I have chosen to reflect on last semester’s performance for one of the courses I coordinate and teach: Science Communication.
This first year undergraduate course consists of a combination of lecture and tutorial sessions, although the lecture slots are rarely used for lectures alone. Many guests are invited in during the semester to speak on various relevant topics, usually with an associated activity. The course is assessed by 100% coursework (8 elements).
The main aims of this course were to:
This was the first time I had taught this course, and I soon became aware that one of the issues is that the aim to “translate complex scientific language into lay terms that can be understood by the general public” and to “synthesise” scientific information is rather ambitious for first year science undergraduates. These students have not yet learned to write scientifically, so at present their experience is often closer to that of the general public’s than to a scientist’s. It became clear that the more important skill to teach was the collection, reading and understanding of scientific information by the students, not the public.
For this reason I was especially interested to see the results of the student feedback survey for this course.
There was a 50% response rate for the survey, with a female bias in respondents (the class was fairly even, but 70% of responses were from females).
Responses to the general questions about the quality of the course and teaching were good; medians and modes were all 4 or 5 (agree/strongly agree) with only one exception (‘encouraged interest in course’ – 4/3).
I then quantified the responses to the key questions by highlighting key words, categorizing them and then tallying the number of times each category was mentioned (see Table 1)
This was an extremely useful exercise, in that immediately certain elements jumped out as being the most frequently mentioned.
When asked “What did you like best about the course?” 40% of respondents referred to the interactiveness of the sessions. I was very happy to see this, as I made considerable effort to change what were scheduled as lecture slots into more varied sessions with some lecture and some role play or other activities. The students had responded reasonably well in class, but I sensed some reluctance at times, so I was pleased that overall so many specifically enjoyed this element. In preparation for next year, I plan to return to my lesson plans and notes to decide which activities were most successful and which could be improved or expanded.
I was also delighted that the Guest Lecturers were appreciated by at least 15% of students. We have about 6 guest sessions during the course, including from NIHERST, freelance science communicators, patent lawyers and education officers, and speakers vary in their style, content and interactiveness. I had some concerns about the lack of continuity that inevitably follows, but I think this is compensated by the variety of perspectives that they offer. I will certainly be keeping this element next year, but will be thinking carefully about who to invite and in which order to schedule them for best flow.
The next question was “What did you least like about the course?” in response to which a huge 71% of students mentioned the large number of assignments. This is an ongoing issue with this course, as I understand it. As it is 100% coursework, there is always going to be more coursework than in other courses. To mitigate this, students are clearly advised at the start of the course that time management will be key, and deadlines and requirements are clearly laid out from Day 1, in class and on myelearning.
Another step taken last year to alleviate the strain on students was to make 6/8 assignments topic-based, which means that much of the subject-specific research overlaps between assignments, and what they are varying is how the information is communicated (different media and audiences) – which is of course one of the main Learning Objectives of the course. Despite this, last semester there was an incident where through lack of communication one of the Guest Lecturers set a small additional assignment without warning – it didn’t count for many marks, but still added to their workload. I will ensure this does not happen again.
Interestingly 23% of respondents didn’t like the timing of assignments, and 10% complained about the weighting of marks between assignments. I will certainly reassess these aspects, as they are much easier to modify than the number of assignments. For example, the blog assignment required 8 posts over the semester, and this could reasonably be reduced to 5, and could be started earlier, too.
The question ‘How would you improve the course?’ corresponds well with the responses above, with 29% suggesting fewer assignments, and 47% proposing changes to either the spacing or weighting of the assignments. As mentioned above the latter two solutions are more feasible and will be incorporated as appropriate.
The exercise of reflecting systematically on this feedback, keeping in mind the Gibb’s Model of reflective practice, rather than simply reading and reacting subjectively/emotionally to it, has been incredibly useful. My first read of the comments in January simultaneously left me feeling proud about the good comments and annoyed at the less positive points – neither of which are constructive reactions as they don’t lend themselves to a ‘what next’. Here, I have identified a number of specific considerations and realistic modifications to the course that I am now ready to implement in time for next year’s course.
I found the Evaluation Resources provided by the University of Sydney extremely useful in guiding me through this reflection
This is a place where I can reflect upon both on my teaching experiences as a new lecturer, and on my learning experiences as a student on the Certificate of University Teaching and Learning course.