What follows is a reflective essay that I included in my teaching portfolio. It has been tremendously helpful to look back on it as I work on future renovations to my classes, especially laboratories.
My larger project is the revision of the laboratory section of ANSC 101, Introduction to Animal Science. It is a required course in the Department of Animal and Avian Sciences. The physical manifestation of the revision is the laboratory manual.
When I started as a teaching assistant at the University of Maryland-College Park, I had very little prep time. I was sent the textbook to look over but having the laboratory manual would have done me more good. I asked a lot of questions but found the answers lacking, at least from the other, more experienced teaching assistants. It turned out, as so often happens, that the teaching assistants teaching the other lab sections that year had been there three years and had little enthusiasm for teaching at all, let alone for that class.
Another big problem I had was in regard to the lack of attention to detail. Coming from a majority agricultural background, I was instantly picking out the flaws in the lab content. Coming from a university that emphasized teaching (no research was performed there) and prided itself on its Agricultural Education program/major, I found the lack of uniformity among the labs, and/or the teaching assistants, appalling.
The final “blow” was the utter lack of organization, with particular regard to the weekly quizzes. Out of four teaching assistants, only one had input into the questions on the quizzes, regardless of the fact that that teaching assistant did not even attend each section, where the focus was often on different key points. In addition, the quizzes, theoretically, to be distributed at the weekly Monday lab teaching assistant meeting, were often distributed with only enough time before lab to make photocopies, and no time at all to check for errors or inconsistencies.
Luckily, it became my responsibility the following semester to be the lead teaching assistant. The instant I was offered the position, I asked to be given the freedom to rework the lab section. I wanted to gut it completely, save a few solid building blocks and update the rest. Another stroke of luck came in the form of the primary instructor, who was happy to have someone take charge of the project. Often, such instructors have no time to do the grunt work themselves and often don’t have the regular staff available either.
The first thing I wanted to accomplish was to update the lab presentation materials. They originally were overheads and slides that dated back 15 to 20 years. In a field like agricultural science, that is simply not acceptable. I looked into the availability of teaching slides and materials from universities with established agricultural education programs and for subjects that didn’t have slides pre-made, I made them up myself. Most of the slides, pictures and overhead information was scanned into the computer so that I could put the entire presentation on Powerpoint. The use of color and animation for some of the more difficult or mundane topics really seemed to help students understand the material better.
After having put the old material in Powerpoint in a new format, I went about adding material that was more up-to-date and more pertinent to the agricultural industry of this state and area. One very important lesson I learned was the difference between where the students at the University of Maryland come from and where the students of my undergraduate university and I came from. I learned that I had to cater to their needs in a different way and that they would learn more and better by being taught what would be important to THEM and not to ME. This step also involved rearranging the schedule on the syllabus to make the laboratories line up better with what was taught in the lecture portion of the class.
In regards to the laboratory manual, I was concerned by the lack of quality of the drawings/pictures of the animals represented. The students were supposed to be able to identify body parts on the animals but half of the time they couldn’t even identify the species! Being artistically inclined and not wanted to have to hassle with copyrighted material, I redrew a number of the previous drawings. In addition, I took out text that was redundant or obvious and added text that wasn’t found in the textbook and, while often obvious and second-nature to many of us “farmers”, was often not thoroughly comprehended by “city folk”. I made sure that there was enough room to take notes where students should take notes and deleted extra space where it was just extra space. Many times students “take the hint” by the space that is available to them. Students will assume that a topic is especially important if there is extra space available in the lab manual. I added graphs with labeled axes when students needed to graph data because with so much work to cover in each two hour lab, students don’t need to spend the time drawing axes and figuring dimensions but instead on interpretation of the trends of the data. Ah, the computer age.
The best achievement of the laboratory revision was the implementation of three new assignments. The first was student presentations. The students definitely dread them but in this day and age, being able to present yourself well is very key to your success. It won’t be long before “everyone” has a bachelor’s degree and it won’t be quite so novel. There are more things that students need to set them apart from others and presentation is an important one. Unfortunately, addition of the presentations meant the loss of two lab section slots. I felt that the sacrifice would be worth it in the long run. The second new assignment was the use of an Animal Science Tutorial CD-ROM. It was very interactive would make a good study guide if the students were forced to use it a few times to get used to it. Thus, I made up a worksheet that needed to be filled out and implemented some of the material into the quizzes. It appeared to be helpful.
The third new assignment was reviewing other students’ work. Originally, students were to choose journal articles and critique the experimental design, results and outcome of the experiment. Last year, I found that students did not improve from one critique to other (there were three total) and that the teaching assistants, myself included, tended to slacken the grading to compensate instead of vice versa. The best way to make students aware of their own work is to make them read and critique some else’s work, particularly a peer.
Finally, I took control of the ORGANIZATION of the labs. From one month before the semester began until the last day of finals and grading, I was in total control of what went on in the ANSC 101 labs. I attended as many of the lab sections as I could and I gave the other teaching assistants one week to approve the questions for the next week’s quizzes and to add one or two more of their own. I made sure that we were consistent (as much as humanly possible) with our grading and our teaching. Each teaching assistant was fully briefed at the start of the week as to what was ultimately expected of the students and we walked through the labs step-by-step. I took comments and implemented immediately if possible and at the start of the next week, I asked for feedback and again, took notes and/or changed things immediately so that the next year would run smoothly with only a month’s worth of prep time instead of the whole summer.
I have learned a great deal from this experience and the lab is better for it. Unfortunately, I will not be benefiting from the fruits of my labor this year, but certainly, the transition to a new primary instructor and lead teaching assistant will be a smoother one because of the effort.