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Looking to the future, learning from the past

Every semester, students evaluate their professors and their courses. At the University of Hawai’i, this is done through an online system called eCAFE. UH West O’ahu provides new faculty with suggestions from other faculty on how to get students to fill out the surveys. Many are what you would expect – provide class time for completing surveys, offer extra credit incentives, etc. One professors commented that every semester, they post their evaluations online and respond to student comments (especially the critical ones) – this shows students that their comments are read and considered, and it provides new students a chance to see what previous students have thought of this instructor and course. Since this was my first time teaching the large introductory Biol 171/172 sections at UH Mānoa, and since I may be returning in the Fall 2017 to teach the same courses, I decided to do the same.

You can read the full student responses for Biol 171 and Biol 172, and/or scroll through my summaries and responses below. Since the courses and the responses were rather similar, my descriptions below are summarized across both courses. Anything in italics is a direct quote of a student comment, followed by the course that student took in parentheses.

Humble Brag
I’ll start with a number of individual student comments which I found particularly amusing or meaningful. These are admittedly all cherry-picked; the most positive and articulate comments, hence the humble brag…

She made boring topics very interesting to listen to and learn about. (Biol 171) and Made plants sorta fun (which in and of itself is a hard task). (Biol 172) Thanks! I think…?

I liked the plant portion of the class best. (Biol 172)  YES! I converted one!!!! #botanistsunite

thank you for making me feel like I’m learning in a small classroom environment when it’s a huge lecture! (Biol 172) This was what I worried most about going into this semester, and the several comments like this made me feel I succeeded on that front.

I enjoyed how passionate how (sic) Laci was about the subject of biology. I also liked the atmosphere of the class, she does not make you afraid to give your answer even if it is not correct. (Biol 171). I want every student to feel this way, in every class, for the rest of my career. Science isn’t about having right answers, it’s about the process of getting to them. Never be afraid to be wrong.

This class was in the morning and professor Laci made the class so much more bearable with her nerdy quirks, insightful explanations, and interactive discussions. (Biol 171) Sometimes I think my nerdy quirks are my most effective teaching tool. That’s not at all a joke.

Loved this class! I know more about animal copulation and defecation than I ever thought I’d need to–and watching Finding Nemo will never be the same. Those are all wins in my book. #marthasmom (Biol 172) #yourewelcome

I felt very secure in her knowledge of the material and this facilitated a trust-based learning environment. She was also freaking hilarious and that doesn’t hurt either. (Biol 172) I never thought ‘trust-based learning environment’ and ‘freaking hilarious’ would end up in the same comment….

I really super enjoyed this course, and felt that Dr. Gerhart-Barley actually cared about our success in the class (which is something I can’t say about a lot of my professors this semester). (Biol 172) I get at least one comment like this ever semester and it always saddens me. Do that many professors really not enjoy teaching or care about the success of their students?

These next three almost make me tear up:
Dr. Gerhart taught with such passion, love, and care. She has truly left an impact in my life and I hope that she continues to do this for as long as she teaches. (Biol 172)

She really gave me a different perspective and outlook on not only biology, but life. (Biol 171)

i can tell this class means something to you and because of you it means something to me too. (Biol 172)

And the best in both classes:
She. Is. Flawless (Biol 171) and You’re perfect (Biol 172) awwww, shucks….

Me, Myself, and I
When the history of discoveries were taught with such passion, they became unforgettable. The content may have been difficult but it was very enjoyable to learn. (Biol 171)

