Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reflecting on learning: Ecological Statistics

I have taught this 4 credit graduate course annually since 2008; my sabbatical leave this year is the first year I have not taught the course. I envision the course as a “terminal statistics course” for a typical MSc. or PhD student, recognizing that most students will take at most 2 statistics courses. I assume students have an introductory statistics course. The main theme of the course is the linear model and variations: generalized linear models, mixed models, and survival analysis. I also focus on model selection and inference, comparing hypothesis testing with Information Theoretic methods. I want students to understand when each approach is appropriate, and when not. Until 2012 the course filled to capacity at 16 students every fall.

In 2012 I experimented with conducting the weekly computer lab in an online format; this allowed me to lift the cap on the number of students as the seating in the computer lab was the limiting factor. I had 28 students that fall, and using Adobe Connect worked to enable me to help students with the lab exercises regardless of where they were. To check to see if the switch to an online format hurt student perceptions of the course, I compared the CIEQ scores for the method subscale between 2011 and 2012. In 2011, the average method score was 3.38 (SD = 0.61, n = 14), while in 2012 the average method score was 3.23 (SD = 0.67, n = 25). These scores are not significantly different (two sample t-test with pooled variance, t(29)=0.71, p=0.76). Therefore there is no evidence that the switch to online instruction hurt student perceptions of the teaching method. Some positive comments from students included

• “I really enjoyed the teaching style. It was well suited to the way graduate students learn”

• “I liked the online lab component”

• 21/25 students agreed “I would take another course taught this way”

There were some negative comments too:

• “Hold class every day of the week. Limit in class questions – teach more. But felt like I taught myself everything.” 4 students

• Homework – too hard, feedback too slow

• “Honestly, I did not like online labs. For me as an international student … “

• “… although the online component was convenient, I would prefer in class.”

The “I taught myself everything” comment is very common whenever I have moved to increase “student centric” learning approaches. I do point out at the beginning of every class that each student is responsible for their learning; all I can do is try to create an environment where you can learn. This is true with a “sage on the stage” as well. I regard students having a lot of questions during face to face or synchronous online sessions as a good thing; it means I am effectively investing my time in helping students with the hard bits. There was one student with English as a Second Language issues; I doubt that a purely face to face course would have helped in her case. I think the online format provided a useful resource for such students as I was able to record all the online Q&A and lab sessions to allow later review by students.

In 2013 I took the course entirely online; I recorded the few lectures that I give for students to view at their leisure, and held weekly Q&A sessions in addition to the computer lab sessions. I had a handful of students from UNO and one from Rutgers University take the course. Over 30 students enrolled, but nearly 1/3 dropped or did not complete the course. Students that dropped indicated that they had misjudged the amount of work involved.

I intend to continue with the online format, as I think there is a significant market for this course beyond UNL. Many departments have relatively few faculty, and although they might like to teach an advanced course in methods specific for their work, they end up teaching students the content of Ecological Statistics because there simply is no one else that can do it.

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