Monday, August 20, 2018

Intro Geology Teaching Successes & Um, Not Successes

Meaghan has now taught three terms of Introductory Geology as an adjunct, and has a few things she's been sampling with her teaching that went well, and a few that, well, didn't. Since she's no longer working for CWU and won't be teaching this year but instead traveling and looking for a more permanent position (HINT HINT READERS WHO ARE EMPLOYERS), here's a review of what she's learned so that it can benefit anyone else looking to teach an introductory geo class.

But it's a lot easier to write in first person so we're going to do that in 3...2...1...NOW: For context, the classes I've been teaching are:

  1. Between 30 and 85 students
  2. 4 days a week for an hour
  3. Cover only a single quarter (10 weeks, September to December)
  4. Have an accompanying lab, but the lab grade is separate and also optional so not all students are taking the lab
  5. Are stand-alone intro courses: CWU doesn't have an intro geology series, just several variants of one class so students can choose to take whichever intro class that seems most appealing
  6. Meet one of the gen-ed standards, so typically are full of freshman that are undeclared
  7. Have a high failure rate. All the intro science classes do at CWU, though.
  8. Have some form of Canvas (online software) component
  9. And are taught using a mixture of Powerpoint and other activities/discussions
OK! Now onto the teaching techniques!

Photo by the AMAZING Marli Miller, whose photos are all free for geology class use!

Group Discussion Prompts
One of the best successes I had was by including group discussion prompts on my powerpoint slides. I read somewhere that students on average can pay attention to an engaging lecture for about 7 minutes before their attention span drifts, and to be honest, I don't like giving long lectures. So to break it up, even when I didn't have time to do an activity (or was dealing with 85 students in a lecture hall) I would use group discussion questions. I'd say that about 85% of my students whole-heartedly engaged in these discussions, and the others were on their phones - and the grade distribution didn't actually reflect "participated vs didn't" so I just let them be on their phones and some of them did just fine.

The discussion prompts on the slides themselves were helpful to me, too. I use a lot of animations, and it was a good way of keeping track of where I was in the lecture, and reminding me to engage the students. I'd give them a minute or two to discuss, then ask if someone wanted to answer - and if not, I'd either have them vote on a few choices, provide some prompts, or give them the answer depending on their level of confusion.

Having these discussion prompts also did a few extra helpful things:
  • It caused people to form study groups and talk to their neighbors. Our freshman at CWU are prone to dropping out, and part of that is lack of community, so giving them a chance to make friends in class was helpful for some of them.
  • It made class feel more like a give and take. I got far, far more questions during or immediately after these discussion prompts than I did while lecturing - it was like a designed space for talking.
  • It offered a good way to pull together content as we were going. For example, in the above slide, it touched upon material they were using in lab: how HCl can be useful in geology. Me simply mentioning that wouldn't have made a whole lot of difference, but having them try and puzzle it out on their own was a better synthesis of material.

Doing Things Backwards
Yeah, I know that's not a great name for it. However, what I mean is - I would sometimes have students build an activity or write a test question for me.

My best example was with earthquakes, using seismographs to determine earthquake epicenter. When I had students just complete that exercise, they typically forgot it and everything they'd learned about P and S waves by the time the exam came around. Eventually, I started also making them make me new seismograph images, picking their own cities, and basically making a problem which I would put on the exam. This worked really, really well - it was slow, because students struggled with it, but in the end 100% of them got the epicenter-finding exercise correct on the exam... and all the ones I didn't put on the exam I uploaded to Canvas, and let students use them as study practice.

I also really liked this because it gave the students some agency and control over the exam content, which seemed to make them more confident when it came to studying. Plus most of them really liked the chance to level Kansas with an earthquake for some reason, even if it was just on paper. Teaching a bunch of Godzillas, clearly.

Make-Your-Own Earthquake Activity

Rock Storytime
This was an activity I tried once or twice. Essentially, I gave them a rock and asked them to write me a story about it, encouraging them to be extra creative for extra points. The particular rock I did this with was a chunk of granite with two different crystal sizes, because I'd broken it into a section that had both the original granite, and a dike of granite with much larger crystal sizes.

 I asked them to tell me about the history of the rock, including where and how it was formed. I gave extra points for extra information beyond "it's igneous." This resulted in a lot of really RIDICULOUS stories, most of which were totally wrong, and many which had long, involved family histories which included the mafia and/or some parental disputes. My Godzillas may have had some unresolved family issues.

itty bitty crystals and big crystals in the same rock - clearly a geologic soap opera in the making
Initially, I thought this exercise was fun, but not very effective - most of my students described the rock as mafic, or hit on poryphyry as an explanation for the texture. However, during the final exam, I heard a student talking with their group (more on exam styles later) about whether rhyolite was felsic or mafic and heard them specifically reference their story and say "Oh, remember, our rock was in the mafia so it was mafic - but wait! We got that one wrong, didn't we? So it's felsic!"

