Learning to teach is a continuous process. I hone my teaching skills through a variety of forms of reflection.
I utilize a video-recording service available through my University’s Office of Instruction and Assessment to observe myself teach. Below is an example of such a video.
Following my lessons, I reflect upon my effectiveness at teaching to my learning objectives.
Date: September 24th, 2015
Course: Conservation Genetics 460/560
Today’s topic was small population sizes and drift. As of last class, many of the students were still lacking a concrete definition for drift so I decided to make today’s group work primarily about creating an understanding of drift and how population size factors in. I had also decided (the night before) to make today’s quiz questions revolve around their group project as I had received a few concerning emails about group member participation (or rather, the lack thereof). I asked the students to give me honest answers as to the degree to which they had participated in their group project so far. Looking over the “quizzes”, I feel most were honest and I can see which groups are struggling and which students are failing to participate. I therefore feel that this was a worthwhile use of the quiz time.
I was a little worried that the students would find the bean activity a bit boring as most of them have seen this sort of thing in lower level classes/high school. I was also worried the groups wouldn’t get through all four of the exercises. I was pleased to see that the majority of the students were engaged with the activity. I find it hard to get some of the more reluctant students to speak up when we get together as a class to talk about our results. Honestly, that stems from not being as comfortable with their names as I would like. In a semester-long class, I would be more comfortable cold-calling on the students.
I was completely surprised that the groups kept fixing the red beans. In the future, I will try different types of beans or maybe something more uniform like M&Ms or marbles. I will also use smaller starting sizes as the groups with larger starting sizes didn’t get through their exercises until we applied selection. A student recommended I use a computer software simulation to show them the effect of drift & selection in larger population sizes. I will consider that but I like having students work hands on instead of clicking through screens.
Overall, I feel the class went well. I wish the students would feel more comfortable coming up to the board when I ask them to write. I don’t know how to make them feel more comfortable. Perhaps in a semester long course they would be more comfortable as the semester progressed.
As a graduate student instructor, I have had an opportunity to receive feedback on my teaching from teaching mentors.
When I was an introductory biology lab TA, I was critiqued by the lab’s director. She summarized the observation with:
Overall comments – great flow and you obviously knew what you were going to do when and why – you seemed very prepared. Only major thing I see that could use work is trying to engage more of your class in whole class discussions. Could also move around your classroom a bit more, but this will probably become more comfortable for you as the semester goes on. Nice work!
As I have gained teaching experience, I have taken her comments to heart and have made strides in engaging a greater portion of the class.
I have also had the opportunity to be observed by teaching mentors in the Office of Instruction and Assessment. My mentor, Mascha Gemein, had this to say about her observation of my class:
Observation report for Erin Vaughn
Sept 24, 2015
GENE 460: Conservation Genetics
ENR2 N350; Tue/Thu 2-3:15pm
Thank you for allowing me to observe your guest visit in GENE 460: Conservation Genetics. It was a pleasure to witness a smooth, dynamic, learner-centered class.
Your focus for the day was “Small Populations & Genetic Drift” and you had 17 students in attendance. You began the session with a short quiz, and then briefly used the list of your objectives (identified as “road map” to the students) to connect the day’s topic to the last session as well as upcoming sessions. Within minutes after starting the class, you discussed the instructions with the 17 students (7 male and 10 female) and they began with their experiment.
Environment: The room was large and friendly with lots of light and large, modular tables. The students already sat in groups at large tables. Up front was a large whiteboards and a screen was slightly at the right diagonal. The students were attentive throughout the lesson.
Rapport: The students appeared comfortable in class, did not hesitate to ask questions or ask your assistance, and participated willingly. During collaborative experiment phases, the students’ conversations were on-topic and focused on the task. You used the Socratic method after each step of the experiment, and the students actively sought answers and analysis, speaking freely without raising their hands and at times building on each other’s responses.
