely helpful in exploring new teaching tools to accomplish my goals. The WID project has given me the start I wanted to change the way that I teach en route to becoming a better teacher. Working with teachers from different disciplines was a highlight for me. It was very interesting to be exposed to their teaching challenges and teaching philosophies. It was nice to think about teaching from different perspectives but it was also great to see how much unity there is with respect to these aspects among teachers from different disciplines. The fellows were extremely receptive and helpful in working through some biology-specific ideas for activities in writing and critical thinking.
I am extremely happy to have taken part in this extraordinary project. I look forward to continuing my efforts to incorporate writing and critical thinking into my courses. I would like to thank the Fall 2011 Fellows. It was very nice to meet and work with you all. I would also like to thank Ian for his effort, guidance, and motivation. Ian, not only did you give me further inspiration to become a better teacher but you were extremely helpful in giving me tools to get there.