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ensuring student success

The other day my colleague Nigel Robertson (from the uni's centre for e-learning, "WCeL") sent through a link to this article: Ensuring student success - students are not to blame. The writer, Arshad Ahmad, begins by saying that

[many] students may appear to be unqualified, unprepared and uninterested. But if you believe, as I do, that each one of them has a talent, each one of them has a capacity to develop - intellectually and emotionally - then it follows that each one should be given a fair chance to succeed.

 And he goes on to say that

[there] is an alarming scarcity of interdisciplinary courses, little integration of existing courses, and almost no alignment to achieve the specific outcomes that these collections of courses are geared towards.

This is especially true of first-year courses with large impersonal classes taught by teaching assistants and part-time instructors.

It is exactly during this time, the first-year experience, when students are making important transitions, when students require a lot of personal attention and when they seek faculty (ie staff] time. It is a time when we should put our best teachers on the front lines and offer an experience that few, if any, students will be able to refuse.

I couldn't agree more, & it's the reason we (my wonderful colleague Brydget, & I) keep reviewing the labs we offer to our first-year bio students. Lab classes being so much smaller than lecture streams, they represent an excellent opportunity to give students one-to-one attention. This year we're trialling a peer mentoring system: another chance for students to form good working relationships with others in their class & work together to enhance their learning.

And it's also why I keep banging on to people about the benefits of moving away from the traditional lecture format. (Don't have to worry about the teaching assistants bit there as the lecturers are the people who front up to these classes.) 

Arshad's article is a strong argument in support of the need for regular & thorough review of teaching programs - not just individual papers, but the actual degree programs themselves. Otherwise there is always the risk that the collection of papers, overall, can lack focus - and that is not going to produce the best learning outcomes for our students.


At Enough of the Cat Talk, Darlena makes a similar point: "Would we demote an entire class of children for our inability to teach them?"




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I understand, at Harvard, introductory biology lectures are given by Nobel Laureates.

One time I seated a large introductory class lecture by lab section, with their lab TA seated with them. I was trying to convince them they were really in small classes, which happened to meet together on occasion. I couldn't tell that it did any good, so I abandoned it.

at Harvard, introductory biology lectures are given by Nobel Laureates.
As long as they're excellent communicators, as well as great scientists, I'd bet that the classes are very good & have good learning outcomes. Putting someone in front of a class just because they're a senior professor or a great scientist - not so much. (It's an argument I hear quite often, actually - that we should put the senior professors in front of the first-years 'because that's what the students want'. What the first=years want is to know that they'll be taught well, regardless of the seniority of those doing the teaching.)

I haven't tried seating them in particular groups, in my lectures. But I try to run the lectures as more like seminars, with plenty of opportunity for give-&-take & discussion. The students certainly give good feedback on that teaching style - the next step would be to do the research to see if it actually works :-)

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