Notes for faculty considering this course format
When I changed this course to a completely project-based format I recall feeling very nervous: I was giving up the considerable control that Powerpoint lectures, weekly labs, and the obligatory 'talk on the outcrop' fieldtrip seem to provide. It was a bit like jumping off a cliff (or dropping into a half-pipe on a skateboard). I was entirely confident that the new format would improve learning and that I would ultimately enjoy teaching the course more, but I had to get over that initial fear. Then I realized that I didn't have to loose the structure, just some of the minute-by-minute control that a more traditional format offered. I also had to feel confident that I wasn't giving up important content that I felt had to be covered in a sedimentology and stratigraphy course. In order to provide the structure I:
- Developed a detailed course concept map (Acrobat (PDF) 539kB Jul1 05) that (a) outlined the overarching goals of the course; (b) sketched out some of the details and goals of the individual projects; and (c) provided a summary of the major content areas that I would cover. I printed out this concept map on a large format plotter and had it on the wall of the classroom throughout the semester so that the students and I could keep track of the 'big picture'.
- Developed handouts (Acrobat (PDF) 1MB Jul1 05) that summarized each project's goals and expectations.
- Created session-by-session outlines that guided me through each project. These outlines contained specific learning objectives for the day, activities that I intended to pursue (think-pair-shares, jigsaws, gallery walks, petrography activities, etc.), materials that I would need, and an outline of how much time I expected to devote to each part of the session. I did not create all of these outlines in advance; instead, I tended to plan them on a week-by-week basis as I saw how the project was evolving with the students.
If you look at the outlines for sessions for each project, you'll quickly see that they were very detailed at first and became less so throughout the semester. This evolution reflects my gradual increase in comfort with the course format. I found that I just got more comfortable creating mini-lectures on the spot (or with short notice; I had Powerpoint lectures and a range of other activities 'in the can' from prior iterations of the course!) and addressing student concerns/questions/ideas 'on the fly.' Some session outlines are mere placeholders.
A major issue that I faced was one that the students pointed out after a mid-semester course evaluation: many of them felt that they were getting inadequate feedback and that some students that happened to be around during non-class time-but asked a key question of me-had an advantage on any given project. For example, a student might come by my office hour and ask me to clarify some sequence stratigraphic concept. I would do this, and this student would talk to her friends about it, but some students would be left out of the loop. Clearly, the students 'in the know' would produce a better paper in the end. To address this, I kept track of these conversations and gave 15 minutes at the beginning of each class session as an 'open question and feedback' time. I rarely had to use the full 15 minutes and the students felt that it helped them greatly to have this time.
Finally, there is a fundamental issue of trust that came up in my class: students had to be able to trust that I knew when they had the ability to look something up on their own and understand it. Some students got very frustrated when I did not give them a formal reading assignment but, instead, I told them to 'look it up.' I confronted this issue head-on and told them that they had to trust me, and that I would definitely work to clarify issues if they had made a good faith effort to understand the issue on their own. Overall, this worked: students dug into the literature and, when they came up a bit short, I would take time to help them understand.