The 2-minute quiz at the beginning of class included monitoring questions in order to hold the students accountable to a group project they are working on. You fostered critical self-assessment by asking each student to write down what he/she had done for the project so far and intended to do in the next days. This method instills responsibility and professionalism in the students in relation to their classmates.
Active Learning: The experiment was tangible, using beans in paper cups and a handout with tables. The students were able to complete the first part of the activity within minutes and appeared to have fun with the competitive element trying to be the first group to finish. The students easily determined the process (the drift) that they had observed through the experiment. Your follow-up questions generated answers and explanations from the students that indicated their deeper understanding of phenomena connected to drift.
The second phase of the experiment began with making predictions, a way to model the actual scientific process. Through conversation with the students, you helped them determine which predictions can reasonably be made and which not. Your phrase “Okay, lets science it up!” was enthusiastic, engaging, and modeled the diligent and positive attitude a scientist may have. Since this next phase took a few minutes longer than the first one, you used the time to check in with every group, listen to their findings, and providing impulses for further analysis with your questions. In this case, the discussion revolved around whether the findings supported the predictions that has been made. It then moved to a definition of drift via the probability of loosing an allele. The students paid close attention to your interactive explanation, even though not all of them took notes.
In phase 3, the students manipulated the beans in the cups, again followed by comparing results with predictions. They quickly recognized that they had imitated selective pressures on populations. Phase 4 of the experiment followed the established rhythm of predictions, then the experiment with even more manipulation of populations, and finally the discussion of results. Lastly, you asked the students to synthesize the findings from the 4 phases of the experiment and to jot down some notes on the whiteboard. After a short discussion, the students were asked two write down the synthesis in two sentences. This was followed by a discussion about relevance of such experiments or observations.
Presentation & Implementation: Your professional appearance and confidence in your subject matter knowledge complemented your accessibility and friendliness, allowing you to assume the role of a warm demander in your class. You used the space in this large classroom effectively, echoing the dynamic of the fast, but appropriately, paced class in your own fluid movement and voice. You spoke loudly and clearly articulated, but sometimes a bit too fast, especially for the non-Native speakers in the class. All your oral instructions were very clear and additionally visualized through bullet points on PPT slides. Your slides, simple with little text, included the objectives and experiment instructions along with a few notes for the consequent discussion of the experiment. When gathering experiment results, you wrote on the whiteboard. As mentioned before, you successfully elicited answers from the students, basing your pace and explanations on the ongoing, informal assessment of student learning.
It was a joy observing your learner-centered class session. I am looking forward to further conversation.
Mascha N. Gemein, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Practice
Office of Instruction & Assessment (OIA)
The University of Arizona
I also seek out critique about my teaching from experts in my content field. My thesis advisor had this so say about a class she observed:
Evaluation/Observation of Erin Vaughn’s Instruction of RNR 530 – Thursday September, 24, 2015
Topic: Small Populations and Genetic Drift
Excellent consistency throughout the class session of using the same model (colored beans) to demonstrate/teach several concepts (drift, Ne, selection). The model was very clearly explained so the students were able to use the model, the interaction in the groups was positive. I noticed all the students participating and they appeared to understand the point of each experiment. Good use of predictions first (having the class make predictions), then perform experiments, then see if observations matched the predictions. Excellent “scientific method” learning experience. Students were engaged. No one was dozing off.
Objectives: 1) students had a good understanding of genetic drift by the end of class, 2) some forces of evolution were covered in this lecture, and those that were discussed were clearly presented, 3) students had a good understanding of small versus large effective population size by the end of class, and 4) predictions were used effectively.
In instructional objectives – state that “some” forces of evolution are explored in small versus large populations. Mutation and migration are not talked about and wording implies that all forces are being looked at in this class.
With changing experiment to Ne = 10, Ne of 4 and 8 might be a better choice for Experiment #4.
