02 December 2014

Teaching: not all rosy

I am certain that the one who learned most from my Glaciology module is me. It's one thing to sit and listen to a lecture; it's a different matter to make sure you are so confident in your knowledge you are comfortable delivering that very lecture! The students also have to write an essay, and they have a choice of 7 topics, but I of course have to know all about every single one of these in order to be able to mark the work. And as I went along I also had to find out things such as: how do Blackboard (the online tool used for all things educational) and Turnitin (an online plagiarism-detecting tool) work, who is responsible for what regarding the organisation of a fieldwork, how are students supposed to submit assignments, who arranges guest lecturers in a module and how, how is one supposed to deal with students submitting late, committing plagiarism, being hampered by dyslexia, being ill, failing assignments, and what not. I had to find out where the thresholds are for pass or fail and whether that stays the same over a student's entire degree, whether you can (might? must?) publish marks, whether you should document lecture attendance, whether a lecture scheduled for 9AM is supposed to start at 9AM, where all the various buildings and lecture rooms are and how the audiovisual equipment works, and countlessly many things more.

File:University from Bangor Mountain.JPG
Bangor uni

I lecture in more moduels than my own, but the lecturing is not the difficult bit, I found out. It's when you have to make decisions yourself, barely knowing what about. The students, as I pointed out before, have to submit many assignments, and I just managed to (almost) update the documentation involved before the teaching started. And once it's published you can't change it anymore; that would be confusing. I just assumed all these assignments had been in place for years and years and honed to perfection. But they weren't!

It started with the IPCC assignment. We asked the students to find data sets that show how climate change in either the Arctic or the Antarctic is changing, and to come up with some predictions of what would happen in the chosen area between now and 2100. They then should discuss the relative importance of these predictions, and suggest mitigation options. It sounded like it was all rather self-explanatory. But when I received the work I saw it clearly wasn't. Many students wrote mini-essays, without any reference to literature that contained the data, and many forgot to limit themselves to one of the two offered regions. They also confused climate change and climate change forcing. And they used up so much text that they barely had space for a discussion! They clearly need more guidance. What did I know. I thought "give 5 bullet points" would inspire the students to give 5 bullet points. But no!

And by the time I was finished marking the IPCC work, the students had submitted their essays. I wished it wasn't that way; the marks for the IPCC work were very low, and if they'd knows that in advance, they might have made a bit of an effort on the essays. Just to give an example; we ask the students to format the reference list according to the requirements by the journal Boreas. When I write this, I've marked 12 essays; not one has done that. What is going on in the students' heads? I don't understand. And before I manage to mark this lot, they'll be submitting the field trip report. And in hindsight, I can also see room for improvement in the instructions of that piece of work too. Even with perfecly clear instructions, the students struggle. And I am afraid that this cohort either needs to be held by the hand and spoon-fed, or runs the severe risk of flunking this module. Neither is very good! And I refuse to spoon-feed, but knowing what I know now I would have used a part of a lecture to go into each of the assignments a bit more. Why do we do this, what do we want, what are evident things to avoid? It would probably help a lot. I wish I could teach this stuff again next year; it would be so much easier the second time around, and that would be good for the students and me alike...

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