If it had taken me as long to figure out the first words of my first lecture as it has to figure out the first lines of this Corner Office, I am not entirely sure I would have ever made it to my first class sixteen years ago. I am faced now, as I was then, with a new experience, having been given a unique opportunity to talk about my experiences with people in my community. Then, it was all about the software tools I thought would be useful for our undergraduate students – but which were not covered in any one class. Now, it is all about what I think might be useful for teaching our undergraduate students.
I am going to focus on what happens after setting a schedule and getting the right space and teaching assistant support for a course and coming up with a schedule – mainly because I just discovered that writing about those processes took over 1400 words and didn’t really get to the heart of the questions I have been asked to answer! So, now assume you have a course to teach, a place to teach it in, an idea of what needs to happen with the syllabus, and a spherical cow radiating milk isotropically. The latter may not be relevant, but I hope it brought to mind a whimsical image.
The items I want to talk about are lectures, homework, laboratory experiences and assignments, and assessments.
For an established class, deciding what to do with a lecture can either be very easy or very hard. Not quite as hard as deciding when it is time to change research directions – Nan Jokerst, Jeff Glass, and Richard Fair all discussed that particular conundrum in their posts – but still there is very much a sense of attachment to the material in a course and the way it might be conveyed. For example, I still mourn the loss of a lecture on Newton Polynomials that was removed from Computational Methods to make room for a more robust discussion of integration. But with only 35 hours to work with, and having to account for tests, and logistics, and everything else, there is only so much that can go into a course. I know for myself that I have to remain vigilant that I do not let something that is personally interesting – but which does not provide the students with an appreciably or proportionally greater understanding of the material – take time away from other things.
My notebooks for classes have day-by-day dividers in them so I can put the notes and references for a particular day in their own place. I also generally try to use a Sympodium or a slate PC for writing “on the board.” This does a number of things for me: I can use many, many colors; I can go back to previous slides if someone needs to see them; and I can print out what I wrote on a given day and put it in the notebook. I thus have a history of the semester’s material that I can use to improve things in the next cycle.
There are some disadvantages to using a Sympodium. First, you are stuck standing in one place – and if you are in Teer 203 or Schiciano, that one place may be relatively far from where the projection screen is. Second, you are beholden to the resolution of the screen for how much material you put up at once. Third, when you point to something and say, “look here,” no one has any idea what you are talking about unless you make some obvious motion with the cursor or use a laser pointer. Or, in Teer 203, come out from behind what I call the Wizard of Oz Box, walk on stage, and actually point to something.
For a new class, deciding what material to be included and how to parse it out into lectures can be very difficult. For Mechatronics, I made a list of the various topics I wanted to cover, wrote lecture notes on my tablet for them as one continuous file, and then began cutting and pasting the material I got through on a particular day. I then looked at how the course coverage was matching the specific items listed for each day on the syllabus and adjusted. As it happens, a few weeks into that class I realized that the pacing and content thus far were not working; I ended up taking a few lectures to go back over some territory and re-mapped the syllabus for the rest of the semester.
Regardless, I always try to work in a couple places where the students can work together on some aspect of the course we have discussed. For introductory classes, that might mean finding equations that will model a circuit or writing a bit of MATLAB code; for upper level classes, it might mean coming up with a plan to implement a particular controller. Whatever it is, the process of engaging the students with the material and then hearing back their answers will serve two purposes. First, it will get them talking – which always helps if a few of them are a bit sleep-deprived. Second, it will give you a little bit of instant information as to how the material is coming across. There may be groups who cannot come up with correct answers or who ask clarifying questions while they are working – finding that out during the lecture, when there is still time to provide some form of clarification to the whole class, can be very valuable.
I also try to stay on top of campus news to make sure I know what is going on with our students in general. A quick read of The Chronicle (Duke’s, not “of Higher Education”) can be very valuable in learning what events our students see as important. Including those items in a lecture can also help reinforce the notion that We Are Duke. This can take place in the minutes just before class starts as people are filing in or even during a lecture if it is relevant.