Members of my cohort within the College Teaching Certificate program have observed my teaching from the perspective of a fellow learner-teacher. I have received the following feedback:
In-Class Observation Form
Name Observed: Erin Vaughn
Date: September 22, 2015
Class: GENE460 Conservation Genetics; Mutation & Migration
Location: ENR2 N350
# of Students: 16, mix of undergraduate and graduate students
Classroom Environment/Instructional Resources Available: The classroom environment is set up to be modular and changed the way an instructor might want. There are multiple tables and chairs on wheels that face towards a white board and projector screen. The projector screen is on a mobile cart, which may obstruct the view. Laptop is used as computer. This classroom had two walls of windows, which provided natural light and sights. From the design of the building, there is very little glare coming from windows. Students were to bring personal mobile device/printouts. PowerPoint was used as tool for facilitating the class but wasn’t the driver of the lecture.
Introduction/Warm-Up/Advanced Organizer: Introduction was discussing group project progress followed by a two-question quiz. There were various student reactions to this quiz from composed to surprise. This approach to a classroom warm up requires students to immediately begin focusing on the class to come, as well as address student progress in course (as verbalized to students).
Interaction with Students: For the majority of the lecture you kept students engaged. When asked to discuss within their groups, students were energetic. An area for improvement would be entire class discussions. By learning to deal with the silence a little bit longer you may get students to begin opening up and leading the discussion. (For example: if you have a quiet/shy/tired group, knowing you’ll always talk they may rely on as a crutch). I also noticed that one group more than the others were engaging in the group discussions the most. Perhaps this could be from choosing to lecture at the front corner of the classroom. Simultaneously I could see other groups farther away from you interacting amongst themselves and not speaking up. Perhaps moving around the classroom during these discussions would be more accommodating and encouraging to that to keep attention as well as allow all students to hear what you have to say. Also repeating student answers in discussion can help keep all students in the class on the same page. This can also help reassess student learning throughout the class. At some points it was difficult to hear you based on the volume of your voice and that the back of the room as a lot of ventilation noise.
Organization: Followed provided lesson plan. Combination of lecture and activity was very beneficial so the students were consistently reminded to remain engaged. Used the think-pair-share time to go around classroom and pass back assignments and also interact individually with groups. Students may have been asked to prepare before class through readings but this was not clear to me as an observer, if they were that can greatly drive how vigorous an in-class discussion section would be.
Keep up the enthusiasm, approachability and clear organization!
Thank you for allowing me to observe your class,
Course: GENE 460 – Conservation Genetics
Date: Sept. 24, 2015
Observer: Weston Welge
The course consisted of 16 students with a nearly balanced gender ratio. The room is large and echoic with a single whiteboard and projection screen in the front. The students were sitting in groups of 4-5 students with two groups in each of the front two rows. The students seemed to focus on the class activities for the entire duration of class. I did not notice any students talking at inappropriate times or not participating in the experiments.
An agenda was projected at the beginning of class to let the students know the educational objectives of the class period. The class consisted of a series of experiments meant to demonstrate evolutionary concepts. Upcoming deadlines for a group project were mentioned at the beginning of class. Brief lectures occurred between the experiments. The class concluded with group members writing what they learned on the board and answering a few additional questions posed in the remaining time. You seemed comfortable and prepared to describe the experiments, lecture material, and responding to student questions. You followed your lesson plan closely.
Your primary teaching methods were experiential learning (through the use of experiments) and Socratic dialogue through questions posed to the students. The experiments seemed effective because students were able to identify the concept demonstrated by each experiment quickly after posing the question. I noticed many different students answering questions as well, so it is likely that the majority of the course benefited from the experiments. Some of the experiments took some groups much longer to complete than others. This created the opportunity to discuss why this was the case. You were able to pose effective questions to guide the students’ thinking and provide details when needed to help them reach the correct conclusions. I imagine that this type of interaction was not prepared beforehand, but it appeared natural.
