Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Out with rote learning

Tom Nudds and I co-taught community ecology for the first time together last semester (and Amanda was one of our wonderful TAs). Despite our differences ;-), we share a very similar teaching philosophy. And as a result of some crazy ideas, we decided to completely remodel community ecology. Tom's rallying cry:
Out with rote learning
To implement this, we cut out all "normal" aspects of grading in our course, and instead we implemented 3 research projects in a problem-based learning framework. In addition to learning students how to improve their critical thinking skills, we also wanted them to appreciate the importance of uncertainty, scientific method, group work, and competition among ideas, all while we teach them something about community ecology. Tom's second rallying cry:
Context-dependent content
Our primary pedagogical tool was a novel combination of:

  • grading the assignments with a very explicit but flexible grading rubric that is essentially a language ladder, or a combination of some qualitative and quantitative milestones for obtaining a certain grade
  • providing feedback to the students by making them compare their own group project with the 3 best projects from the class
  • a very explicit method of evaluating the group work process by assessing the individual contributions to the final project
Since we thought that this experiment was very successful, we decided to present this method and its results at the Guelph Teaching and Learning Innovations Conference. The two key slides from our presentation are the results of our experiment.

The grades for the written reports increased from the first assignment (70%) to the last assignment (77%), while the grading rubric and the bar was the same (except for some details related to the differences in the actual problems studied) in all three assignment (so we did not make the assignments easier).

We also could distinguish between strong students that consistently had high grades (left side of first principal component) versus students with consistently low grades (right side of the first principal component), despite the group work of all gradings. In addition, this figure also shows that the learning aspect happened after the first assignment (all the arrows with RP1 in their labels), because the grades for this assignment were not correlated with the other grades. 

We also discussed how we will address the problems that we encountered during this course: how to organize and approach the lecture times, and how to encourage the group work and objective peer evaluations, but that will be for another blog.

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