Essay on Introductory Courses I Teach
Rachel Teasdale, Geological and Environmental Sciences, California State University-Chico
1. How my introductory course(s) serve my students, department, and institution.
The GEOS 101, General Geology course at California State University, Chico fulfills a GE requirement for students and is recommended as a foundation course for several of the GE curriculum "pathways" (a thematic set of lower and upper division GE courses students take to satisfy their GE requirements). Topics are aligned with traditional introductory geology curriculum found in most major textbooks. Students take two hours per week of lecture and two hours per week of lab. Lecture sections are taught by faculty, labs are taught by graduate students or faculty. Students can enroll in any lab section, all of which use the same lab manual and cover the same material each week. Typically, two sections of the lecture are taught each semester. Faculty teach the lecture course in their own styles, using content of their choice, but generally use the same textbook. At the very least, this class serves my students' requirements for a science class with a lab, to fulfill their GE requirement for graduation.
At a higher level, my intent is for the course to serve other areas of a students' education. I recognize that the introductory course would actually be more appropriately referred to as their "terminal science" class, which I believe should provide them with not only geoscience literacy, but science literacy on a broader scale. To do so, I include course content that emphasizes the relevance and process of science, through geoscience examples and case studies. I attempt to incorporate other scientific disciplines in discussions and activities. I use Northern California- relevant case studies and examples whenever possible, which I believe adds to the opportunity for students to find course material relevant and to learn about geoscience in general while developing an understanding of the area in which they live.
The class serves the department (and university) according to an enrollment multiplier that brings money to the department and university. Another important way the course serves our department is also in providing employment and teaching experience for graduate students who are TAs for the lab sections. In principle, the introductory courses may also serve to recruit students to become geoscience majors, but this is generally a low number of students each semester (2-3), which of course could be improved.
2. What features of your course(s) are targeted at serving those different audiences and needs?
I recognized early on, that my students are not updated versions of "me" when I was an undergraduate student. I do not aspire to create a "Mini-Me," so I have no illusions that I need to cover the same material (or same amount of material) in the same way my professors did. I also have no (known) requirements for the amount of material or specific topics I must cover for the introductory geology class. Given those freedoms, I am able to drop content when needed to make room for more interactive class periods, but I can also include content in alternative ways. These liberties allow me to think about my students more than the book, my colleagues, or my own learning experiences. As such, I design my syllabus and teaching strategies to accommodate and embrace some generalizations about my students such as: their desire to be social; their short attention spans (for passive listening), easy use of technology, their diverse backgrounds, and that most are not likely to become scientists. With all of this in mind, I design my classes to use group work activities on a daily basis, which is social, minimizes lectures, and incorporates their diverse backgrounds/ experiences/ interests/ perspectives. I encourage them to use technology when useful (e.g. use of the internet in class, electronic communications and online for formative assessment).
I also recognize that many of my students will purchase homes (many in California), have children, and hopefully, vote so I select content that I think they will see is relevant. I incorporate current events (drought conditions and water laws), earthquake probabilities (calculated for 1 year and 30 year to align calculations with the lifespan of a home loan), and attempt to put traditional geologic content into a relevant context (e.g. discussion of the chemistry of minerals in the context of mining rare earth elements for use in hybrid cars and iPhones). I realize that my students are more diverse than I am aware of or have accommodated, especially cultural diversities. I look forward to learning about recognizing and incorporating those diversities.
3. How do you know those features are working?
I have not done a good job assessing the efficacy of the teaching strategies and content areas used in my introductory course. This is clearly a huge disservice to my students (perhaps I'm subjecting them to activities that do not promote their learning) and to myself (I spend a lot of time finding, revising, implementing activities but if they don't result in student learning, is my time well spent?). This is an area that I recognize I need to improve on. Had I known where I was headed or that changes would be continuous, I would have done some assessment of the "before" scenario and compared it with the "after" class style. But I didn't.
That said, when my students are engaged in activities during class, they are visibly working on class material and are engaged in conversations and discussions related to the topic. This is in direct contrast to students I taught early in my career when my classrooms were very much traditional lecture sessions in which students were expected to pay attention, take notes and remember information for the test. I'm not sure that was learning, and I can't quantitatively report that they are learning now, but I do know that at least now I can see them actively engaged with course material now – at least during class. I do get a lot of informal positive feedback from students in class, by email and in office hours but have not effectively measured that feedback. Effective and efficient formative and summative assessment strategies are areas I look forward to learning more about.