So I think this activity was useful in that it stuck out in my student's memories, and since I corrected their work and discussed it in class (in terms of a story myself), it actually ended up being pretty helpful.

Could also use photos from the fantastic Marli Miller

Rock Environment Diagrams
After discussing details of different common versions of a rock type (sedimentary, igneous, metamorphic) I would ask the students to work in groups and draw me a diagram of different rock formation environments, and add their rocks to the diagram.

Like this, but add igneous and metamorphic...

My students initially really struggled with this - initially, the example I gave them was 3D, which was a problem (turns out drawing in 3D is very hard!). They could correctly place a few rocks, particularly on the sedimentary portion, but this exercise definitely revealed they did NOT understand intrusive igneous rocks, nor metamorphic rock environments. I corrected the diagrams and handed them back, but I wish I'd done it again as a follow-up exercise, because in each class my students still consistently struggled with rock environments, and I think more practice would have improved their work.

also, because I got bizarre drawings like this which were HILARIOUS. This is a "toilet head" temnospondyl...

Identify My Metamorphic Nails
I know, I know, weirdly specific much? This was the result of a long, boring weekend and was weirdly worthwhile. I showed them my nails under the doc cam after our metamorphic rock unit, and asked them to A) identify which of the rocks was which and B) identify the protolith. I only did this for one class, but they did SO MUCH BETTER on the one test question I had on metamorphism grades that I think it was completely worth it. Also, for the groans and laughs when I showed off my fancy manicure.

Geology fierce

Oreo Plate Tectonics
Again, this is very specific, but weirdly stuck out in their brains and I think helped them conceptualize that the mantle wasn't a solid (historically, this has been a bit of an issue). It was a super simple 5 minute review exercise - they had to break an oreo into two pieces, then pick a plate boundary to model and compare with other students - but the slide of the double stuff I think was helpful for visualizing "plastic" mantles. I had someone specifically mention it in my reviews, so I also think just bribing them with cookies was good from a long-term employment perspective.

Blooms Taxonomy for Exams
If you're not familiar with Bloom's taxonomy, it's essentially a hierarchy of understanding and comprehension. Students are initially better at remembering info than they are at, say, applying it to new situations.

The way I used this was I tried to structure my exam questions to have a good mix of each level, with more remembering and understanding-style questions than, say, application. This worked... alright. Students definitely still struggled to remember vocabulary or facts. However, using this technique did help me moderate the sorts of questions I was putting on the test - I prefer to write analysis questions, and so reminding myself "don't make them cry girl" and changing a lot of my questions to be simpler was a useful outcome.

Pyramid Exams
If you've never heard of a pyramid exam (or cooperative exam), it's my new favorite. Essentially, there's two portions to the exam: an individual component (multiple choice, scantron for me) and a group component where students answer either the same questions or similar questions, but can work in a group. I really like this style of exam because I think that if you're not learning something from or during an exam, it's kind of a waste of everyone's time. By having a second "section" of the test, I could basically provide automatic feedback: students would approach the same topic, discuss it with their peers, and realize what they'd done wrong and correct it.

This helped a bit to reduce test anxiety as well, and helped make my classroom a more cohesive environment. Students were allowed to work in as many groups as they wanted during the second part of the exam, some would run around the classroom asking other people what they thought. Sometimes, this backfired and would lead them astray, but mostly it was a good way of getting students on board with the material. It was typically worth between 10-15% of their exam grade, and it made it so I could ask more complex questions and also ask for short answers without totally overwhelming my TAs (a class of 85 students took about 2-3 hours to grade for each written exam).

Formative Exam 1 & 2

And finally, I allowed students to make up all the points they missed on the first two exams. Yes, all of them. I wanted the exams to serve as a "stop and check" for the students, but it didn't matter to me whether they learned about metamorphic rocks by week 3 or week 11, as long as it clicked eventually. The method for making up points was simple: they had until the end of the term to schedule a 15 minute meeting with me. They came in, told me which questions they'd gotten wrong, and explained why the correct answer was what it was. Then, I asked them a similar question and they had to answer it in person. If they missed it, they could schedule another meeting later on to try again.

