Submitted by Adam Johnson / Harvey Mudd College on Fri, 08/07/2020 - 14:37
Reflection Piece 2

As I wind up year two of being a VIPEr fellow, I am happy to be able to think back on what I did, take stock of what I changed as a result of the first workshop, describe how it went, and share what I want to do for the future. This semester was severely interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but I was fortunate to teach the first half of my course in its usual modality and was able to make some clear changes to my course in advance of the transition to virtual instruction on March 13th.

First of all, let’s review year one. I remember being really proud of and happy about my videos of the bonding unit because I “knew” that I did a lot of active learning during those days, which was my goal. I remember telling Barb when I submitted the videos that one of the days was almost entirely students working at the board. Fast forward a few months to the workshop, and I was honestly shocked to see my videos of those 5 classes and not be able to tell which of those 5 days was the one that had “a lot” of active learning. I also was able to step back and watch my style. I had let myself become pretty loose with the content of my classes, letting topics slide across multiple days, and it seemed very disjointed and hard to follow. So, my main goals for this year after last summer’s workshop was to really think hard about two things. First: to have 2 or 3 clearly articulated goals for each class period. What are the most important things I wanted the students to get out of each day. And second: to make sure to shut up and let the students work at the board when that is my plan. Cutting to the punchline, I feel like I was able to achieve both of these goals, and for that I am very happy and thankful.

For each day, right at the top of my notes to myself, I listed the two to three principal goals for that day’s class. I rearranged the material so that I was really trying to cover a topic only during a single class, not spreading it across multiple days. Of course, some topics did take more than one day, but for those, I tried to have an introduction to the topic on day one, and an application of the topic on day two. The first 2-3 weeks of the semester, I actually handed out a quick survey at the end of class to poll the students on what they thought the main goal of the class was. For the most part, the students were able to correctly identify the daily goals, though occasionally there were some surprises. I would be interested in doing these quick surveys more regularly in the future. Next, when I taught my bonding unit, I was deliberate about introducing the task, and then turning them loose to work in groups or at the board. I felt positive and confident that I had made real changes to those days.

When I viewed my videos and read the COPUS summary (see an article about COPUS here) that was prepared by the workshop leaders, I was pleasantly rewarded to see that my percentage of time devoted to student work and group work had increased, and the corresponding “me talking at them” time had decreased. So, I have good evidence from student surveys and COPUS data that the two major changes I had intended to do were successful.

My third goal was to incorporate more primary literature discussions into my course, especially at the level of using the primary literature to introduce the topic (like was demonstrated for Lewis structures using a bioinorganic complex at the workshop) rather than discussing the paper in class (which is my usual method). I did not get a chance to do this before spring break, and after break I was teaching remotely with all of the other issues associated with the chaos of that time, so I ended up only doing one primary literature paper as an individual (and uncollected) assignment. So I still have something to aim for in the future.

My other future plan comes from viewing the COPUS data in workshop 2. One thing that I always try to budget for, but then end up running out of time to do is to have the student pairs report out on their board work for the rest of the class. The boardwork I have them do usually has one “common mistake” embedded in it—a mistake I want them to make in class so they don’t make it later on. I almost always run out of time during the discussion of the work and I rush through the student work to make sure that I point out all the common mistakes. I definitely think it would be better for the students to talk their peers through this, so I really need to focus on time management or better written guidance on the in class work so that I can then have time at the end of class for the students to present their answers.

So, after 2 years as a fellow, I can confidently say that my teaching has changed for the better; it is now more closely aligned with my goals for my time and activities in the classroom. Importantly, I am more aware of what I am doing in the classroom, and that I can clearly see ways to improve in further years. One thing that I do not feel able to do is to evaluate my own teaching using a COPUS model; I would definitely need to have someone do that analysis for me, and then explain it to me. But the general ideas of monitoring what I am doing in my class, and making sure it matches my goals, that makes sense to me. At the workshop it was clearly stated that there is no right or wrong way to teach, and different material works best with different students and instructors (and phases of the moon) that being able to adjust (even on the fly) is an important skill. I am an experienced teacher, and can let go of my plans if things start going sideways. I do this all the time. So, having an awareness of my purpose for the day, the planned activities for the day, and then giving us all the time and space to carry out those plans… all of that will make me an even better educator in the future.

I wish that I had been able to participate as a fellow earlier in my career. I learned a lot even as an experienced teacher, and can only imagine the benefits to my teaching practices and student outcomes had I encountered a critical (in the best possible sense) evaluation of my teaching methods earlier in my career. I eagerly await reading what the other members of my cohort have to say in their reflections. I really enjoyed being a fellow and getting to know my cohort better. I got to dive deeply into some unexplored learning objects on the VIPEr website, and got to see first-hand how others think about their teaching and develop their own LOs for the site. We definitely all learned from each other, and will continue to do so as we use each others materials in the future.