Mainly though, be sure to take Nan’s advice on teaching: “Be organized and enthusiastic, teach clearly, and treat the students with respect, and you will do well as a teacher.” (ECE Corner Office by Nan Jokerst, 02 Nov 2012)
Effectiveness of Homework Assignments
I have taught a fairly broad range of courses – everything from Introduction to Engineering Computer Programs to Seapower & Maritime Affairs – and for each I have had to determine the function of homework. There have been some common components:
– Homework is most effective when the feedback loop is accurate and efficient. Students should get back thoroughly examined material in a reasonably short period of time. I have always worked to get the number of teaching assistants that will meet this need. For the classes I teach, I also provide TAs with a set of solutions and a grading rubric. If possible, I will have assignments split into parts and I will have one TA grade all submissions for a part. In ECE 110 I have two grader TAs, so students turn in a Part I and a Part II for each homework. All 40 people will have their Part I graded by the same person, which hopefully leads to more consistent grading. There is a bit of overhead involved – two entries in the gradebook and two piles to collect and redistribute – but the overall process has worked well.
– Homework is most effective when there is a means of comparing the finished work against legitimate processes. This does not necessarily mean “a correct solution,” because oftentimes work done at home will and should provide open-ended opportunities for students to develop their answer in a way that is unique and is in keeping with the principles established by the course. Doubtless, there are some assignments where there will be A Right Answer – but generally there are multiple different paths to get there.
– Homework is most effective when students have the tools to complete it. An assignment does not need to look exactly like an example from the book or from a lecture, but there should be some reasonable expectation that the underlying information and skills required to solve the problem are available to the student given a reasonable amount of work. Which, of course, means defining “reasonable.” Any takers?
One part of how I use homework which varies from class to class is the notion of collaboration. This is a complex issue. There is value in requiring that an individual, alone, gathers all the information necessary to develop a solution to a given prompt and develops that solution alone. There is value in having that same process be shared by a group with all the viewpoints that may be discussed along the way. What is critical, however, is giving clear guidance about collaboration policy. Gary Ybarra and Lisa Huettel, for example, have crafted the controlling document for ECE 110. The end result establishes what is and is not allowed, gives examples, and even informs the students of historical repercussions for failure to abide by the rules. It also notes that there is a “gray area” and encourages students to contact instructors in those cases.
Laboratory Experiences and Assignments
For those classes with hands-on labs, the experience and insight gained from performing the work, analyzing the results, and crafting the conclusions can be a very powerful component of the course. For the Computational Methods course in particular, labs are the primary means by which students will actually learn the material. For other courses, such as Fundamentals of ECE, labs are the avenue students take to become familiar with building blocks of ECE. The most effective laboratory experiences I have seen have some common components as well:
– Laboratory experiences are most effective when they complement or clearly supplement lectures and readings. If a lab involves material that has not been covered yet, students can either miss the point or get frustrated at not being able to understand what is going on. If a lab is going to introduce some new concept, it is very important that the period during which the lab is performed by prefaced with a period of instruction on that material. That may involve a class lecture, an in-lab talk from a laboratory TA, or clear reading material – preferably with examples. If the lectures for a course start slipping behind for some reason, consider re-working the lab schedule or determine a means by which the students will be otherwise prepared to truly learn from the laboratory experience.
– Laboratory experiences are most effective when there is an assignment requiring that the student takes information from the lectures, from the readings, and from the laboratory itself and combines them to demonstrate a broader understanding of the material as a result of having done the lab.
– Finally, laboratory experiences are most effective when they work. Admittedly, learning the mechanisms by which an experiment will not succeed can be very important, but for early classes where students do not have sufficient troubleshooting experience or theoretical knowledge to “fix” a malfunctioning lab setup, care must be taken to create a laboratory experience that provides legitimate data and supports the theories discussed in class. Also, whomever runs the lab must be prepared as well.
