Gas station without pumps

2012 October 3

SBG and partner work in circuits class

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:42
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I got the course approval forms for the Applied Circuits for Bioengineers course and lab signed by my chair today, and the department manager has already sent them up the pipeline to the next stage of the process.  Basically, the forms disappear into a black hole at this point, and decisions or questions come back in a few weeks, either from the associate dean or from the Committee on Educational Policy.  Unless politics interferes, the courses should be approved in time to advertise them before Winter quarter.  Right now, I put the probability of the courses being offered this winter at over 90% (way up from a couple of weeks ago, when my estimate of the probability had dropped to 20%).

Of course, I have to finish the course design in time, and I just realized that my weekends the quarter are going to be consumed by grading for my bioinformatics grad class, which has 25 students and no TA.  I think that this is going to mean late nights working on the course design.  I’m wondering whether I’m going to be able to keep up on the physics homework that I’m assigning my son and me for the home-school physics class.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is (perhaps) trying standards-based grading (SBG) in the circuits class.  I think that is doable in the lab course, where we will be putting together a list of lab skills that students need to demonstrate anyway, but I’m not sure we’ll be able to do it for the lecture course.  I’m going to have a hard enough time coming up with enough “assessments” (test/quiz questions) for conventional grading, and standards-based grading seems to rely on having a much larger stock of assessments.  We may end up with a hybrid scheme of checklists of skills for the lab and conventional grading for the book learning.

Another idea I had was about doing group work.  The only lab available with enough equipment (and its availability is far from guaranteed) is set up as 12 stations with 24 seats (2 students per station). Since we are expecting far more than 12 students, we will have to pair students for the lab.  But I have an aversion to forced group work on tasks that are more easily done by one person.  I want to be sure that the pairs are not just one student working and one watching.

Given that most of the students will be in an electronics lab for the first time, pairing students at stations is not a bad idea. A lot of the labs involve manipulating something (voltage, frequency, …) and recording measurements.  Having two people working together (one manipulating, the other recording) is likely to result in better records, though one person could do it alone.

I’m considering requiring that each lab be done with a different partner.  This means that most students would get the opportunity to be both the stronger partner and the weaker one and would practice being helpful in both situations.  No one would be stuck with a freeloader for the whole term nor with a partner who whizzes through everything without involving them.  It also means that students will learn who makes a good work partner and who doesn’t, so that if they need to form a team for a senior project, they know some people to try to include on the team (and some to avoid).  I think that this scheme would have to be done by assigning partners, as allowing free selection could result in some people never getting chosen as partners.  Setting up the partner scheme, adapting it to students dropping the course, and making sure that all students know who their partner is for the next lab so that they can do the prelab work together all add a little extra logistics to this scheme.

One question we need to think about is whether lab reports should be written by the pair, with both names on one report, or whether there should be separate lab reports.  Currently, I’m leaning towards one report per pair, since they will be collecting the data together, doing the design work together, and demonstrating the working design together.  The weaker writers in the class would probably not get enough practice and feedback, since their partners will end up doing most of the writing, but requiring separate reports would probably not fix this problem, since they need to share a lot of content.


  1. Yay on the increased probability of getting your course approved. I would really have liked to take it as a grad student!

    Comment by zb — 2012 October 4 @ 07:01 | Reply

    • I had not thought of grad students taking this undergrad class, which is really rather short-sighted of me, especially since all the EE classes I’ve taken were when I was a grad student in computer science.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 October 4 @ 10:07 | Reply

  2. Wow — this is great news. I’m really excited about this course design and I’m thinking about adapting some of your labs over the summer, so I’ve been saving all the related posts for a time when I had a chance to think them through and respond thoroughly. Of course the result is that I haven’t responded at all, so I’ll just throw a few ideas out there.

    SBG for labs — sounds like a quick win. Would you use a complete/incomplete grade, or some other scale? What will you use as the assessment — the lab report? The functioning circuit? I really like verbal assessments of labs because I find it much easier to find out how much the students are able to reason through their work. I hand out a tracking sheet at the beginning of the year that only gets signed after I have had a conversation with the student that satisfied me that they understand the point. They have to demonstrate the circuit working and walk me through their recorded data. I also usually ask for a few measurements so that I can see their measurement technique. I use a complete/incomplete scheme, so if I’m not satisfied, I make notes on the tracking sheet of what I want to see before they ask to demonstrate it again.

    SBG for the lecture component — would you accept a reassessment if the student did the leg work? I have sometimes allowed students to create their own assessments — either a circuit they propose to build in order to demonstrate some principle, a paper they propose to write, or a problem they propose to solve. They submit the proposal, I change it subtly to make sure it’s not something they copied from the internet, and that becomes the test.

    I think the random assignment of lab partners has a lot of benefits. I know what you mean about the increased logistics, though — and students being sick/absent throws a monkey-wrench into the round-robin. Do you think it disadvantages a student unfairly if they work alone? In the first year, I have 17 students for 12 benches. I sometimes do paired exercises where I give an instruction something like, “You can work alone if you want. If you’re working with someone else, make sure it is someone you haven’t worked with before,” and there haven’t been any problems. Except that it does mean that the person working alone is doing more work.

    Re lab reports — what if writing up a lab report was a skill, along with the circuits? That would mean everyone would have to submit at least one. Or specify that every students must submit X lab reports.

    Looking forward to seeing how this goes. If I was in the area I’d offer to TA for you — I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the lab to find out how students approach the problems and how they think through them.

    Comment by Mylène — 2012 October 4 @ 13:11 | Reply

    • The lab course will be graded by a combination of the lab reports and in-lab demos. I don’t know whether we’ll have a binary checkoff for skills or multiple levels—I’ll discuss that with my co-instructor who has been teaching lab courses successfully for decades.

      Mylène, I’ve been hoping to get more comments from you on this course design, since your courses are about as close to this one as any of my readers have done (aside from my con-instructor, but even his experience is more with upper-level EE labs, rather than non-EE students in their first exposure to electronics).

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 October 4 @ 15:30 | Reply

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