Friday, November 7, 2014

Reflecting on learning: Biology of Wildlife Populations

NRES 450/850 Biology of Wildlife Populations is a required course for some options in the Fisheries and Wildlife major; very few graduate students take the course. 

In 2009 I decided to move the course to every other year to create space to develop the life sciences statistics class (see above); it was taught in 2011 and 2013 only in the last 6 years. This also increased the size of the course, making it a more efficient generator of student credit hours per unit of faculty time. However, the new statistics course did not pan out, and having this course taught only every other year created problems for a handful of students every year. Therefore from 2015 onwards I will return the course to an every year format.

My goal for the course is well summarized by a student comment from 2011:
Drew does a really good job of making you feel like you’re actually in the real world, facing real world problems. Although this is frustrating I don’t think any other class has provided that to this extent.
That is my goal; put simple population dynamics models in real world decision making contexts, and at least one student got it. Unfortunately I also get comments like this:
Rename course to statistical analysis of wildlife pop. – No biology involved
I should note that the most complex statistics they have to do are calculate confidence limits for a simple random sample and carry out a linear regression.

In 2011 I implemented “Team Based Learning” (TBL) because it looked like an ideal complement to my use of problem cases, and working in teams is something that every student will need to do as a professional. In short, students are formed into learning teams at the beginning of the semester; these teams persist throughout the semester. At the beginning of a course module students take a “Readiness Assessment Test” (RATs) of approximately 10 multiple choice questions based on the reading. They take the test first individually, and then they retake the test as a team. The team tests are done using “Immediate Feedback Assessment Tests”, which reveal the correct answers as a scratch-off (see scanned samples). The team has to agree on what their answer to each question is, which forces them to practice listening to each other, and articulating the reasons for why each answer is correct. In addition to the RATs, they work on problem cases as a team, and also submit regular population management reports as a team.

My overall CIEQ evaluations for this course are consistently in the lowest decile; in 2011 they reached the lowest level I’ve ever had. Previously the instructor subscale was at least in the upper half, but in 2011 that also hit rock bottom. Here I dig into the written comments from 2011 and details of some specific CIEQ questions to highlight the difficulties created by the Team Based Learning approach. The strong dis-satisfaction students felt with the textbook in 2011 was clear from the comments:

“Book was not much help” x2
“Book was difficult to follow at times”
“Book need a lot to comprehend”
“Book did little for me, the working was very confusing and I learned more through lecture”
“Textbook very hard to read and was hardly summarized in class before/after exam”
“A lot of things in the book I had already learned, but there were explained in such a way that I ended up being confused.”
“Book was terrible  - very hard to understand. The quizzes wouldn’t have been so bad if the book wasn’t so bad”
“Book wasn’t the most interesting – I feel it was a little dry”
“The textbook was very complicated and difficult to comprehend”
“The book was very hard to understand.”
“The book readings seemed like their own separate content unrelated to what was taught in class.”
“The book is useful
Only one person thought:
“Book was valuable because of the quizzes.”

The textbook was the same one I had used in previous years, but this was the first year I gave quizzes on the reading material. In previous years students had commented that they either did not purchase the book or did not read it although I always assigned readings for each section. As a result of these comments I decided to develop my own reading material more directly tied to the problems cases and RATs. Otherwise all components of the course remained the same.

In 2013 the comments related to the reading were more positive, but still:
“The online readings were far too technical for people who are beginners in this area of study”
“The book was hard to follow at times, but is going in the right direction”
“The readings were sometimes tough to get through”
“Worthless” (same student suggested “More Beer” as an improvement)
“A supplementary textbook might help”
“Appropriate for the course”
“Readings were intense and full of a lot of info”
“I was glad the text was on blackboard” x2
“The readings were worthwhile but were sometimes way over my head so I couldn’t understand them”

Examining the questions related to course method, there were improvements between 2011 and 2013, but overall the scores are still low. Perceptions of the course material also improved between 2011 and 2013. The primary change was that I prepared lecture notes for the students to read ahead instead of relying on a published textbook.

% Positive (agreeing or disagreeing, as appropriate)
2011 (n=36)
2013 (n=35)
I would take another course taught this way
I would have preferred another method of teaching this course
I learn more when other course methods are used
The course material was too difficult
The course material seemed worthwhile
The course Content was excellent

Both the improvements on the numeric survey questions, as well as the smaller number of more positive comments lead me to believe that I am heading in the correct direction. Several students mentioned having more homework problems to practice with, so I am working on doing that for the 2015 draft of the lecture notes. 

Despite my poor showing on the instructor sub-scale of the CIEQ in 2011, students wrote comments like these when asked for general comments about the instructor:
“He did a good job of shaping the course for the class”
“He knows a lot”
“Overall good instructor, knows the subject … but more actual teaching of the lessons would be nice”
“very well informed, but talk too big sometimes”
“Drew did a great job”
“He was knowledgeable about what he was teaching but he did not teach it well to the students at all.” X2
“very intelligent and funny guy. He knows the material but could do a better job at teaching the concepts”
“He knew his material very well but had a hard time teaching it at our level. Assumed we knew a lot of stuff that we didn’t.”
“I thought that he was very knowledgeable however many times I felt that there was too much information being taught in a single class period.”
“Good guy, and will review areas if students have questions about any subject.”
“When asked questions, Drew was great about answering them clearly, but I feel that some basic material that was left out in lecture should have been reviewed without having to be prompted.”
“Good guy, poor teaching style. Examples were great and provided real-world examples, but should’ve spent more time teaching the basic stuff. Touch on it more than once instead of talking about it once and that’s it.”
“Dr. Tyre is extremely educated, but his interpretation of his knowledge can be very difficult to apply to the final 16% of the grade”
“Great instructor – very knowledgeable, fun & helpful”
“Excellent. I believe that only our very brightest and best should be teaching, and Dr. Tyre is an outstanding example of our brightest and best.”
“Really makes sure to be accessible to students. Cares about each individual’s understanding of the material”
“In the classroom it was difficult to understand what he was trying to teach but he was able to explain things more clearly during office hours and personal meetings”
“Very enthusiastic but things can get confusing at times”

And, very concisely:
“Not good”

In 2013 there were fewer comments, and generally less concern about confusion etc. I interpret these comments to mean that students who make an effort (e.g. ask questions in and out of class), get the help they want.

In conclusion, I think the trajectory for the course evaluations is on track for improvement, and I’m looking forward to further improvements in 2015 and beyond.

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