Initial Publication Date: October 14, 2014

Workshop Synthesis

In a final session of the 2014 virtual workshop on getting the most out of your introductory courses, participants reflected on what they learned and what they will be bringing back to their colleagues. The following list summarizes some of the common themes of that discussion.

Effective course structures and strategies

  • We can learn from other disciplines, both in the national landscape and on our own campuses. Nationally, Biology recently underwent the process of re-envisioning the introductory undergraduate curriculum to focus on big ideas and active learning; the active learning classroom design (SCALE-UP) came from Physics. Instructors in those departments can be a valuable resource for our courses in geoscience.
  • Active learning works: students are more engaged and learn more. There are strategies that can be used in all course sizes, including very large lectures. There are many resources available to help instructors integrate active learning into their teaching.
  • Framing introductory geoscience courses within societally relevant and local issues can help recruit and retain students and keep them engaged throughout the course.
  • Identify what is working in your introductory courses and share that with your community. Codifying the things that are working can help mentor new instructors (adjunct or tenure-track) and develop effective teaching assistants.
  • The concept of a flipped classroom can mean many things, but the main idea is that students are digesting information outside the classroom (this could be a recorded lecture, reading, or other activities) and are responsible for knowing that information when they come to class to work in groups or work on problems (considered homework in a more traditional classroom). There are many ways to implement this kind of learning in your classroom and resources available to support it.
  • For large courses, management is very important and should be acknowledged as a significant time commitment for a faculty member. Effective management includes integrating appropriate active learning strategies and holding regular meetings with coordinating faculty and teaching assistants.

Making change happen

  • Introductory courses are thoroughly woven into the fabric of the department and institution, and making changes to improve student learning, recruit more students into the major, or address other challenges requires a systems approach. The system may include multiple types of introductory courses (for majors and non-majors), graduate or undergraduate teaching assistants, adjunct faculty, general education requirements, rotating faculty teaching courses, infrastructure constraints, characteristics of the student body, available technology, historical precedent, and other inputs, processes, and feedback loops.
  • A key component of making change happen is building a coalition of the willing. This includes colleagues in your own department and can also include colleagues across campus in your center for teaching and learning, IT department, and other departments interested in making changes. A SWOT analysis can help you accomplish this.
  • Treat ideas for changing your courses the same way you treat scientific ideas: gather evidence and write a proposal to make changes based on that evidence. This does not need to be an NSF proposal: approach administration with a succinct proposal that includes your motivation, the names of your coalition of the willing, an implementation plan, and budget. The process of writing the proposal can focus discussions about effective pedagogy and receiving a grant lends significant credibility.
  • Gathering local assessment data to provide evidence for change can be challenging. Typical student evaluations of courses rarely provide useful data, and grades can vary significantly depending on the instructor or the timing of the course. Working with colleagues in your campus center for teaching and learning and IT departments can help you develop more specific and useful means for getting feedback and assessment data.

Community resources

  • There is a community of geoscience instructors who are interested in teaching and learning and who are engaged in improving geoscience education. This community can provide resources in the form of evidence for effective strategies as well as general support and ideas for your own classroom.
  • There is a large collection of resources available through SERC, NAGT, and On the Cutting Edge to support effective teaching and learning in the introductory geoscience classroom --- at times, it can be overwhelmingly large. It can take time to identify the activities and tools that will fit into any given course, but you do not need to start from scratch.

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