Re-thinking coverage & linearity
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Re-thinking coverage and linearity
Should courses be driven by the content of comprehensive textbooks? What alternatives are there?
Do we, as faculty, actually try to cover it all?
Should we, as faculty, try to cover it all?
- Just because you have covered something doesn't mean that your students have learned it.
- Students learn when they are actively engaged in building knowledge and when they apply what they know to solving problems, particularly relevant ones.
- Courses that give students effective practice plus opportunities to apply what they have learned cannot cover everything in a modern textbook.
What do faculty surveys tell us?
- At the NSF-funded workshop on Teaching Structural Geology in the 21st Century in 2004, 70 faculty who teach undergraduate structural geology filled out a survey containing a list of 80 topics covered in a typical structural geology textbook.
- Only 15 topics were considered crucial by more than 75% of respondents.
- Only about half of the 80 topics were considered "crucial, a must" by more than half of the respondents. The other half of respondents either do not teach these very same topics at all or would consider shortening or eliminating them.
- ~15 topics were not covered at all by more than half of the respondents but were listed as crucial by 7-20% of respondents, depending on the topic.
- Faculty do not, in fact, try to cover the full range of topics. Because we truly can't teach it all, we each make different decisions about what to omit, but our students still succeed in graduate school and in the work world.
- There is truly no one right list of topics. Faculty make different decisions for sound reasons. Surveys in other geo subdisciplines (e.g., hydrogeology) paint a similar picture.
Take-home messages about coverage and course design
- The faculty survey results are very liberating. Because there truly is no one right list of topics, it gives us the freedom to move beyond the tyranny and illusions of coverage in a course.
- Textbooks are comprehensive and give a misleading impression of topics that faculty actually cover. We should not feel compelled to cover it all – no one does (at least not effectively in terms of student learning!).
- Using a "less is more" approach (covering fewer topics but doing each more deeply), combined with involving students actively in analysis and application, results in more effective learning than an approach focused on exposure of students to topics covered by the instructor.
- There is no "right way". Courses should be designed around what your students need and what you want your students to be able to do as a result of having taken your course.
A typical linear approachCourses are commonly arranged around a linear sequence of topics in a discipline, much as textbooks are. Theory, concepts, and skills typically come first, with application coming toward the end of a course in a culminating final project.
Why consider a non-linear approach?
- A non-linear approach frames a course around a series of real-world problems, scenarios, or case examples, rather than around topics in a discipline.
- Students learn about a particular topic to answer a specific question. Scenarios typically revisit topics with increasing depth as the course progresses.
- Scenarios illustrate the broader context of discipline-specific topics and skills, demonstrating links to other relevant disciplines.
Example 1: Structural Analysis of Rocks and Regions - University of Edinburgh
Example 2: Structural Geology - Wesleyan University
Example 3: Structural Geology and Tectonics - Hamilton College
Resources for course design and re-design
From the NAGT Teach the Earth Portal
- On the Cutting Edge has a terrific self-paced course design tutorial that provides a practical pathway to designing effective and innovative courses such as those described above.
- Teach the Earth has a database of courses – enter the course topic into the search box; choose Course Descriptions/Syllabi.
- Pedagogy in Action has modules on effective teaching strategies for actively involving students.
- Major research frontiers, grand challenges, and thorny problems in structural geology, geophysics and tectonics
Paper on designing effective and innovative courses
Tewksbury, B.J. and Macdonald, R.H., 2007, A practical strategy for designing effective and innovative courses, in, Karukstis, K.K. and Elgren, T., eds., Designing, Implementing, and Sustaining a Research-Supportive Undergraduate Curriculum: A Compendium of Successful Curricular Practices from Faculty and Institutions Engaged in Undergraduate Research: Washington, DC, Council on Undergraduate Research, p. 127-136.
The On-Ramps Project provides quick-start guides for faculty interested in incorporating successful and easily implemented teaching strategies to improve student learning in the broad field of tectonics. The Project was funded by NSF grant EAR1841227 and grew out of a recommendation in the 2018 community vision document [link https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/handle/1773/40754 'Challenges and Opportunities for Research in Tectonics'.
Re-thinking coverage & linearity On-Ramp authors: Barbara Tewksbury and Florian Fusseis.
Project leads: Philip Resor, Barbara Tewksbury, Jennifer Wenner.
Additional authors: Kim Blisniuk, Cailey Condit, Anne Egger, Kyle Fredrick, Jamie Kirkpatrick, Sara Mana, Kendra Murray, Beth Pratt-Sitaula, Christine Regalla, and Carolyn Tewksbury-Christle.
Graphics: Logo - C. Tewksbury-Christle; photos - banner & p. 2, C. Gerbi; p. 1, http://flic.kr/p/6hRRXf.
Copyright: On-Ramps may be distributed freely, with attribution, under a Creative Commons License.