Brainstorm: motivating student participation in my Computational Genome Science class

A few weeks ago I finished teaching a course on computational genome science. I was involved in designing the course back in 2011, and helped teach the initial offering, but this year I was the primary instructor. The class turned out well (in my opinion), and the student feedback was overwhelmingly positive. However, it didn’t go perfectly, and the last couple of weeks have given me the opportunity to reflect and brainstorm ideas for improving the next offering of the class.

This class is a very hands-on class—we cover the very basics of the theory, but spend most of our time running software tools and critically evaluating their results. Students submit assignments as entries in a class wiki, including notes of what they did, results they got, and interpretation / analysis. Using a wiki not only facilitates my monitoring of student participation, but (more importantly in the long run) it encourages students to develop documentation/note-taking skills that will be a huge benefit to them in the future.

At the beginning of most class periods, I set aside a few minutes for the students to work on their wiki entries. I used a Python script to random group the students into pairs, and instructed each pair to edit each other’s wiki entries—inserting notes or questions when something wasn’t clear, making minor stylistic improvements, etc. Then after this short period, another Python script randomly selected one of the students to come up and share what their partner had done and the results they had gotten. The hope was that these activities would motivate the students to complete the activities on time, and that they would actually critically evaluate each other’s work (and hopefully even learn something new in the process!).

The biggest problem I had with this approach is that the course was offered as a block course—that is, 3 credits and a full semester’s worth of work packed into 1.5 credits and 8 weeks. We were going at such a pace that the students often hadn’t had time to complete their assignments by the time they were scheduled to be editing each other’s wiki entries. Thankfully, future offerings of the course will be 3 credit semester-long ordeals, giving us more time to cover the same materials in more depth without being so rushed.

However, this was not the only problem. I got the impression that the students were not taking the opportunity to evaluate and present each other’s work seriously. Of course these students were busy, and as might be expected they need proper motivation to engage in these types of activities. After the first few class periods, it seemed that the threat of looking unprepared in front of the other students was not sufficient motivation to write complete, well documented wiki entries and/or to critically assess each other’s entries.

Here are a few ideas I’ve come up with to improve this situation for the next offering of this class.

  • For most of the (half-)semester I randomly chose a single student to come up and present their partner’s work. Near the end of the term, I decided to randomly select pairs instead. Each student would still present what their partner had done, but their partner would be there to clarify any misunderstandings and provide support. This seemed to work much better, and is going to be my approach from day one next time.
  • I provided verbal feedback for beginning-of-class presentations, and occasional verbal feedback for wiki entries, but as the majority of their grades were derived from a term project I provided no formal assessment throughout the term. I still like the idea of postponing formal assessment until the end of the semester to provide students ample time to polish up their wiki entries, but students need more than just verbal feedback in the interim. Next time I think I’ll have students grade each other’s beginning-of-class presentations (my own personal evaluation will be factored in as well). As was the intent before, all students will be motivated to be prepared for class (since they don’t know beforehand who will present), and they will be motivated to take advantage of the first few minutes of class to review each other’s entries (giving more than just a superficial glance). Peer evaluations will be included in each student’s final grade, and students will also get credit for providing evaluations. Hopefully this will provide motivation for the students to engage in each aspect of the group experience.
  • As much as I hate enterprise Learning Management Systems, I’ll probably end up having students post peer evaluations to the university’s LMS. I’ll make the evaluation an assignment, and only make it accessible in the LMS for a very short period of time during class. Also, a keyword will be associated with each peer evaluation, so that students who are not present in class cannot get credit just by signing in at the appropriate time and entering arbitrary values (barring bold and coordinated dishonesty). If a student is absent when he/she is selected to present, their peers will be instructed to give them a 0.
  • I understand that even with the best intentions, students cannot make it to every class period. However, I don’t want to have to be in a position to judge whether a certain absence was “excused” and make manual adjustments to participation- and peer-evaluation-based grades. Clearly, a parent’s funeral is a satisfactory excuse and a Justin Bieber concert the night before is not, but there is a lot of gray area in between. Rather than handling these case-by-case, I will allow for students to have two absences without impacting their grade–2 missed peer evaluations, 2 missed presentations, or 1 of each. They can use these absences however they please, but there will be no exceptions beyond that so they will be encouraged to use them wisely.

I’m really looking forward to teaching this class again, and I hope these ideas will make it an even better learning experience for everyone next time around!

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