I generally get positive results from the students about their interactions with me as an individual. I wondered how that would translate from my smaller (24 student) sections at UHWO to the 250+ students in 171 and 172 at UHM. It must have translated well because the vast majority of students commented on my enthusiasm and engaging lecture style, how much they enjoyed my personal stories, etc etc. For example, when asked what they liked best about the class, one student said The best part of the course was the interactions between the professor and the students. She did well to communicate with examples from her lifestyle and our lifestyles. (Biol 171) and another said  I love anything that sparked her passion the most, especially plants, because she got even more enthusiastic than usual and it was adorable. (Biol 172) and another said She made class fun but also thought provoking. (Biol 172) and another said Please never change your teaching style. You’re a perfect example of a how a professor should operate in a classroom. (Biol 172) and another said I enjoyed the enthusiasm that Laci brought to her lectures and to the classroom in general. She was always in a great mood, very engaging, and relatable to the students. You could tell she was passionate about the subject material as well as the success of her students. (Biol 171) and another said Laci Gerhart Barley made this class interesting and exciting. She is very easy to talk to and helpful without making the class easy. She has a great balance of being friendly and helpful, while also keeping the class a challenge. She makes students think and understand the material rather than just memorize vocabulary. This was so far my favorite class at UH Manoa (Biol 171).

One comment I particularly enjoyed:

I loved that you always had time for your students when we needed help outside of class and that you would always ask if we had questions and if we understood everything even when we didn’t respond. I really loved that you kept asking if we got it fully before moving on. (Biol 171) I’ve had students tease me about how often I say ‘Does that make sense?’ and in this class, they teased me about expecting a verbal response, but I appreciate their feedback in the moment (not later on an exam or homework) on how clear I’m being. Just asking that question makes their faces tell me the answer even if their voices don’t.

In fact, the only negative thing students said about me as an individual is that I sometimes should slow down in the lectures. They’re totally right – I talk faster the more excited I get. I’ve been working on slowing down for pretty much my whole professional life.

Preparing for Exams
The students overwhelmingly requested study guides (or practice exams). I have tried a number of ways to better guide student preparation for exams in the past. When I provided practice exams to my smaller sections at UHWO, they were a lot of effort on my part (you are writing two exams, and they need to be similar enough that completing one prepares you for the other, but different enough that they aren’t essentially the same) and no one did them. I switched to a study guide of a bullet-pointed list of terms, topics, and concepts and was impressed at the number of students that used the study guide, and did so effectively.
At UHM, I decided to piecemeal the standard study guide as learning objectives for each lecture – this way the students know for each chapter what they should be studying as we go, and don’t have to wait for a study guide closer to the exam. I explicitly stated this in class on about half the lectures and repeatedly reminded students who asked how to study for the exams throughout the semester. Only a few students commented on the learning objectives, and they alternately found them very helpful or too vague to usefully guide studying. Regardless, I could easily provide students in the future with a bullet-pointed list to guide their studying, though I’m not confident it will improve performance.

Exams Themselves
My exams for both courses consisted of 50 multiple choice questions (to be completed in a 50-minute class). Many students requested shorter exams, more exams covering less material, easier questions (ha ha), or inclusion of short-answer/essay questions. I spent many hours prior to the course weighing various options for the structure of the exams, and came to this decision not lightly or happily. While students frequently view multiple choice questions as easier, they can actually be much harder, as students frequently talk themselves out of the right answer. Also, writing good multiple choice questions that are not absurdly hard or painfully easy and get at complex topics can be difficult. They lend themselves a lot more easily to straight definitions or simpler concepts than critical thinking skills. This was especially troubling to me since the vast majority of their grades came from exams (which also frustrated many students).
Exams for my smaller sections are entirely essay, short answer, and a bit of matching or diagram labeling. In a class of 24, that format is manageable; however, this semester, I had over 520 students across 171 and 172, and only a part-time grading assistant for 171 (and no help for 172). I talked with many of my colleagues who teach larger courses about options for getting out of multiple choice questions, and including assignments other than exams without burying myself under a mountain of grading. In the end, I was wary of committing myself to a grading structure I couldn’t maintain, and instead chose to keep the same grade and exam structure that past instructors of these two sections have used.

