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  • Writer's pictureMohit Verma

How to teach for the second time?

Last year, I was overwhelmed by teaching a junior-level course for the first time. It would take me about eight to ten hours to prepare for every hour of lecture. I recently finished teaching the same course for the second time and I certainly felt better about it. Now that I had most of the class content already prepared (from last year), I was only spending about four hours per week on preparation. With the help of the faculty bootcamp this summer, I also learned how to spend those four hours effectively by emphasizing the outcomes of each lecture.

Introduce mini-projects

Based on the feedback from last year’s class, I introduced mini-projects in my course in addition to homework assignments. Whereas homework assignments are mostly focused on numerical problems that involve concepts directly from the lectures and are tested on quizzes and exams, mini-projects build new skills that are relevant for applying the concepts to real-life scenarios. I explained this difference to the students at the start of the class so that they are aware that if the mini-projects feel tangential, they are intentionally so.

For example, one of the mini-projects aimed at learning value proposition design, which is often taught in business schools but ignored by engineers. The key idea is that when designing a new product or service, we should consider the consumer at the beginning of the design process. With the help of my colleague Professor Matthew Lynall from the Krannert School of Management, I introduced this concept to my course. Professor Lynall presented the concepts in the form of a guest lecture and the students then completed the mini-project. The mini-project involved working in groups of four to develop a concept for a product that uses spectroscopy (one of the key topics from my course) and discovering the appropriate customers for it. The students had to identify the pains and gains of these customers by interviewing them and pitching the idea of their product.

Based on the feedback on mini-projects (I had a survey for bonus points at the end of the course), most students enjoyed the mini-project on value proposition because they got to learn about stakeholders and be creative with their solutions. Some students were disappointed that they did not get to do more with their designed product (e.g. build a prototype or share their findings with the class in the form of a presentation). The students also mentioned that the team size (of four) was unnecessarily big and thus, for future years I will reduce it down to two (which also increases accountability).

My course had three mini-projects and each of them was independently developing different skills (e.g. how to search and read peer-reviewed literature, how to talk to stakeholders, and how to design complex engineering problems). For future students, I would like to introduce continuity amongst the mini-projects so that the students develop an idea, gain feedback based on stakeholders, and then get a chance to modify their idea (and hopefully build a mock prototype).

Add more practice problems

Since I was unable to find a good textbook for this course earlier, I struggled with providing sufficient practice problems for the students. Even though I had introduced many problems in the form of homework assignments (which were graded for completion and then the solutions were provided at the due date), these seem to be insufficient. Since the quizzes and exams are open notes, I do not entertain plug-and-chug problems. My goal is to test whether the students have grasped the concepts and whether they can apply it to new scenarios. The more practice problems I provide, the more creative I have to be on designing the test problems. These test problems are also meant to reward outstanding students by helping them distinguish themselves from the rest of the class. At the same time, the tests have certain sections that are doable for every student who has attended the lectures so that they do not fail the course either.

With the help of a bonus assignment, I asked the students to provide suggestions on relevant textbooks. Some of the students did provide very good recommendations and I might have a more relevant textbook for next year. I hope that this textbook will help overcome the issue of insufficient practice problems.

Increase response rate of course evaluations

Oh, the dreaded course evaluations…when I was teaching for the first time last year, one of my colleagues commented that I should not even look at the course evaluations until a few months have passed so that they are not as disturbing. I think the biggest issue is that despite the amount of effort that goes into delivering a course, it is impossible to satisfy everyone. In this year’s class, I also recognized the variability in the students in the classroom and the challenge is to ensure that the class is a learning environment for the extremes and for everyone in between. For example, when assigning a project on literature review, I received comments along the spectrum of “it was an insult that you assume we do not know how to review scholarly literature” to “this assignment was very useful since I had never used Google Scholar before.” Thus, it is important to get high response rates for course evaluations to get a feel of the entire class instead of a few outspoken individuals. Last year, I managed to achieve a 98% response rate by incentivizing the completion of the survey with bonus grades. I think since the class average was low, many students wanted to get a boost in their grade. This year, however, the response rate was only 67% despite the bonus grade incentive and I think it is because the class average was high going into the final exam and the students did not feel the need for a bonus. Although I only have two data points, there seems to be an inverse correlation between tentative grades and response rates when incentivizing the survey with a bonus grade.

My overall rating for the course or the instructor did not change much over the two years, which was slightly disappointing because I thought I had addressed the concerns from the previous year. At the same time, since I did not have to spend as much time preparing the class, I was not too upset by this outcome. Three things that continued to work well were: i) the use of BoilerCast (which is a tool for recording of every lecture that is available to students for studying), ii) the well-prepared lectures (I guess because of the engaging activities), and iii) think-pair-share activities (which I described in my previous post). Since incorporating these components is straightforward for me, I will continue to keep them in the course. Although there are conflicting perspectives on the use of BoilerCast (or similar technologies) because it could affect the attendance of students, I feel that I would rather work with students that want to be in the classroom (even if it is a smaller fraction of 60-70% attendance) than have a full classroom with students that are being forced to attend (where ~30-40% do not care for the in-class engagement). I do tend to reward the classroom attendees with bonus points because I do appreciate their participation.

Just like last year, I distributed cardstock paper and markers for students to make their own nameplates. I asked them to bring these nameplates with them to every lecture so that I could rely on them for active learning. I am bad at remembering names and thus, seeing them written out and repeated several times helps me remember. I learned this technique from the excellent teaching workshop conducted by Brent and Felder. One of the key lessons from the workshop was that you should never call on students without giving them an opportunity to think about the question to avoid making them anxious and uncomfortable. I have continued to follow this advice by always providing 10-60 seconds for the students to think about the answer before sharing with the entire class. Despite this precaution, I am facing pushback on the approach. Apparently, I can come off as attacking students when I continue to grill them for answers (which I personally feel is a way of getting them to think deeper and I grill my lab members much harder than any of my classroom students—it is probably also reminiscent of my Ph.D. and postdoctoral training and perhaps junior-level students are too young to be comfortable with these questions). During these interactions, I have never intended to insult any of the students but I do intend to point out deficiencies that the students should fill in if they wish to do well in quizzes and exams. As demonstrated by plenty of research, active learning helps the learning of students for a diverse set of learning styles. In the future years, I intend to include this piece of research at the start of my class so that students are aware and hopefully less opposed. I will also have to be careful to not come off as aggressive.

Since teaching is weighted for approximately 15% or so in evaluating tenure-track faculty (where 80% is based on research and 5% on service), my hope is to be able to manage my time and effort proportionally. At the same time, I hope that the students implement some of the skills that are engrained in the course. They may not remember all the technical concepts, but if I can develop their ability to learn, I will have contributed something significant.

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