Student Interview Feedback for Advanced Lab, Spring 2012, Part 1

Once I started writing this it got pretty long so I will call this part 1 and work on part 2 another day.

A month ago I took a couple of my students to a local coffee shop, filled them full of treats, and poked their brains for a couple of hours about my Advanced Laboratory course that ended in April, 2012. I’m summarizing their feedback here to make sure I have a good record of their feedback and, of course, to share. For any given piece of feedback from the students I will try my best to explain the context and by the end you should have a pretty good idea of how the course looked and where it will be headed in the future.

Let’s start with my definition of an Advanced Laboratory course from an earlier post:

This type of course, a standard course in most physics departments, is a standalone lab course without any associated lecture course. There is an amazing amount of variability from one Advanced Lab course to the next and they range in format from one experiment per week with everything already set up and cookbook procedures ready to be followed, to a single student-developed project over the entire term (or year!).

In my specific incarnation, we spend the first month doing some introductory activities to build up some foundational skills which are mostly related to data analysis and presentation. For the rest of the course pairs of students work on two month-long experimental physics projects. The students are guided to work on projects that can be viewed as being part of a larger research line, where they build on the work of previous students and future students will build on their work. Thus no two groups will ever perform identical experiments.

Onto the feedback!

Weekly research group meetings

Each week we had a research group meeting where each group was asked to post a couple of figures or tables to the course wiki and quickly bring us up to speed on what they had done the previous week as well as what they planned on doing the next week. A very small part of their grade was based on how much they contributed to these research group meetings. My expectation was that, averaged over multiple meetings, each student would ask at least one meaningful question to the presenters per meeting or contribute in some other way to the conversations surrounding the projects of the other groups. I had twelve students enrolled so I split the class into two larger research groups so each research group consisted of myself and three pairs of students.

I was quite happy with how these meetings worked and felt it was really valuable for the presenters to have to frame things so that people other than me and the presenters actually understood what they were up to. Anecdotally it felt like students spent more of their initial time learning about the basics (experiment and theory) of their projects than in the past because they were going to have to explain things to somebody else.

Interview feedback: the meetings felt too long. Their initial suggestion was to make the meetings every other week or to time-limit them somehow. A research group meeting took somewhere between a half-hour and an hour each week. The actual presentations were reasonably concise, but there were always lots of questions from the other groups and feedback from me. This was also the place where we hashed out a lot of the gory details of what they should try to do in the coming week. But the thing was that the other groups often contributed to these discussions on what to tackle in the coming week so I felt like the whole process was extremely valuable for all parties. But it could probably be tightened up.

Future plan: Partners will alternate being the main presenter each week (previously they were both expected to present each week) and will be asked to present 1 or 2 tables of figures. The feedback was that it sometimes felt like a stretch to find that 2nd table or figure to present. The actual presentation will be limited to 5 minutes for a total of 10 minutes per project group between the presentation and the discussion afterwards. I won’t be strict on the time limits, but will be mindful of the clock to help prioritize which discussions to have at that moment and which ones can be saved for private discussions later. One of the students also suggested that having time limits on their presentation time would serve as good practice for their formal oral presentations later in the course and these did have strict time limits.

Parallel investigations

Twice during the intro sequence I tried to have a number of small groups working on different things and then had them report out to the class. The second time we did this I called them “parallel investigations” and sent them off to study goodness of fit, Monte-Carlo methods for fitting or Monte-Carlo methods for error analysis. In addition to orally reporting out their findings, I asked one partner to write their findings up in LaTeX and the other on the course wiki. These two write-ups were allowed to be identical and the reason that I used two formats was because one of the students was going to write up the background and theory for their first project on the wiki and the other was going to write up the analysis and results as a LaTeX “tech note”. Thus I wanted them to have some practice using these writing formats. Note that on the second project they were to switch who wrote on the wiki and who wrote the LaTeX “tech note”.

Interview feedback: this might not have been the best use of their time. Yup, I agree. In the end, for the investigations that they did not perform, each group was simply ont he receiving end of a mediocre lecture on the topic and never got a chance to actively engage with the ideas. This is the exact opposite of how I try to run my courses.

