Running courses in a way similar to how a research group functions

Bret Benesh recently posted a wonderful post about setting up your courses/policies/actions to maximally respect students. I started writing a comment and it got long as my comments often do. So I decided to post it here as well as leave it as a comment on Bret’s blog. I have turned off the comments here so please wander on over to Bret’s post if you want to talk about it with me.

Running courses in a way similar to how a research group functions

I have yet to move past bribing students to do what is good for them. I am trying to move past this starting with my upper-year courses and slowly bringing my most successful policies into my first-year courses. I love it when Brett says “Part of my job is to help them learn to make responsible decisions. This is impossible to do unless the students are given the opportunity to make actual decisions.” My bribery-type policies are mostly in place to help that bottom quartile of students because many of those students are the ones that in my experience have the most trouble making responsible decisions. They are the ones that, when given very flexible due dates, will simply put things off until the bitter end and then scramble (and usually fail) to get everything in at the last minute. Of course when I use rigid due dates they often don’t bother to turn stuff in at all, so the net effect is probably the same, but I feel much more guilty when I feel like I have put them in a position to fail because it feels to me like I set them up to have the mad scramble at the end.

My new ultimate goal (as of today) is to have my courses feel like a well-functioning research group where I am the supervisor and the students are in the role of grad/co-op/summer student. I am there to support them as little or as much as needed and as a “good” supervisor part of my job is to quickly figure out what level of support they will need to be successful. In this model the students would feel responsible to the entire group to be productive on a regular basis and that other people (not just me) depended on them in different ways so that they could do their own work as well. If, on occasion, a grad student hasn’t done enough work in the past week to present something worthwhile at a research group meeting, the group moves on and the supervisor says something along the lines of “ok, we’ll look at that piece next week instead.” I would like my classes to look like that as well. It’s OK to miss arbitrary deadlines now and then, but the sense of responsibility to the greater group results in most students staying on top of things.

To do this requires some specific structuring of courses in a way such that the student is in fact responsible to the greater group with their weekly work instead of just to me. Some thought on how to do this include:

  • Students taking turns presenting or even better running some sort of learning activity on topics that I would normally be in charge of. One thing I have never tried, but just occurred to me, is to have a student be in charge of running the show for a sequence of clicker questions. Hmm…
  • Having in-class small-group activities where each student in the group is responsible for doing some different piece of pre-class preparation so that each student comes into the activity with much different types of expertise and thus each student’s level of preparation is important to their small group. If a student knows that they won’t be able to adequately prepare for their piece they can negotiate to take more responsibility for a future activity in exchange for the group covering for them on the current one.
This idea of running a course like a research group is not something new that came to me today. It is how I plan to run my Advanced Lab course (the name commonly given to the standalone upper-year physics laboratory courses) in January and I have a blog post on it simmering in the background. But there the students are engaged in a much more research-like experience so it only occurred to me today that you could take some of those elements and bring them over to a regular course.
If you want to chat with me about this, head on over to Bret’s post (link at the top of this page).

One Comment on “Running courses in a way similar to how a research group functions”

  1. […] The entire class is treated as a larger research group and there are weekly group meetings (see this earlier post of mine for more of my thoughts on running a course in a way similar to how a research group […]