Teach the Earth > Affective Domain > Dilemmas about Teaching > Meeting learning goals with a below average course

Meeting learning goals with a below average course

Jeff Johnson (presented as a session at the workshop)

During the fall 2006 semester I taught a first year writing seminar entitled "The World's Oceans in the Global Environment," a course designed to introduce students to important topics in marine science in the context of Earth systems science, as well as key issues in ocean policy (e.g., fisheries, implementation of marine protected areas, etc.). As a writing seminar, most student work during the semester was in the form of writing assignments.

Information from a variety of sources (performance on assignments and the final exam, comments written on the last day of class, and feedback provided by the college-administered course evaluation and the Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) survey at the end of the semester) indicates that students made significant gains in their understanding of Earth system science, particularly the workings of the marine environment. They are also much more aware of the current threats to the world's oceans and understand some of the implications of these threats to human society. Information from the above sources also indicates that the writing and information literacy goals of the course were largely met.

Despite these successes of the course, overall the students rated the course below average and rated my effectiveness as an instructor in communicating with the class and in stimulating their interest in the material below average (< 3 on a scale of 1-5). I knew going into the semester that motivating students to prepare for class and then to engage them in meaningful discussion would be a challenge, and indeed that was my biggest frustration with the course. Results from the course and SALG evaluations show that it was the students' biggest frustration as well. I am very interested and enthusiastic about the course topic and so I'm disappointed that a number of students were bored by me and the course. It is clear to me that my inability to engage students in the affective domain played an important part in the low student satisfaction.

I hope to teach the course again next year and I need to figure out how to significantly increase student satisfaction with the course. I see paying greater attention to the affective domain as a critical piece in improving this course.


These responses were generated at the workshop by small groups of participants.

Connect writing to science as a product or expression of human culture
Matt Nyman, Claudia Khourey-Bowers, and Pat Hauslein

Affective Causes

  1. Low self-efficacy in working with primary literature.
  2. Preconception that writing is dislocated to science.
  3. Resistance to being active scholars in science
Specific Suggestions
  1. Have students present an end-of-course symposium on policy issues to the university community, to showcase their scientific knowledge and ability to communicate to a broad community.
  2. Use articles from various kinds of journals on same topic by having students contrast/compare writing styles, use of jargon, treatment of content, credibility, etc, to build mastery.
  3. Bring in short biographies and scientific contributions of individuals who have been important in the field to get across the human origin of scientific knowledge.
  4. Engage students in simple original research that would be suitable for publication in student journals to make them aware of their possibilities in adding to scientific knowledge base.
  5. As part of the weekly writing assignments, have students reflect on the challenges they had in completing the assignments, in terms of scientific language, writing style, scientific concepts, and lines of argument. Each of these reflections could be incorporated into a portfolio or blog as a narrative of the students' personal growth.

Through the eyes of the students
Alan Boyle, Dorothea Ivanova, Kathie Owens, Kelly Rocca, and Jennifer Stempien

When students come into a course that is "writing intensive," especially in a science course, they may have initial issues with the amount of writing that occurs in the course (hence, the comments from students like "... endless writing assignments"). Since the course is considered by the university to be "writing intensive," there still needs to be a significant amount of writing in the course by all students. Unless there is a specific number of pages designated by the university, the writing could be lessened, especially for first-semester students (if this is what all students are in this course). Possibly, the course could be offered in the Spring instead of the Fall semester so the students have a bit more background in writing (introductory Freshmen writing course) before taking an intensive writing course outside of their discipline.

During the first week of class, the professor could ask students what they hope to gain from the course (including the science topic itself and the writing material—to remind them that this is writing intensive) and what their backgrounds are like (i.e., how much writing they have done outside of English courses). This will allow them to feel that they are a part of the decision-making in the course. Throughout the semester, the professor could ask for student feedback (anonymously) and make changes based on this feedback, where appropriate. Students could meet with individuals at the university's writing institute/center if this is available (or a tutoring center). They could also meet in groups in within the course (as Jennifer Husman stated in her earlier presentation today). It is important for students to have feedback along the way on each of their assignments—from the professor, and possibly from other sources (peers, groups, writing tutors). The writing assignments themselves could be changed along the way to reflect the progress of individuals and the class as a whole.

There needs to be a balance between writing about cognitive aspects of the course material, and writing about reflections and opinions. Along with this, students could be assessed by measures other than their writing. Examinations, homework, participatory exercises, etc., could all be a part of the course grade. This will allow students to be assessed on their knowledge of the course in a variety of ways, while still maintaining the writing component of the course. By only requiring writing assignments, students were not able to exercise their strength in multiple learning styles.

As in any course, having multiple methods of instruction (i.e., movies, lecture, discussion, group work, guest speakers, video clips, use of computer-aided instruction, etc.), would be helpful to provoke their minds to get into the writing aspects. Trying to make the content "fun" and enjoyable for the students can help open their creative abilities in writing. To do so, the professor needs to be "student-centered" and to focus the course around the abilities and interests of the students.

Reassess evaluations and expectations
Mimi Fuhrman, Al Werner, Tania Vislova, and Dexter Perkins


  • The instructor feels that his class is not successful as it could be because students rated it "below average" and rated him as a below average instructor
  • Instructor's expectations were that discussions could have been more interactive, lively, and robust
Affective causes:
  • Course and instructor are perceived as boring and unenjoyable by some students (and instructor believes that this is a valid problem)
Specific Suggestions:
  • In addition to the writing goals, the instructor should add as a goal that he wants students to help the him become a better teacher and the course to be enjoyable and "successful" (at meeting the goals)
  • At the beginning of the course, the instructor needs to be explicit about what the goals are and how he plans to meet those goals.
  • Add activities that allow students to give feedback about instruction
    • writing assignment about how course is meeting its goals
    • small-group diagnosis
    • revisit goals periodically
    • connect classroom activities to the goals
    • assess periodically whether you are reaching the goals
  • AND FINALLY: make sure that the evaluation instrument that you are using to evaluate the course and instructor matches the stated goals
Other comments:
  • Instructor should not worry too much about the results of the first evaluation—little tweaks might be sufficient to effect the desired results
  • Instructor should reassess his expectations of himself as an instructor

Facilitating Student Engagement
Tom Kobella, LeeAnn Srogi, Lensyl Urbano, and Martina Nieswandt

Dear Jeff,
After heated and constructive discussions of your teaching dilemma we have developed the following suggestions and recommendations for your next course. We concentrate on greater variety and choice to stimulate interest and enhance student motivation.

We believe that the following aspects will facilitate student engagement (interest and motivation):

  • Use multiple writing genres, e.g., first person narratives about students' experiences with oceans, poems, advertisements
  • Write for different audiences, e.g., narrative or short story about individual experience with and perceptions of the course for next semester students or student newspaper
  • Give students opportunities to revise their writing assignments
  • Provide models for different writing genres
  • Use different instructional strategies beside lectures such as individual or group presentations to make class more student-centered
  • Integrate media in addition to texts such as movies, guest speakers, and field trips
  • Integrate students' personal interest in topics, assignments and assessment: allow specialization

We hope that this list or recommendation will help you to make the course better and more satisfying for yourself and your students. Please keep us posted about your experiences.

All the best,
Tom, Lensyl, LeeAnn and Martina

Meeting learning goals with a below average course  

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