When not actively working on experiments, most of your interaction with the class was through questions in a Socratic style. This can sometimes be frustrating for students, but none of the students in this class appeared frustrated to me. In nearly every case, a correct or nearly correct answer was given to each question within 20 seconds. When the answer was incorrect, you would often pose them another question that would help guide them in the right direction.
Finally, there were some brief periods of lecturing new content using slides. These were short enough to not lose the students attention and seemed relevant to the experiments.
You specifically asked for feedback about your ability to generate vibrant discussion among the students. In many of your questions, a discussion was unnecessary given that the correct answer would be given quickly. However, there were some situations where the students took longer to think, such as the case where the first experiment converged on red beans for all groups even though there should have been a 50% chance of white or red beans. In situations like these, the students felt comfortable talking within their groups and expressing their thoughts to the class. The atmosphere of the class was one that welcomed discussion by everyone, even if they were simply expressing thoughts about the question at hand, rather than providing an answer. Compared to my experience in science and humanities courses, this particular course seemed more open to discussion than most. Your Socratic method likely encourages this behavior.
I particularly liked the quiz you gave at the beginning of class to determine the progress each student has made on their group projects. The students seem mature enough to answer honestly. By explicitly telling them that you are trusting they will answer honestly, you place the responsibility on them to contribute fairly to the group projects. This type of language lets the students know you trust them as professionals.
The handout you provided allowed students to focus on the method of the experiments and the interpretation of the data. Because each group would not have to devise a method to effectively record their data, they could make maximum use of the class time. This also prevents the common situation where a single group member becomes the “secretary” and spends more mental effort on recording and less on conducting the exercise and learning.
You had the groups shout when they had finished an experiment, particularly on the experiments near the end of class, so you could record the results on the board. This was a good way to let the student who had already finished monitor the trends among the other groups. But an additional effect was that the groups seemed excited to finish and seemed to work quicker. This may not have been your goal, but it seemed to keep the students engaged near the end of class.
Starting with the second experiment, you asked the class to predict the results of each experiment beforehand. This encourages thinking like a scientist, a point you explicitly made. The students seemed to take longer to think during these predictions, which suggested that they were applying current knowledge to new situations. I did not notice how accurate they were in their predictions.
It appeared that you altered the methods of the third experiment to reduce the time to complete it. You were able to give new instructions almost immediately. That demonstrated your ability to dynamically react to the class time constraint.
Your final activities involved students writing what they learned on the board answering additional questions. One student perhaps jokingly asked if they could verify they are correct before writing on the board. You encouraged him to write his thoughts anyway. That teaches students that being incorrect is part of the learning process and encourages a supportive classroom environment.
Your teaching was fantastic overall. Nearly every interaction you had with students focused on them logically thinking their way to understanding the lecture material. You had them utilize higher-order thinking by predicting results of future experiments and analyzing whether the observed results made sense. I noticed that around the third and fourth experiments, students seemed to lose some energy. That could be due to the time of day or the relatively repetitive nature of the experiments. The students might be more focused if they each conducted fewer experiments, perhaps by having half of the class conduct the third experiment and the other half the fourth experiment, for example. Then representatives from each half of the class could teach the other half by describing the method, results, and conclusion.
Thank you for allowing me to observe your class.
My effectiveness in engaging my students and supporting their learning and growth is of the utmost importance to me. One way I measure my effectiveness is in directly asking my students for feedback.
As an introductory biology TA, I received Teacher-Course Evaluation results. My students were asked to give me ratings on a scale of 1 (worst) to 5 (best) in response to several questions.
I had the opportunity to guest lecture in an upper division undergraduate course for 3 weeks. This gave me the opportunity to ask for honest and valuable feedback from students. I created a SurveyMonkey form for this purpose. I asked my students to rate the following questions on a scale from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree. I present the most common response.
I also included space for the students to provide me with their own comments.
I did well with the exercises and she was lively.
She was able to teach the material without it being boring. She was able to keep my attention.
