Steps Towards Teaching (GAANN Report #2)

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

As GAANN Fellows, we had the following goals for the Spring 2020 semester:

  1. Get more experience with the course management system;
  2. Conduct problem sessions;
  3. Complete another teaching seminar course (ITSC 8665);
  4. Continue developing our personal websites and teaching portfolios; and
  5. Attend at least one CTL workshop and write a report reflecting on what we have learned.

I have completed these goals and will reflect on my experiences here.

Assisting ITCS 6162/8162

This semester, I began helping out with Dr. Ras’s Knowledge Discovery in Databases (KDD) course. I supported the TA, Yuehua Duan, in both proctoring and grading the midterm exams. After returning grades back to students, I also provided feedback and answered anyone’s questions through email. KDD is taught traditionally with paper exams, so that was another hurdle to pass over when everything moved online. Furthermore, I have offered weekly office hours leading up to finals to help answer students questions about the final project and practice problems. As this semester comes to a close, I am also supporting Yuehua in grading the final projects and exams.

Teaching Seminar

This semester’s teaching seminar was led by Dr. Maher. I enjoyed the way this course was set up in the way that we, as students, were given the power to choose what topics were covered. We were given groups at the very beginning of the semester and then, with our groups, selected the subjects that interested us. We would then have to prepare and lead that week’s module.

My group’s topic was engaged and inclusive teaching, which we presented on April 7th. For the class, we had to prepare a learning module on Canvas to introduce the topic, describe the preparation work required, and specify the homework to be done after class. We also edited this after our actual presentation to include a link to the slides and class discussion (which we added as additional notes to the slides).

The slides can be seen here, and the learning guide can be downloaded below.

One section of our learning module on Canvas.

To prepare for the class, my group put together a teaching plan document. This included the activities we planned to do along with estimated time frames for each. To begin, we introduced the topic and held a short discussion about the videos watched as preparation homework. We wanted to use this as a way to check if everyone did the preparation work to begin with, and also to hear everyone’s opinions about the big ideas presented.

After the presentation, we gave the class a Kahoot! quiz with various questions. Kahoot! is a type of gamified, personal response system (PRS), similar to PollEverywhere. We chose this platform in hopes that it would help spark engagement – especially with everything being in an online format, as opposed to our typical in-person class. The questions we provided were a mixture of multiple-choice questions to ones that could have longer answers and (hopefully) spark some class discussion. When designing the Kahoot!, we tried to keep Bloom’s Taxonomy in mind by providing more of the memorization-type questions at the beginning, with the more open-ended, evaluation type questions at the end. Lastly, we tried to add some competition by stating ahead of time that the students in the top three places wouldn’t have to do the homework.

Finally, we held group discussions using WebEx’s “breakout groups” feature to discuss the following:

  1. Based off of what you learned today, brainstorm some ideas with your group on how to engage students in your class.
  2. Think about some challenges you have experienced in your own education, and come up with a strategy for dealing with it as a teacher.

After about 15 minutes, we got back together to discuss this as a whole class. Once again, some of the main points taken from the discussion were added to the presentation slides.

Some Challenges and Lessons Learned

One aspect of leading this module that I really struggled with was the fact that it was through the online format. After classes were all moved online, our group had to rethink our original plan for this module. Just this in itself took quite a bit of consideration and made me really think about the challenges that instructors must have had trying to adapt their whole courses (rather than just one module).

Another part of online teaching that I did not think about beforehand was the inability to receive any visual feedback from students. When I TA’d in the past, I realized that I relied a lot on visual cues to see how students were reacting and to adjust my own actions accordingly. However, with this online format, it was much more challenging to do that. With WebEx, there is the option to show “reactions,” such as adding clapping or smiling icons beside our names. However, this is still very different from the feedback we receive in-person. This is something I would probably need to think more about in the future to come up with potential strategies for dealing with this shortcoming.

CTL Workshops

We originally had to attend two workshops provided by the Center for Teaching and Learning. However, due to the COVID-19 changes, some of our required teaching requirements have been reduced, including attending just one workshop.

I attended one CTL workshop titled #KeepTeaching: End-of-Semester Alternate Assessments and Projects on April 9th. My reflection on this workshop is written in more here.

In summary, we learned about ways to break down large assessments (such as exams or final projects) into smaller and more frequent pieces. One goal of this practice is to help reduce students’ stress, especially during this already stressful time. As I’ve also written in my reflection, this reminded me of the idea of scaffolding. This is basically the process of breaking something down into more manageable steps so that students can have smoother learning pathways and not get overwhelmed. While this workshop was geared towards instructors trying to adapt to online courses, I believe these methods could be practiced in any type of class.

One additional workshop I attended was #KeepTeaching: Mapping Student Workload for Online Activities and Assessments, also on April 9th.

In this workshop, I learned of the importance of trying to estimate the time it would take for students to accomplish their assigned tasks. Something that was brought to our attention was just the complexity of attempting to determine these lengths of time. What we might initially think only takes 30 minutes could end up taking much longer. For example, we may give students a 30-minute video to learn a given topic. However, outside of just watching that video, the student may need to watch it again a few times to really get a grasp on the content. After that, they may need to spend even more time talking to classmates, asking questions, or going to tutoring to improve their understanding. By the time all of this happens, it seems quite easy for what seems like a 30-minute activity to really take a few hours.

This reminded me of when I TA’d for ITSC 1212 under Dr. Dorodchi a few years ago. When I first started making activities for the class, I would test the activity myself to try to determine the time taken. However, I learned early on that that was a poor estimate. I had to learn to think more from the students’ perspectives.

Some Final Thoughts

In general, I have enjoyed this semester and have hopefully taken substantial steps towards teaching. I appreciated the way our teaching seminar course was set up, as it gave us some experience with designing and teaching a course module on our own.

It was also a new experience to get more involved with the KDD course, even if my actual interaction with students was limited due to the COVID-19 changes (i.e., everything going online). It was also quite nerve-racking having my first office hours for a course I was less familiar with. When the first student joined WebEx, I kept wondering if I’d be able to successfully help them. It turned out well, though, and is something I have been able to get more comfortable with.

Finally, I’ve continued to update my personal website, most notably adding sections to list my teaching experiences, research, and service (though this last page is still definitely a work in progress!). There is still much to be improved on, but I will continue to make updates as I grow. I have enjoyed working with students, and I am definitely looking forward to getting more experience in the future.

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