Lectures and Activities
I better understood the matieral (sic) when we did hands on learning. I believe that the handout she gave us were very effective as they made us communicate with one another to understand the topic. (Biol 171)

I enjoyed the interactive discussions that took place in class. I appreciated her desire to stray from the traditional lecture class setting because I feel it personally helped me grasp the concepts taught in class by being able to apply it in discussion. (Biol 171)

Most of the class periods were fairly standard lectures, interspersed with iClicker (multiple choice) and open-ended discussion questions. I also sprinkled in a number of what I called Applying Concepts days – these were opportunities for us to catch up if we got behind on material, focus on local or historical issues (such as medical ethics or the ecological restoration of Kaho’olawe following its use as a military bombing range), or to do in-class group activities. Many 171 students really enjoyed the group activities and requested more of them. The 172 students were a bit more mixed. For example, this student comment, which I find kind of amusing: I didn’t like the interactive assignments, even though it was fun, I personally would have rather had a lecture. (Biol 172) I’m sorry you had fun, I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again…
I believe this difference is because of the content of the activities. In 171, they focused more on practicing particular skills – using Punnett squares to predict offspring genotypes/phenotypes, reading a codon table to determine the amino acid chain produced by a particular stretch of DNA, building a phylogenetic tree, etc. These were skills the students would need in order to answer exam questions, and it gave them the time to practice them beforehand with feedback (and I explicitly framed the exercises to them using this reasoning). The activities in 172 were focused more on applying class concepts to real world problems – effectiveness (or lack thereof) of genetically modified rice to solve nutritional deficiencies in third world countries, the relative merits and dangers of fad diets, etc etc. While I personally found these exercises more interesting, they are less obviously related to course content and showed up less frequently on exams, and therefor were less relevant to the students.
Regardless, the students seemed to overall enjoy the lecture style and the class structure generally. One student comment sums this up nicely: Her current teaching style is extremely effective. The combination of powerpoint lectures and in class activities are helpful in understanding the chapters and topics of this course. She breaks down the topics so that even people who know nothing about biology can understand. (Biol 171) The only mild exception to this was my debate to post my lectures online, and whether to do it prior to or after lecture. I want to share my lectures for students to study from later, but I know it encourages skipping. Also, I don’t want students to be able to see ahead to a point I’m building or a question I’m asking (hence waiting till after class to post them). I split the middle by posting my lectures prior to class, but removing answers to questions or spoilers to a story/example. Students disliked this; however, I will continue to do it because not coming to class means you don’t get all the information.

Homework on MasteringBiology
We use the standard Campbell’s Biology through Pearson, along with online homework assignments through MasteringBiology. I made the homework assignments not formally due until the exam date, though I strongly encouraged the students to complete them prior to the lecture to be prepared for that day’s content. A number of students requested the deadlines be prior to lecture, to which my general comment is that the homework is posted from day one and you can set your own earlier deadlines for completion if you like. Many students completed the homework early to stay up on material, while others chose to use it as a study guide before the exam. This one I will not change, simply because I would spend every morning responding to students who missed the homework deadline and want an extension. I already had many of those with the deadlines on the exams.
I also make the homework completion-based instead of grading for correct answers. Philosophically, I want to focus more on the process of thinking and learning and not just the right answer. I believe completion-based homework lowers the stress (especially since MasteringBiology takes off points for using hints or other aids provided by the system) and encourages the students to think through concept for themselves and learn from their mistakes or misconceptions (especially since MasteringBiology provides feedback on why wrong answers are wrong, or other information backing up the correct answer). The few students that commented on this seemed to agree: The fact that the mastering biology assignments were graded on completion made the assignments less stressful yet extremely helpful. The fact that she focuses more on knowledge and understanding rather than getting the answer right away. (Biol 171)

The Future
So, in summary, what will I do differently next time I teach these courses? Overall, I will probably keep a similar structure since my comments were overall quite positive. I’ll keep my ‘nerdy quirks’ and ‘adorable’ love of plants (as if I could get rid of them). I’ll keep posting my lecture slides and I’ll keep removing the answers and spoilers – students can add them in themselves during class. I’ll keep the completion-based homework with exam due dates (but remind students frequently they can do them early). I’ll keep all the activities in 171, and maybe add in some more. I’ll reevaluate the ones in 172; maybe I’ll make them more skill-oriented, or find a way to integrate them better with the rest of the course material (and the exams). I’ll try giving them a study guide and see if anyone uses or appreciates it. I will once again agonize over the reliance on multiple choice exams for the bulk of the grade and consider all the options I can find for getting around that. I don’t yet know what the outcome will be on that front, but I’m hopeful that I can find a structure that eases the exam anxiety for students without overloading myself on grading.

