On Tuesday, December 8, the Center for Educational Resources hosted the second offering in the new Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching series with two faculty presenting on their experiences in developing and facilitating research-based assignments.
Elizabeth Rodini, Director, Program in Museums and Society and Teaching Professor in the Department of History of Art, led off with a presentation [presentation slides pdf] Incorporating Research into Teaching: 10 tips (in no particular order). Rodini has taught many courses during her time at JHU with students doing research-based assignments. While in some of these students have produced research papers, in many cases the assignments have been less traditional.
- Teach Skills—begin with your librarians, who can help students learn basic research skills. Invite a librarian to your class. Other discipline-specific skills include close looking and reading, descriptive writing, proper handling of objects, and learning how to reach out to experts for help.
- Experiment with Format—move beyond the traditional research paper and have students make posters, create actual or virtual exhibitions (involves researching material, writing text, conceptualizing the whole), or develop an audio tour for an exhibition. Students learn alternative ways of presenting information (visual, oral) and can benefit from the potential public face of this work.
- Let Content Drive Form—make sure that the content and your learning goals drive the format rather than choosing the form first and trying to build around it.
- Smaller Is Often Better—doing too many projects in a semester can pose problems for you and your students. Consider how you can break one project into parts. Have students focus on doing one thing well.
- Focus on Building Blocks—drawing from the previous teaching skills and smaller is better ideas, consider having students do the background work of a research paper without writing it up. For example, they turn in an annotated bibliography, an outline, and abstract, an opening paragraph, or they produce a research portfolio on a particular topic, gathering and ordering the information, perhaps giving an oral presentation. This approach is particularly effective for younger students who are just learning research skills.
- Look to Other Disciplines—in a science lab, students have the opportunity to see project research as a collaborative process with contributors ranging from the senior faculty on down to undergraduates. This isn’t the case in the humanities. For humanities students the science lab model could be replicated in a group museum project, where the project research is conducted collaboratively toward a shared end with a public presentation. Some of the benefits: a “building block” approach to a project where different people contribute different things; students learn from/teach each other; use of a “lab meeting” format where students give regular, brief updates; and the professor can be part of the team, serving as a model for students.
- Be A Locavore—encourage students to work on objects/materials/texts we have here in Baltimore. Local venues offer opportunities to connect, see, work with relevant archival material, meet experts, and do original
- Vary The Feedback—writing comments on papers feels futile when you know they won’t be read. So try other things like oral presentations (use the final exam slot for this in a seminar), or poster sessions, and have outside experts come to these presentations to critique.
- Practice Asking Questions—another skill/building block that many students are lacking is how to ask new questions of texts and images. In one of my freshman classes we start on the first day with, “What can you observe about an old pair of shoes and what else do you want to know?” [See the educational exercise from an exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum, 50 Ways to Look at a Big Mac Box].
- Insist on Revisions—to eliminate useless final comments and make the project worthwhile you can incorporate revisions to work starting early in the semester. Students benefit from genuine critiques to which they must respond.
Joel Schildbach, Professor in the Department of Biology and KSAS Vice Dean for Undergraduate Education, presented [presentation slides pdf] on his research-based course Phage Hunting. The course description reads: “This is an introductory course open to all freshman regardless of intended major. No science background is required. This is … a year-long research-based project lab course in which students will participate in a nation-wide program in collaboration with undergraduates at other colleges. Students will isolate and characterize novel bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) from the environment using modern molecular biological techniques.”
The Hopkins Phage Hunters lab comes to JHU from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance – Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science program (SEA-PHAGES). HHMI provides training for instructors and teaching assistants and support for this program across the country. The program is based the work of HHMI Professor Graham Hatfull, University of Pittsburgh.
Negotiating the network to find available positions in research labs around the University can be difficult, particularly for incoming freshman. The goal of this course is to provide freshmen students with a lab experience in a small course setting. Enrollments in the sections are limited to 24 students. Work in the lab starts on the first day, when students bring in a sample of dirt. They then begin a process of isolating a bacteriophage. Because phages are so numerous, it is likely that each of the isolated phages will have not been previously identified. During the course students isolate the phage, purify the DNA, and use an electron microscope to identify it. Assuming their phage has not been previously identified, the student gets to name it and send the record to a national archive. One phage per section is selected for genetic sequencing. The process is both challenging and rewarding.
The benefits to students include experiencing a quick time from the start to seeing progress;, gaining comfort in a lab setting; learning to deal with the failures, repeating processes, and finally, sense of achievement that define lab research; having a sense of ownership of their work; and developing a community of peers.
Schilbach noted that the labs are staffed with both instructors and PhD-level teaching assistants. He stressed that for faculty seeking to implement similar programs, it is essential to have sufficient resources—budget and staff—to ensure success.
For more on this course, see the blog, JHU Phage Hunters, with posts authored by students and instructors.
In the discussion that followed, attendees asked questions and talked about the mechanics of collaborative work and grading group projects. Not all students like group work because they don’t have control over the process, yet many of them will be required to work in teams once they graduate into the workforce. There was consensus that, at least for humanities projects, groups of three were a good number. Larger groups may encourage a phenomenon one faculty member called “social loafing” where a team member relies on others to do the work. It was suggested using contracts for group work, which the students can create themselves, to define the roles and responsibilities of each team member and criteria for evaluation. These can be used at the end of the project for the students to grade themselves and each other. This can them supplement the instructor’s grade. It is also possible for students to work in a group, but submit individual assignments. Elizabeth Rodini pointed out that some group projects may bear more fruit than others, so it is important to have multiple aspects on which to assess students.
In a related discussion, Joel Schildbach was asked about how students deal with failure in the lab. For the phage hunting course, this has not been a big issue, as historically, almost all students have been successful. The idea of repeating a process until you get results is integral to scientific research and the students in the course generally embrace this concept. As to grading, Schildbach uses a multi-tiered grading system based on benchmarks and time lines. There are also graded presentations and a paper at the end of the semester. He noted that freshman first semester grades are covered, which allows students to take some risks.
In regards to managing a number of end of the semester presentations, when those are substituted for a traditional paper, it was suggested that the slotted exam time could be used. Sometimes students are willing to meet in a special session for these presentations, particularly if refreshments are provided. A poster session is an efficient way to handle a larger group of presentations, especially if you invite other faculty or outside experts to assist in the review process.
Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts & Sciences and Whiting School of Engineer faculty will receive email invitations for the forthcoming Lunch and Learn presentations. We will be reporting on all of the sessions here at The Innovative Instructor.
Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources
Image sources: Lunch and Learn logo by Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources. Other images were taken from the presentations by Elizabeth Rodini and Joel Schildbach.