This served a couple of different purposes:

  • It helped to reduce test anxiety. I would remind students right before they took the exam that they could make up all the points later, and there'd be this collective sigh of relief.
  • It also made it so they had to come and talk to me in person. Again, we have a problem with freshman dropout - and establishing a connection with students is pretty important in preventing that
  • It forced them to actually learn the material. I was always amazed at how my students who did badly on the exam would come in and rattle off SO MUCH MORE information than I had expected them to know because they took the time to look up their mistakes and in the process, learned a lot more about geology.
  • It gave me a chance to ask questions that were more related to their interests. I would frequently try and use office time to get to know them a little bit better, and could then use google maps to find where their home was, and ask them questions about geology that was pertinent to them.
It did, of course, take a hell of a lot of time. I would say probably 20-30% of my students would come in for credit, from all sides of the spectrum - and they'd usually procrastinate until right before the final exam. But since none of them EVER came to my office hours, I figured it was a fair enough trade. I was only teaching up to two classes a quarter, though, so with more courses it might not be feasible.

Study Selfies
I introduced this in my last class right before the final. Essentially, I would give them some extra credit on the exam if they sent me a selfie of them studying with one or more other people from the class, with a description of what techniques they were using to study. This was helpful for a couple reasons:
  • I offered more credit for more people, which meant that the low-achieving students who tended to pair up together had more incentive to find other friends to also study with.
  • It gave me a chance to give feedback on their studying techniques. Most of them, unsurprisingly, had horrible studying techniques.
  • It made them study a bit in advance, since they had to coordinate people. Next time, I'll offer extra credit if they study earlier in the week.
  • Again, that whole community thing. A lot of the things I've done have been to try and get people to work together and find friends, because the research I did in our Institutional Research/Effectiveness department last year demonstrated that students with stronger community ties were more likely to be successful. 
  • Also, this was just damned hilarious. The selfies got uploaded to Canvas, and one group took a video of themselves that was really amusing, and I figure anything that also entertains me is a valuable teaching tool.

Free-For-All Group Projects
It's an intro geology class, which means it's a lot of vocabulary, which means, well, students aren't always so successful at it. But it's supposed to be a relatively easy class (it is a 100-level class!) and so I tried to incorporate projects of some kind to give students a chance to hopefully make up credit outside of exams and homework assignments.

I had... some failures in this at first.

My first term, I dedicated two days to 5 minute student presentations on a geologic hazard of their choice. Some students did great - one group did Lituya bay, and at the end of their talk they took a tupperware full of water and mud and splashed around in it and said "this is what it was like" and watching 3 inches of water in a tub was very much NOT what it was like and that was HILARIOUS to me. And students always get bonus points for making me nearly wet myself.

Because this majesty is perfectly replicated by splashing around in a shallow plastic dish

Other students, however, did very badly. Many of them either prepared the worlds worst presentations (and I had to pay attention to them) or basically did nothing for the assignment. One group chose the Bridge of the Gods landslide on the Oregon-Washington border... but instead covered the actual bridge construction. We watched a minute-long drone video of the bridge. They told us you could bike across it. Obviously, not a great success for a geology class.

Also: not riveting.

So last term, I switched it up. I told students that the project was optional (most chose not to do it) and gave them some VERY loose guidelines. I also encouraged them to be very creative, giving them my Paleosol Cupcakes blog post as an example of using baking to demonstrate scientific principles.

it's baking but for science!

This was actually super awesome. I had a student turn in four (admittedly foul-tasting) cupcakes representing fossilization types (I fed them to the grad students) with a short paper talking about what they'd learned about fossils. I had another student turn in a piano piece they'd written about the Cascadia earthquake, complete with a description of tension building and releasing. I did have one student just turn in a standard paper - but it actually was a pretty good paper, so I think they were just playing to their strengths. There were other projects as well, all of which were well-researched and enthusiastic. All of the students who actually turned in one of these projects got an A, and this is definitely the way I'm going to run all 101 projects from now on... if only to spare me from more drone footage of a bridge.

Semi-Flipping the Classroom
Of all the things I've tried with 101 classes here at Central Washington, flipping the classroom has been the least successful and most infuriating.

So a flipped classroom is where students do reading or watch online lectures at home, then come into the class and do activities, discussions, etc - anything other than 50 minutes of lecture. I have read a lot of things that say flipping the classroom was the best way to get material across and really wanted to try it, so my first term I made it so students had to read a chapter of the book each week, take a quiz on it, and then in the class we'd do a brief review and then apply what we had learned.

sounds good, right?

It was a fucking disaster.