This section of my post will not be on the test. But it will be on tests. In many courses, especially early ones, a healthy portion of the assessment of a student’s learning in a course will be done via tests. And, depending on the course, of the 35 hours devoted to a standard 1-credit course, tests generally take between 0.83 hours and 1.875 hours total depending on if you have two or three tests and whether you teach in 50-minute or 75-minute sections. That either represents a small or large portion of the whole depending on your perspective. In my experience:
– Tests are most effective when they can be completed in the time allotted. I know there will be some disagreement here, and my experience is biased by the nature of the courses I teach. I also want to emphasize the “can” here – there is certainly no requirement that every test be written such that every student in a course can complete it. But there does need to be a sense that a well-prepared student can complete the tasks at hand in the time allotted. For some of my classes, this has meant moving the test to the lab, where the students could use 170 minutes to work on the assessment. I will say that this is one area I continue to struggle with – as much as I try to account for my experiences as well as the fact that it will not take me any additional time to interpret a problem (since I wrote it), I still get this wrong.
– Tests are most effective when they efficiently cover the breadth and depth of material. I will generally give a class a “road map” for an upcoming test. For Computational Methods, the first road map is a 5-page long outline of concepts and commands totally 23 topics with several sub-topics. The second is a 1-page long outline with 6 topics (including “Know everything from the first test”). Once I make that map, I work to have some aspect of each part show up somewhere on the test.
– Tests are most effective when they ask valid questions. I have managed to give some test questions that were either impossible or trivial. Allow me to illustrate from ECE 61L Test III Fall of 2001:
Just before I went to copy the test, I decided to be clever and ask for the current through resistor R3 instead of the inductor current. Hilarity ensued. Almost everyone got a 0 for that problem, which means almost everyone got a perfect score on that problem.
Given the pressure that students feel during a test, and given the contribution of the testing process (studying for, taking, and getting back) to the learning process, it is crucial that tests be legitimate.
I’ll cap this off with what I think I have learned from the experiences I have had teaching so far.
– Keeping things organized is essential, especially for larger classes. For me, that means having a spreadsheet with all my to-do items for each of my classes as well as structures in place for exchanging materials with the TAs and returning materials to the students. For my Mechatronics class, as an example, I have a rolling cart with 80 hanging folders – one per student. TAs return all graded material to each student’s folder, and then I roll the folder to class or lab for recovery. It greatly reduces the time it takes to have students find their stuff and gives me an easy visual way to see if people have been showing up to class.
– Keeping track of “where we are” is crucial. I generally teach Monday and Friday, and a great deal goes on between lectures. Be sure to note for yourself where you actually stopped in a given lecture, not what the schedule said you were supposed to cover.
– Knowing where things fit into the grand curricular scheme of things can really help. I have a head start here comprised of having gone through Duke as an undergraduate, of having had appointments in three departments, and of having taught classes for all four. Since I teach or run lab for all incoming engineers, knowing the different degree requirements for all of Pratt is a job requirement. Knowing what goes on for all of ECE on the undergraduate side – not just within on curricular group – can help you include connections between the material you are teaching and the material in other classes. That, in turn, can give the students a better sense of the big picture.
– “Cooperation Without Compromise” – I first heard this as the motto of the Navy Chaplain Corps. As an aside – it is decidedly more appropriate here than the motto of the part of the Navy I was in, the Seabees, which is Construimus Batuimus (“We Build, We Fight”).
The idea is that there may be times you need to work to cooperate with a student or group of students without compromising the integrity of the course or your own integrity. For example, some of our varsity athletes have rigid travel schedules – working with them in advance to overcome those obstacles may involve moving deadlines or providing other accommodations. Other students will have life events that merit consideration. And that consideration takes time and effort on your part, but it will be worth it.
– Be approachable. Come to class a little early and stay a little late if students want to bend your ear. For your office hours, emphasize that the main purpose is to discuss concepts from the course, but that conversations on other topics are certainly welcome too.
If any part of this has been useful, there are many members of the staff, faculty, alumni, and students who should get the credit. The rambling, however, is on me. Duke in general and Pratt specifically have been my home now for nearly 24 years, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I consider it a very real privilege indeed to be a member of the ECE faculty, and I’d like to thank Larry for the opportunity to contribute this post. I have learned much from the posts that have been in the series so far and look forward to reading more.