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2015 November 23

Meeting for teachers of writing to engineers

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:00
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Last Spring I got a small grant from the Academic Senate to create a new “Disciplinary Communications” course for the bioengineering majors (a $7,000 “partial course relief” for 2015–16).  Most of the effort of creating the course happened last year, as we needed to offer the course in Spring 2015, but the money comes for this year.  I’m not actually taking any course relief this year, though my load is lighter than last year, since I’m not doing two overload courses this year.  The money (as all our course relief money) is being spent on hiring a lecturer—paying part of the salary of the lecturer teaching the new writing course.

But I felt that I ought to be doing something this year on improving “disciplinary communications” for bioengineers, in order to have something to report at the end of the year for the grant.  Since the new course was designed last year, the main effort this year will be on tweaking that course and other courses our students do that involve writing.  Rather than work just with the instructor of that new course, I thought it would be useful to gather all the faculty who teach writing to engineering students, to discuss (according to the message I sent out):

  • course design
  • teaching techniques
  • assignments
  • grading techniques
  • use of TAs or graders
  • creation of a “Professional Learning Community” to meet on a regular (quarterly?) basis

There was no set agenda for the meeting—just a chance to meet and talk about what we do. We had a pretty good turnout: 3 ladder-rank faculty, 4 writing instructors, and 1 staff person who teaches writing to a small group of minority students.

After self-introductions we had a wide-ranging conversation about assignments people gave, challenges they faced, approaches to making assignments work better, and so forth.  We did not talk much about TAs and graders, course design, or grading techniques, concentrating more on assignments and teaching techniques.

I’m a lousy note-taker, so I don’t have good notes of what was discussed, but I remember a few things.  I’ll present them here mainly as they apply to me, since that is what I remember best.

None of the ladder-rank faculty are teaching courses where writing is the primary content of the course, but improving student writing is a secondary goal of their courses. In my case, I’m (thankfully) not teaching either the technical writing for bioengineers course nor the senior thesis writing course this year, but I do provide a fair amount of writing feedback both in the Bioinformatics: Models and Algorithms course and in the Applied Electronics course. In the bioinformatics course, there are a couple of writing assignments, but most of the feedback is on in-program documentation. In the Applied Electronics course, there is a weekly design report due, which is centered on the graphics (block diagrams, schematics, and fits of models to measured data). Other courses include assignments to write abstracts, write proposals, write standard operating procedures, and other assignments typical of both academic and industrial writing tasks.

One aspect of teaching writing that I’ve never had much luck with is peer editing—another of the ladder-rank faculty brought this topic up as one of the challenges that help was needed on.  A couple of the writing instructors agreed that peer editing was hard, because the students had no notion of “editing” as an activity. What they suggested was having a set of specific questions for the peer editors to answer—questions relevant to the piece they were editing, like “what is the research question? Is there a summary of results? Is the approach clear?” for editing an abstract.  Without specific guidance, students tend to fall back on the if-you-can’t-say-anything-nice-don’t-say-anything meme, and provide useless “looks good to me” comments.  One technique that the faculty member who raised the issue has tried (with mixed success) is getting students to rewrite another student’s abstract in their own words.  Although this often pointed out problems in the original writing, it sometimes just reflected the inability of the editing student to write coherently.

One idea that seemed to come as a bit of surprise to some of  the writing instructors was creating the figures and figure captions of a document first, and then writing the paper around the figures.  This is a common approach in some research groups in our department, and one that some students will have to face. One of the writing instructors pointed out that the poster assignment (used in two of the courses) is good preparation for this.

We all pretty much agreed that there was no place in the writing instruction students were getting about good presentation of data and generation of figures. I mentioned that one of our junior faculty is interested in creating a course centered on scientific graphics, but it wasn’t clear whether he’d get to teach it next year or not.  I felt that students in my Applied Electronics course got a lot of instruction and got pretty good at displaying data (at least the scatter diagrams and fit models for that course), but that they really struggled with the notion of block diagrams and organizing problems into subproblems. One of the writing instructors, who saw the students mostly after they had had the applied electronics course, saw more problems with data presentation than with block diagrams.  This may be because of different expectations of the block diagram, or it may be that the data representations her students needed were not among the few types covered in Applied Electronics.

Another form of writing that a lot of students were not getting adequate feedback in was lab notebooks. Unfortunately, the different disciplines have such different expectations of the content of a lab notebook that it is hard to provide any sort of standardized assignment. A couple of the instructors who teach Writing 2 classes, mainly to STEM students, do include an observational-field-notebook assignment, which at least gets across the idea of taking notes as you go, and not trying to reconstruct what you did at the end of the day (a flaw I’ve seen in several of the Applied Electronics labs) or the end of the quarter (a flaw I’ve seen in some senior theses).

We did discuss the strategy of setting high expectations on the first assignment by giving detailed feedback on that assignment, with reduced checking on subsequent assignments.  This helps keep the grading down to an almost sane level, and the students still benefit from the practice, even if not everything they do is checked. I’ve certainly noticed on the bioinformatics assignments that by the 4th or 5th assignment I only need to spot-check the internal documentation, or check it for students who are struggling with the concepts of the assignment, as the better students generally are routinely producing decent documentation by then.

We discussed various things we could do that would be generally helpful, and I ended up with two action items:

  • Create a shared Google Drive folder where we can put assignments and examples of student work (access limited to faculty involved in the group).
  • Organize another meeting for next quarter. People were pleased enough by the meeting to want to meet again.

I don’t think that anyone will make any radical changes to how they teach as a result of the meeting, but I think that several of us came away with the nugget of an idea for a small improvement we could make. It was also very refreshing to have a discussion of teaching techniques—something we professors don’t often get a chance to engage in meaningfully.  Most attempts to foster such discussions are way too broad (like the Academic Senate teaching forums) in an attempt to include everyone, or way too bureaucratic (like the attempts of the administration to push assessing “program learning outcomes”).  Today’s informal discussion seemed to me to be focused enough to be productive, yet broad enough to involve many different courses.  I’m looking forward to doing it again next quarter.

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