Student Interview Feedback for Advanced Lab, Spring 2012, Part 2

This is part 2 (part 1 here) of my post discussing feedback I got from a couple of my students after the conclusion of my Advanced Lab course. This went long again so it looks like there will have to be a part 3.

The 8-hour work-week and filling out time sheets

The combination of this having been only my second time teaching the course and my policy on student experiments always building on, but not repeating, the project of previous groups made it very hard for me to figure out projects of appropriate scope. So my solution was to ask that the students put in a minimum of 8 hours each week into the course and then I had to make sure that the projects consisted of sequences of achievable milestones. With that in place, I was happy to accept however far along each group made it with their projects as long as those 8 hours each week were actually spent working productively on the course.

So I got them to fill out and submit time sheets. I was worried that they would perceive these as being too strict or beneath them or terrible in some other way.

Interview feedback: No complaints. The time sheets were fine and did a good job of encouraging them to dedicate an appropriate amount of time to the course even when they felt like doing something else. Yay!

Future plan: It looks like I will continue to use these time sheets. The thoughtful-assessment part of my conscience doesn’t really like having to use these, but for the most part these students have never had to budget time for a longer project and they really need the scaffolding so that they don’t fall on their faces.

Oral and written dissemination

One of my major guiding principles in this course was (and continues to be) to try to make sure that the communication of their project was directed toward authentic audiences. For the weekly group meetings, they were bringing me up to speed on their project as well as informally presenting to their work to people with less project-specific expertise (the rest of their class-mates). Since projects are always meant to build on previous projects, their formal reports are going to be part of the literature used by the next group building on that same project. Their formal oral presentations were targeted at peers that lacked project-specific expertise (again the rest of the class).

The first time I taught the course, I had the students write journal-style articles (each partner wrote one). There were two problems. First, the partner that was not writing the article ended up contributing very little to the analysis and usually didn’t dig deep enough into how everything worked from either the theoretical or the experimental side of things (which is part of why I implemented the oral assessments into the course). Second, the background and theory sections often lacked an authentic audience for multiple reasons: (A) they were often vaguely repeating the work from a source journal article; (B) if they were building on a previous group’s work, writing their own background and theory sections would be mostly redundant; and (C) the topics were often deep enough that it was not reasonable to expect them to develop the project-specific expertise to do a very good job these sections.

So in this second incarnation of the course I decided to split the journal article up into two pieces, one for each partner: a LaTeX “technote” and a wiki entry for the background and theory. The idea was that future groups could add to the wiki entry, which would eliminate the redundancy of recreating essentially the same theory and background sections for future groups working on that research line. With the theory and background stripped out of the journal article, all I asked in the technote was that all equations and important terminology be clearly defined within the technote, and no other theory was needed. I thought this would have the added benefit of having both partners invested in a writing task for each project. But the whole thing did not work very well. The technotes worked fine, but the wiki entries ended up being so disconnected from the technotes that partners often didn’t even use the same notation between the wiki entry and technote.

It is worth noting that between a time crunch and the technote+wiki not working as well as I liked, I got the students to team up and write something a bit closer to a journal article for their second project.

In addition to their technote and wiki entry, each student gave a 12-15 minute formal oral presentation on one of their projects (each partner presented on the project for which they wrote the technote) instead of writing a final exam.

One of the things I wanted to discuss in the interview was what sort of improvements could we make to this dissemination process. I had some ideas in my head to discuss such as poster presentations and articles written for a lay-audience.

Interview feedback: for each project one person would write a journal article and the other would prepare and present a poster at a research symposium. The logistics of this still need to be worked out and we discussed a number of combinations of dissemination methods before coming to a consensus on this specific one. The interviewed students saw communicating science to a lay-audience (the research symposium attendees) as an important thing for them to practice.

Future plan: I really like how this combination makes each member of the group responsible for communicating all the important pieces of their project. Targeting them at different audiences means that they will be able to work together while still ultimately having to produce their own non-redundant (relative to each other) work.

Their are a lot of logistical issues to work out here. Our university has a student research day a couple of weeks before the end of our winter term and that would be a perfect place for them to present their poster. The problem is that, with a proper revision cycle for their poster, they will essentially have had to have completed both projects a month before the end of the term. I’m not certain I can make that work. We can always have our own research symposium, but it seems ideal to get involved with an existing one that already has an audience.

The other piece here is that I will probably ask them to keep the journal articles closer to the technotes than a real journal article (meaning bare-bones theory and background).

A vague notion of a plan dawned on me while proof-reading this post. I could probably get the timing with the student research symposium to work if I reduce the scope of each project by roughly a week and then in the final month of the course I could ask each group to revisit one of their experiments and push it a bit further forward. There are all sorts of problems with this plan, such as how they will disseminate this additional work and the experimental apparatus probably having been torn down, but it is still something to consider.

The timing of peer review for their lab reports

Each technote and journal article was allowed as many drafts as needed to get the paper up to “accepted for publication with minor revisions” standards (a B-grade) based on a very picky rubric. After that, they were allowed one final draft if they wished to try earn an A grade. A typical number of drafts was 3 or 4, but there were exceptions in both directions.

For the first report, I had each person do a peer review of another student’s submission. One of the questions I had on my mind for the feedback interview had to do with the timing of the peer review in the draft cycle. The first draft of the first paper is always an extremely rough thing to slog through, even those written by very strong students. Thus, asking them to do peer review on a first draft is asking them to do something very painful. But, having to critically apply a rubric and provide constructive feedback does wonders for getting students to pay much better attention to the specifics of the writing assignment and the sooner that happens in the course, the sooner that I see those improvements in their writing.

Interview feedback: not too sure if it is best to do peer review on a first or second draft. We discussed this for a bit, decided we could see both options as equally valid, and never came to any real conclusion.

Future plan: dunno yet. I could sign my course up for the Journal of the Advanced Undergraduate Physics Laboratory Investigation tool. They have peer review calibration tasks and the added benefit of anonymous peer reviewers from other institutions, but since JAUPLI is still small, the timing all has to work out magically well.

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