Future plan: I’m planning on completely restructuring how the first-month introductory stuff works and will talk about that a bit more later, but I think the parallel investigations idea as it existed is officially dead.

Introduction to LaTeX

This is a place where I have not offered my students a ton of support. I wrote a tutorial so that they can install miktex and texniccenter on their windows machines and gave them a couple of sample LaTeX documents that cover all the basics, but that’s it.

Interview feedback: they would like some coherent instruction and resources. For most of them this is their first time ever dealing with a markup language and the learning curve seems to be steeper than I have been admitting to myself.

Future plan: It looks like a crew of us on twitter are going to put together a LaTeX workshop for the Summer 2013 AAPT meeting and I am hoping that as part of this process we will have put together a straight forward introduction to LaTeX for physicists package that I can drop on my students like a big ol’ pile of awesomeness.

Notebook activity

From Student-Generated Scientific Inquiry (Leslie Atkins and Irene Salter) I used their lab notebook activity which uses pages taken from different famous scientists actual lab notebooks. The students are asked, in small groups, to take some notes on how these famous scientists took notes and organized their information. As a large group we then built a rubric for their lab notebooks based on their observations of the pages from the notebooks of the famous scientists. The students were highly engaged in this activity and seemed to be supportive of the rubric that we developed from this activity.

Interview feedback: they thought this activity was great. But they didn’t find it in the way that I expected. The two students I interviewed both had some previous experience with lab notebooks in research labs and had, in the past, put way too much emphasis on maintaining an immaculate lab notebook. This activity had let them know that it was OK to have rough notes in their lab notebook.

Future plan: I hate marking lab notebooks. It is the worst. And with so much of the work they do being digital these days it is really hard to find a solution that fits into their work flow and doesn’t involve pasting umpteen print-outs into their lab notebook. I’m actually planning on backing off of trying to get them to keep a really good lab notebook and emphasize getting them to report at the beginning and end of the day what they planned on doing and what they actually accomplished (science fair style!). I will be checking it every class period and it will be graded as complete or incomplete. Once I feel that I can get a group of students doing a consistently good job of this, I will consider the next step to take.

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5 Comments on “Student Interview Feedback for Advanced Lab, Spring 2012, Part 1”

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

    This seems like great and useful feedback. I find it’s hard to distinguish “I liked it” from “it helped me learn” when I gather such feedback. I really liked how they learned something different from the example notebooks than you planned. Do you find that the notebook keeping they’re asked to do in intro labs helps or hurts for a course like this? For me, it hurts. They don’t see it as their own, but rather as something for the instructor. I agree that they’re a pain to grade and I like your plan to focus on outcomes (or, at least, current reports). I will say that in my Hamline Mythbusters class, I thought it was a fabulous idea to have each group do a screencast daily to bring me up to speed. In practice, however, they were often slower to grade than a simple sheet detailing where they were.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Hey Andy,

      The context for our discussions was that I wanted know how to improve the course for the next round. So we would usually start on a specific topic with a targeted question such as “Would you rather have had some or all of the questions ahead of time?” for the oral exams. Then I would ask them a little more about how they felt that specific aspect of the course worked as well as asking them how they felt that aspect of the course could be improved. All my “Future Plan” sections are the result of our discussions surrounding how aspects of the course could be improved and they were fantastic at helping developing these ideas. Phew. So that’s how I distinguished “I liked it” from “it helped me learn”.

      I completely agree that they come out of their earlier courses with the marker as the audience for their lab notebooks and it makes it really hard to get them switch into a mode where it is supposed to be something valuable for them. It felt like the lab notebook activity gave them all mini-epiphanies regarding the purpose of the lab notebooks, but it ultimately seemed to be an unstable state. With the simple detail sheets I plan on it being something I quickly scan on their way out of the lab. The most important piece of it to me is that they are consistently booking some amount of time to reflect on what they did.

  2. Art of Problem Solving has a good LaTeX tutorial aimed at middle-school and high-school students:
    http://www.artofproblemsolving.com/Wiki/index.php/LaTeX:About
    That should be sufficient hand holding for those students who can’t read the manual (which is also very tutorial).

  3. […] I am starting to prepare for my fall Advanced Lab course. Here is a quick overview of this course from a previous post: […]


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