[YIR2015] UG Teaching – Middling at Best

Recap for 2015

I chose UG Teaching to start my Year in Review posts for two main reasons. One, I must put together my ABET review package, which is easier when the class is still fresh. So I thought, why not address teaching in my blog at the same time. And two, let’s be honest, it is always easier to start with the bad news and end on a high note. I’m foreshadowing here but we’ll get to that.

I teach an undergraduate, senior level capstone laboratory/project course that is required in Mechanical Engineering and have been doing so since I started in 2011. This course has evolved over the years from labs that were serial and time consuming for the TAs and Lab Instructor. A few years past, I cajoled the Chair and Dean to invest in sufficient infrastructure to allow us to run parallel labs. This was met with some internal resistance within the department at the time but that seems to have subsided. The whole reason why I pushed for an upgrade of the lab facilities was in anticipation for semesters like this. Let me explain. Before, we could run at most 2 groups at a time, which mean students had to show up for labs at non-scheduled hours, creating all kinds of conflicts. I’m pretty sure that I have blogged about this in the past. This also taxed the TAs and Lab Instructor. But it was feasible to run groups of three students when you only had 40-45 students in the class. But now, classes are ~75 students and they are expected to climb to ~90. If you have 75 students, in groups of three, that means you have 25 separate groups. This is fairly straight forward to deal with if you have 9 parallel lab benches. This also means you (and the TAs & Lab Instructor) can be more efficient with your time.

Well this is exactly the case now. This is the first senior class with our planned “bump in enrollment” (as the Powers-That-Be describe it). Really, that bump was a doubling of our class size (but I’m being pedantic). So I feel vindicated on some levels that I was able to adequately foresee this and get the necessary resources in place to make sure we had sufficient infrastructure. So in terms of long term planning for my UG course, I think I get a gold star for 2015.

But wait! The astute of you may be wondering why I’m talking about gold stars yet I started this post saying that there was bad news. Well, here it comes. The actually day-to-day teaching in my UG course was near epic fail in 2015. I kept the same structure, the same labs, the same project structure, nearly the same assignments from 2014 but somehow it didn’t click this year. I think there are two reasons for this: 1) I have deficiencies as an instructor and 2) this year’s students have had a marked shift in terms of attitude and drive.

I’m a firm believer that average in college should be a B (~85). When I reviewed the histograms of the grades for all 5 semesters that I have taught this course, there are some pretty striking differences over the years. In 2011, my first year, the average was an 89. Clearly, I missed the mark but that’s ok (I was new after all!). In the subsequent 3 years (2012-2014), I pretty much gauged the grading and assignments for my target 85 average. However, this semester, the overall grades dropped to an 80 and the distribution was fairly close to a Gaussian with fewer As and some Ds. The thing that I don’t get is that the labs and the exam were nearly the same as the previous semester. One of my TAs took the class in 2013 and then TAed in 2014 and 2015. His comments were that the exam was even easier than previous years. So the only things that I attribute this drop to are that there is an issue with the students or that there is an issue with my teaching style. In reality, it is probably a combination of the two.

Now, some of my students might happen upon my blog and take some offense at this. Obviously, there is a spectrum of attitude and dedication and some students were better than others. When I counted the attendance at the start of class, only between 40%-60% of the class would even show up, and there’s <10 lectures throughout the semester. This widely contrasts with previous years which was almost always 75%-80% or higher. Not all of the students exhibited these issues, but certainly larger numbers than previous semesters did.

But I also think some of this is on me, whether I like it or not. The parts that I can control are my classroom preparation and structure of the course. This year, class prep was rushed (at best) and I was very rigid in my class structure (as I was last year). The class prep was rushed because I spent virtually all of August working in South Korea and China. I came back with only a few days before the start of the semester and the first few weeks of school almost steamrolled me. That’s not good planning on my part but this was a tradeoff on the three-sided balance between research, teaching, and service. As someone going into their tenure review year, having international exposure and potential international letter writers is critical. Being a visiting scholar at a school like Tsinghua University in China is a great opportunity. I had to weigh that impact to my research and visibility against the impact on my teaching preparation. I knew this tradeoff when I made the decision to go but I was naïve in thinking my course would basically run the same as last year.

What I cannot control, however, is the number of students. Having 74 students in a lab class is arduous. Having 74 students in a lab class where I was largely unprepared at the start of the semester is a recipe for disaster. Having 74 with questionable levels of dedication and attitude in a lab class where I was largely unprepared at the start of the semester is simply insurmountable. I wholly underestimated the impact of the doubling of the class size. In the past, there were always a few difficult students in the red zone, but now there is even more. Also, in previous years, students on the margins presumably got the extra support needed to succeed and push them into the stable zone. With twice the number of students, more students stay on the margin or slip into the red zone. I think this is a task that the whole department and school is looking at to address.

The larger class size impacts my class structure. For instance, I maintained my “no email” policy that I have written about previously. Students basically translated that to “Prof is unavailable”, which is not accurate, but still impacts how they operate in class. Students also felt like they couldn’t go to the TAs and the Lab Instructor, which also is not accurate. I failed to recognize this early enough to address it, which is on me. Also, my fall semester is full of travel for conferences (2 regular conferences), I had an offsite meeting for research for a few days, and I had the usual visits to program officers and panels. In the past, this had not be a problem because my travel normally coincides with the part of the semester that is on project cruise control. But with this many students, my normal travel schedule doesn’t mesh well because there are simply more instances of students needed specific attention that the TAs cannot address. But that travel is necessary to maintain and advance my research program, so both of these are at odds. The last thing is that I also taught my Grad class this semester (which I will discuss in a future post). Teaching and preparing for two courses, combined with the research and travel schedule means that there aren’t enough hours in the day to get the routine parts of the work done (grading, class organization, etc.). That, too, is on me.

Expectations for 2016

For 2016, the main push I think is to shift my graduate class to the spring semester. Teaching both in the same semester takes too much time to do effectively and maintain my research program. This means that I won’t have a spring semester off from teaching (which is really nice right now, btw) where I can really advance my research. But this should be workable.

I also think I need to get my lectures organized before the start of the semester. So this spring semester, I’m setting aside 4 hours a week to work on lectures for both my UG and Grad class. This way, I won’t be scrambling at the last minute to update PowerPoint slides right before the class.

As for the travel, the jury is still out. I need the travel for my research program but that hinders teaching. At this point, I’m not sure which way to go on this.

These are at least readily tangible things that I can do. I can’t do anything to combat the things I cannot control (student attitude and class size). This dichotomy of things within and outside my control is typical in most situations. But at least this gives me some things to address within my control in 2016

1 Comment

  1. Lazio

    Thanks for sharing, this is a fantastic blog.Really thank you! Awesome.


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