CAE Methods & Materials:
A "Newbie" Instructor's Perspective
Joe Kabbes; Harper Community College
This Month's Teaching Strategy comes to us from Joe Kabbes (Harper Community College). We met Joe at our CAE Teaching Excellence Workshop in St. Louis last summer. Joe was gearing up to teaching Astro 101 for the first time, and thought he might pick something up he could use. Well, at the end of his first semester, to tell me about his experiences, and I thought it would be nice if he shared them will all of us. I think Joe's experiences are very similar to most of ours when we try something new for the first time, and he provides us with insight into how he worked through some of his initial struggles. Thanks, Joe, for sharing your experiences with us! I'm sure they will be helpful to many!
In the fall of 2008 I had the good fortune to join the faculty of Harper Community College (Palatine, IL) as an adjunct Astronomy 101 instructor. Prior to that time, my teaching experience was focused on corporate computer training and public outreach activities in astronomy. While some level of assessment was done at the corporate level, it was more of a pass-fail continuing education process than a graded college credit course.
During my corporate work I encountered the Understanding by Design (UbD) process (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). With a background in engineering, this approach of clearly defining desired educational outcomes and the iterative development of material to reach those outcomes resonated with me, and substantially improved my corporate training courses. Years later, as I prepared to teach astronomy, I went looking for similar resources and found a treasure trove in Astronomy Education Review (AER) journal, and through that the Center for Astronomy Education (CAE). As a result I attended the CAE workshop as part of the spring AAS meeting in St Louis in May, 2008.
During the workshop Gina Brissenden and Ed Prather did a wonderful job of conveying the process of interactive education. The material was well focused on clear, limited learning goals of the sort emphasized by Partridge (2008), and Partridge and Greenstein (2004), in AER articles on the content of Astro 101. The goal-oriented task approach of the various methods employed—Think-Pair-Share questions and Lecture-Tutorials in particular—worked well with my view of the UbD concepts. Gina and Ed also emphasized the distinction between factual knowledge and topical understanding, and drove home the point that we Astronomy 101 instructors should strive for improved understanding. Coming from the performance based realm of corporate training, I was an eager convert.
Despite arranging to have the CAE Lecture-Tutorial (L-T) text bundled with our primary text, there was initial resistance to acquiring the L-T manual. (After all, once used it cannot be sold back.) That resistance evaporated after the first exam, once it became clear that the test material was derived from the L-Ts. The other aspect of resistance was the group or peer instruction aspect of the L-Ts, particularly on the part of the better students. We quickly adopted the rule that once an individual finished, he was to locate and work with someone who had not. While this extended the time frame for completion somewhat, it proved to be a workable compromise. I would also rate the difficulty of each L-T as we began, and the harder ones prompted group work more quickly. The L-Ts became a part of the course culture such that a lecture without an L-T (there was one) caused students to complain "Where was the Lecture-Tutorial?"
Instead of having individuals answer questions in class, I made use of question voting with the ABCD cards. In this way every member of the class became engaged in the Q&A process. As I experienced in the CAE workshop, the simple process of committing to an answer gets students invested in the outcome. Question voting became so ingrained that any PowerPoint slide with ABCD bullets sent students scurrying for their cards.
The course also made heavy use of assessment questions derived from the sample exams on the CAE website. Quite simply, those tests were difficult, but good results were attainable. The depth of those questions was such that it was impossible to simply regurgitate memorized responses. That opinion was borne out by exam retakes, where the same questions were simply reframed. Those students who did not comprehend the material missed the same questions the second time around, despite a detailed post-exam review prior to the retake. Fortunately many of the students did master the concepts, and there was no need for exam retakes by the third hourly.
More than one student initially commented on the course as being far more difficult and different from what they had ever experienced. Such students typically had good grades in other courses prior to Astro 101, but struggled initially with a course that wasn't based on memorization of facts. Despite a rocky start, many of those same students became quite capable with the various Astro 101 concepts. Watching the understanding bloom was a true joy for me!
With this experience, I am looking forward to my next "Universe in 12 Weeks" class. There are, of course, things I can do better, but the goals and methods of CAE program will continue to provide the foundation of my course.
Partridge, B (2008), What To Drop From A One-Semester Version Of "Astro 101," Astronomy Education Review, 6(2), 127-129.
Partridge, B., & Greenstein, G. (2004), Goals for "Astro 101,": Report of Workshops for Department Leaders, Astronomy Education Review, 2(2), 46-89.
Wiggins, G. P. & McTighe, J.(2005), Understanding by Design, Arlington: VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.