Initial Publication Date: January 16, 2007

David McConnell

Department of Geology, University of Akron

David McConnell

Essay 1: Office Hours

I taught a large introductory earth science class in spring semester 2006. I encouraged any student who wished to improve their exam performance, especially those who failed the first test, to visit me during office hours to discuss test preparation strategies. Despite the large class size, few students showed up.

The way a student chooses to explain a test result can provide an indication if they will be successful in the class. Students often attribute success or failure to a combination of factors that they view as: 1. Internal or external causes for success or failure typically tied to the student or instructor respectively: 2. Factors that are considered stable or fixed for the semester (e.g., lousy textbook) or that are unstable and may be modified to improve performance (e.g., visit to office hours when needed): and, 3. Situations that the students consider controllable or uncontrollable that may allow students to make necessary changes or may act to prevent opportunities for improvement. Students are more likely to be motivated to change their learning practices where they perceive that their lack of success is attributable to internal, unstable, controllable factors.

The next semester I decided to offer an incentive for students to attend office hours so that I could address the factors that were limiting their exam performance. I assigned 10 extra credit points (total points from semester assignments = 1000) for a 30-minute office hour visit. I also changed the way I managed office hours. Instead of having a consistent hour at the same time every other day, I adapted a technique my education colleagues use. Each week I identify a series of 30-minute blocks and post them on a timetable on my door. A typical week may have 10 blocks but prior to exams there may be as many as 20. This requires that most weeks I devote more time to direct contact with students, a key attribute of best practices in undergraduate education. Few students came to the office hours prior to the first test but the test results provided sufficient incentive to have students start signing up. Prior to the second test, 30 students visited office hours and discussed their performance in the class. The average first test score for visitors was 66.9% (vs. 71.9% for other students, n=205). While most of these students had performed poorly on the first test, five had scored 80% or higher.

Students typically attributed their poor performance on the first test to internal factors (they did not put in enough effort), that were unstable and controllable (they would spend more time preparing for the second test). We discussed their test preparation strategies and students would often tell me relied heavily on flash cards. None of these students scored above 70% on the first exam. I pointed out that such methods were helpful for vocabulary but were not as effective for promoting conceptual understanding. I encouraged the weakest students to seek help from the university's tutoring center and to consider using some additional test preparation strategies (e.g., concept maps). We spent almost half of the visit discussing other classes and high school experiences were students had done well in class. Finally, I pointed out that other students who had performed below their expectations on the first exam had been able to do well on later exams and I expressed confidence that they could do the same. The average score on the second test for office hour visitor was 72.3% (vs. 72.8% for other students). Two-thirds (67%) of office visitors improved their score on the second exam. Only 48% of the rest of the students improved their scores. Consequently, the office hour visits appear to have helped students to improve their exam performance more readily than they could have on their own.

Essay: The Effect of Groups

One of the most reluctant changes I made to my teaching was the introduction of groups into large classes. However, time has shown that this change was perhaps the most important improvement I have made to my teaching. Class evaluations consistently mention the benefits of groups and the level of student engagement in class has clearly increased. Whether it is the immediate buzz of noise that fills the classroom as students discuss a problem or the high fives that follow a successful answer, the groups have gone a long way to improve the learning environment, and making class a "fun" place to be.

During research with a team of colleagues, we discovered that we can increase students' logical thinking skills and conceptual understanding of geoscience concepts if we create a learning environment involving groups of students working on challenging conceptual problems in class. We were curious if these improvements were primarily a result of working in groups or were more attributable to working on exercises that required the application of higher order thinking skills. To investigate this question, one instructor taught two sections of the class using the same learning exercises and using collaborative groups in one class but not in the other. Both classes received the identical lectures and class materials. Students in the class without assigned groups were not prevented from working together, though it was not encouraged by the instructor.

Overall course grades for students in the section using assigned groups were 5% higher (80% vs. 75%, p<0.01) than in the section that employed similar exercises without the benefit of groups. The overall result was not unexpected since the group work concept has been shown to be successful in many situations (Nelson, 1994; Paulson, 1999; Lord, 2001). Students in structured groups learn from one another and are more likely to get their questions answered as they strive to meet common goals and objectives. They become more socially connected and have more opportunities to address their misconceptions. This is particularly true in large format sections where individual attention from the instructor is at a premium.

The advantage gained by using groups appears to help all students, but the effect is most profound in students with the highest (abstract) logical thinking skills. This was unexpected and goes against a common rationalization for not using groups—"the weak students will pull down the strong students." Perhaps abstract students fare better in the group environment because they have more advanced metacognitive skills that allow them to readily recognize and address their misconceptions as they attempt to explain concepts to peers. This interaction then reinforces the concept for the abstract thinker and better prepares them for later assessment opportunities. In contrast, the exposure to the learning exercises themselves may be the more significant factor for other students with a history of learning strategies that rely heavily on memorization and recall.

For more information see:
McConnell, D.A., Steer, D.N., Owens, K., & Knight, C., 2005, How students think: Implications for learning in introductory geoscience courses: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 53, #4, p. 462-470.