Erin is obviously very knowledgeable in her field and knows what she is talking about. She is a very reliable source when I need help or have a question. She is also very kind and walks you through solving problems.
While the group activities were great, at times they became a bit redundant. Working with groups is ok but can be a bit exhausting after a while.
To further expand my teaching repertoire and to engage in critique with my colleagues, I provide feedback on their teaching. Below is an anonymized example of how I provide feedback:
I sincerely thank you for welcoming my observation of your co-taught class (XXXX) last week. Your planned lesson aimed to guide the students in practicing the identification and organization of information about a purely physical construct (a lego structure) and translating that to a written description with assembly instructions. You challenged the students to apply the scientific communication skills they have been learning in class to what initially seemed like a simple task (replicating a lego structure). It struck me that the goal was to strip away any lego jargon the students might be familiar with and force them to be creative with their descriptions.
You had asked me to focus on critiquing your effectiveness at 1) designing a fun activity, 2) providing clear instructions on the assigned task, and 3) gauging student understanding regarding the assigned task and its relevance to the topic under study.
- Student Engagement in the Activity
From my vantage point, the students appeared to enjoy the task. A few shouted out with excitement when you first introduced the legos, which also demonstrated that these students felt comfortable engaging with you and their peers, which can be beneficial in a small class. The few students who had their laptops out were engaged in non-class related activities while you introduced the activity. Once the students formed their groups and the laptops were put away, all students were fully engaged in the activity and seemed to enjoy the task. The conversations I overheard were focused on the task at hand. The students worked on the activity in groups for 35 minutes. It is often difficult to design a task that keeps the students engaged for this long but you were successful. I believe that part of your success was the result of giving them this task as part of an activity that will span several weeks. You have essentially chunked out the steps in the activity for them and by doing so have also introduced a lesson on time management, a skill all students can improve upon.
- Assigned Instructions
This being the eighth week in the semester, a routine has been well established. The students knew to expect an activity and although they groaned a bit when you informed them that they would be working in random groups, they accepted this instruction. You began by discussing the previous week’s topics. This helped to set the stage for the day’s activity. You described the tools that the students would use to complete the next few weeks’ assignment (a brown paper bag containing a piece of paper and a lego structure). You then asked the students to help you list the descriptive words that were off the table (block, 4×4, etc.). The students seemed to be very clear on the sort of jargon that would not be allowed for this activity. A few students were a little confused about the ultimate goal of the activity. This confusion may have detracted from the student’s ability to connect the activity to the lesson’s objectives. Overall, I felt your instructions were clear and simple but perhaps it would have helped to introduce the desired end product (assembly instructions) first.
- Gauging Student Understanding and Perception of Relevance
Throughout the lesson, you paused frequently to allow the students to think about questions you posed and you gave them ample time to come up with responses. The students felt comfortable refining each other’s answers, which is a sign of a healthy classroom community. Once the students were busy working in pairs, you circulated the room and checked in with the groups to assess their progress and answer questions. During this portion, I felt that you missed an opportunity to check in with the student’s perception of the activity’s relevance. Once the students were busy taking notes on their structures and preparing their descriptions, the discussions I heard from the groups I was nearest to did not seem to focus on relevance. To maintain a connection to the relevance of the task to the topic under study, the students may have required a more overt reminder. This could come in the form of directly asking each group (or pausing the activity halfway through and discussing as a class) to describe the activity’s relevance. It is hard to carve out time for re-grouping such as this in a 50 minute class. The group formation period seemed to take a little longer than necessary. If you had pre-defined groups you might be able to take that time and apply it to group discussion.
I greatly appreciate the challenge in creating a hands-on activity for college students that is both fun and effectively teaches a topic as nuanced as scientific communication. Although I witnessed just the beginning phase of this activity, I believe that it will ultimately serve its intended purpose. I hope you find my comments helpful and thank you again for welcoming me into your class.