My students did not read the book. They did not take the quizzes that were 20% of their grade. They would show up, and fumble through what we covered for the day, and look completely confused the entire time. My reviews from some students were scalding, including the idea that I simply did not know the material so made them learn it on their own. Yikes.

All this, AND I didn't get a chili pepper. Bullshit!
So I dialed it down a lot for the next few classes. "My students want standard lectures? Standard lectures they get!" It may not be the most effective way to teach them, but I'm too early in my career to get scathing teaching reviews and not have it affect A) my self esteem and B) my ability to stay in this career.

The happiest medium I have found is to have students either read ~5 pages OR give them a YouTube video to watch on some of the topics we want to cover. They still have to take a quiz, to give 'em credit for doing the reading/watching. Then, in class, I cover that material again, and then go deeper into the topic. It really cuts down on the amount of time we can spend doing activities (no stream table days, or walks around town to see soil creep examples) but it's more in line with what students expect, without me feeling like I have to cover material at a break-neck speed. I tried to limit my activities to being 10-15 minutes or less instead of 30-45, and use them more as a way to break up lecture and review material, rather than trying to get students to learn new concepts through the activities themselves.

It was a little disappointing to make that switch, in part because it's so different from the way I used to teach. I taught outdoor school for years, and doing inquiry-based exercises and spending an entire day testing hypotheses was significantly more fun than lectures and review exercises. I also think it was a better way of teaching science because it forced students to think like scientists, and while discussion questions are great, they don't teach you how to put together and test hypotheses or formulate your own questions.

In the future, I'd like to find some ways to worm more of that back into place. Part of an introductory science class is to teach students how science is done, and I don't think that memorizing the steps of the scientific method is sufficient. But for now, I'm confident my students learned well and didn't hate me, and if I have to prioritize that second part perhaps more than I'm entirely comfortable with... well, it's one of the many uncomfortable aspects of being a woman early in her academic career. I'll deal.

So: what are your favorite introductory teaching techniques? Have you dealt with the flipped classroom conundrum? Let us know in the comments!

And for more content, follow us on our three thousand social media accounts: Facebook at Mary Anning's Revenge, Instagram (@Mary_Annings_Revenge for Amy and science stuff, @nessielovesjelly for a deluge of Meaghan's dog photos), Twitter (@marysrevenge for Meaghan, or @AmyLynnAtwater for Amy) or Snapchat (@thebestmeaghan).


  1. Hi there! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I genuinely enjoy reading through your posts. Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that deal with the same topics? Many thanks!singapore business grants

  2. Hiya! Quick question that's completely off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? My blog looks weird when browsing from my iphone4. I'm trying to find a theme or plugin that might be able to resolve this issue. If you have any recommendations, please share. With thanks! raja ampat liveaboard

  3. Thank you a lot for sharing this with all of us you actually realize what you're talking approximately! Bookmarked. Kindly also talk over with my website =). We will have a hyperlink alternate arrangement among us!
    ecommerce website development company

  4. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a little bit, but other than that, this is magnificent blog. A great read. I will definitely be back. best seo company singapore

  5. Hello my loved one! I wish to say that this article is awesome, great written and include almost all important infos. I would like to peer extra posts like this . wayanad resorts with swimming pool

  6. Hey there this is kinda of off topic but I was wanting to know if blogs use WYSIWYG editors or if you have to manually code with HTML. I'm starting a blog soon but have no coding skills so I wanted to get guidance from someone with experience. Any help would be greatly appreciated! simple website design

  7. I do agree with all the ideas you have presented in your post. They're very convincing and will certainly work. Still, the posts are too short for novices. Could you please extend them a bit from next time? Thanks for the post.
    b2b marketing

  8. I’d should test with you here. Which is not something I normally do! I take pleasure in reading a put up that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment! promote restaurant

  9. With havin so much content do you ever run into any problems of plagorism or copyright violation? My website has a lot of unique content I've either authored myself or outsourced but it appears a lot of it is popping it up all over the internet without my permission. Do you know any ways to help reduce content from being ripped off? I'd really appreciate it.
    marketing agencies singapore

  10. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn't show up. Grrrr... well I'm not writing all that over again. Anyways, just wanted to say wonderful blog! transform your business

  11. Have you ever thought about publishing an ebook or guest authoring on other websites? I have a blog centered on the same topics you discuss and would really like to have you share some stories/information. I know my subscribers would appreciate your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an e-mail.
    Local SEO is an inexpensive way to promote your brand

  12. I'm extremely impressed with your writing skills as well as with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself? Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to see a nice blog like this one nowadays..autonomous forklift