On Obstacles, part 2

My last blog post described three questions we asked students in my nonmajors biology class a few weeks ago. That post described some of the responses to question 1 (“What do you feel is your greatest obstacle in achieving the grade you want in this class?”). Today’s post examines answers to questions 2 and 3. Question 2 was this:

“What is one thing that is being done regularly in lab or lecture that helps you?”

Clicker questions: Two responses tied for the top, with 11 students apiece. One of these responses was “Clicker questions.” It is possible that students perceive clicker questions as a way to pad a sagging grade, but I don’t interpret the response in that way. One reason is that students do not earn “participation points” for clicker questions – they get 1 point for a correct response, and 0 points for an incorrect one. If they miss all three questions one day, they earn 0 points for the day. Although they may discuss the answers with their peers, students are ultimately responsible for paying attention and clicking the right answer. Another reason I think they are not simply “easy points” is that most of the clicker questions require understanding or application; they do not typically reward factual recall.

iclicker2 on notebook

Students benefit from clicker questions. (Photo by M. Hoefnagels)

Lecture: The other response tied for the top spot had to do with lecture. Eleven students mentioned lecture in general or specific lecture features such as analogies, examples, explanations, or images. In addition, four students mentioned some “non-content” aspects of lecture, like study tips and announcements about upcoming assignments. The mention of study tips in particular surprised me, mostly because students look so utterly disinterested when I present them! I guess my sage advice must be sinking in for a few of the students, so I’ll keep presenting my best ideas for student success.

Hands-on activities: Five students mentioned that they liked it when lab offered hands-on activities that reinforce content from lecture. Another handful mentioned outside help, like Action Center and tutoring with Allyson, our wonderful Peer Learning Assistant for BIOL 1005.


Mariëlle explains a concept during Action Center. (Photo by Mark Walvoord)


While it’s always gratifying to know what’s working, it’s hard to use that information to make improvements. That brings us to question 3:

“Is there something that is not being done that you could see helping you before your next test?”

Review sessions and resources: This question had a clear winner, with 16 students wanting an in-class review session (which was already on the schedule for exam 2). In addition, one student wanted me to tell the class (perhaps unrealistically) “exactly what to know for the test.” Another wanted “a list of possible types of test questions,” and another wanted practice tests. The latter two reflect some ignorance of available resources, because two semesters’ worth of old exams are already posted on my website.

Connecting labs to lectures: Interestingly, nine students mentioned wanting to know more about how labs are connected to the lectures (or simply wanted more help in lab). Last fall, we implemented our semester-long concept mapping project specifically to solve this problem. The basic idea is to build a small concept map near the start of the semester and add to it periodically as new concepts are covered in the class, incorporating terms from both lecture and lab. (You can read about it at the 2016 ABLE conference website; scroll about ¾ of the way down the page to the abstract by Krystal Gayler and Mariëlle Hoefnagels). Perhaps this semester’s TA’s are not emphasizing the purpose of these concept maps like the TA’s did last fall.

Online lecture slides: Incidentally, only one student wanted me to post lecture slides online. As someone who automatically stops paying attention at talks for which I already have the slides, I have resisted this request for the past 19 years. The fact that students are not clamoring for the slides suggests that I am not going too fast in lecture, which is good news for me.

Concept mapping: I want to wrap up this two-post series with a comment from one student, who wrote “Build a concept map WITH us.” In the first post, I ended by speculating on ways to help students build connections. I have so far avoided being too hands-on with concept maps in class, because I want to avoid the implication that the only correct concept map is the one that the instructor builds. I also want students to think for themselves and to perceive that learning is a struggle; I don’t want them to just mimic what I put on the screen. But I wonder if a little coaching would be beneficial. For example, students can come up to the board individually or in pairs to add new terms to the map or to revise existing connections. I can stand to the side, pointing out where language needs to be more specific or where additional connections might work.


A student adds to a concept map. (Photo by M. Hoefnagels)


Conclusions from the survey

Overall, this three-question exercise revealed that some students are afraid of not being able to make the connections they need to be successful, yet they aren’t using the resources that could help. One explanation is that they don’t have time or that they’re lazy. Another is that they don’t feel confident that they know how to use the resources, so using them together in class could make a big difference.

Please share your observations and suggestions by leaving a comment.

This entry was posted in Course design, Engaging students, Learning at home, Study skills, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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