Discussing medical ethics and compassion: the story of Henrietta Lacks

Last week in my Biology 171 section, I decided to share a particularly difficult story with my students. We were nearing the end of the unit on cellular structure and function, which ends with the process of cellular division by mitosis. These chapters always focus quite a bit on cancer and the online homework for the textbook I use included a short ABC news segment about Henrietta Lacks.

The short version of the story is that Henrietta Lacks was treated for ovarian cancer at Johns Hopkins in 1951, during which cells from her tumor were taken without her knowledge or permission. Henrietta died about a year later, but her cells lived on as the first ‘immortal’ cell line (called HeLa) and exploded the opportunities for cellular research. HeLa cells were used to develop the polio vaccine, used to test effects of gravity and pressure for ocean and space exploration, put into nuclear bombs to test radiation effects, imaged and processed in countless ways to better understand cell division and genetic structure and their related diseases. Biomedical companies that sold HeLa made ample profit – you can buy a vial of HeLa online today for about $1,000. Henrietta’s descendants did not learn of this until the 1970s and have never been compensated, financially or otherwise. The long version of the story includes the multi-generational issues of distrust, anger, and indignation that arise not just from Henrietta’s story, but also from other atrocities like the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and the various eugenics movements throughout the United States that lead to the forced sterilization of thousands of women (and men), mostly of color. Which leads to my reasoning for telling these stories to my students:

I tell this story in particular, and others like to it, to my students for three reasons.
1) We don’t often discuss them explicitly, but all the topics we cover in class have a story behind them of who discovered that knowledge, and when, and where, and how, and with whose help (knowing or otherwise). Classes in English or History or Anthropology will teach students to analyze how aspects of race, sex, and gender affect events and perspectives – that is present in science too, even though we rarely talk about it with students.

2) I think we (the scientific community as a whole) often do a poor job of acknowledging and apologizing for our major screw-ups. The ABC video the homework includes paints the story as sort of tragic, but leading to so much good that even Henrietta’s descendants are ok with it now. A more in depth discussion with her family (like those in the recent book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) shows a much more complex emotional response. Johns Hopkins sort of apologized to the Lacks family, but the statement focuses more on the fact that Henrietta’s doctors didn’t do anything technically illegal. It is frustrating to me how easy and how common it is to fall into the “but we didn’t know any better at the time” or “but look how much good came of it” sorts of arguments.

3) The majority of my students intend to go into the various medical careers. I want them to know these stories so that they understand why some people are distrustful of doctors and the medical industry. It is not paranoia. There is a very real history of exploitation and injustice and I hope that knowing these stories will help make my students more compassionate towards their future patients.

As I was sharing all of this with my students, I got quite emotional and openly cried in front of all 300 of them. It was a little embarrassing, but I was amazed at the positive responses I got from them. After class, about a dozen students came up to talk more about Henrietta (and give me a hug). I received emails from about another dozen or so students sharing their own personal connections to the story. One student had volunteered in a health clinic and ran into just the sorts of mistrust by her patients that I mentioned. Another has family in the Philippines who pressure her not to go into medicine because of similar stories that happen there.

Another student, Michael Martinelli, was inspired by Henrietta’s story and our class discussion and wrote the poem below, which he performed at the UH Mānoa Poetry Slam that was held last week. He invited me to the event, and I am glad I attended. Michael’s reading was honest and open, and I think his poem does an excellent job of incorporating the different perspectives, and acknowledging the wrongdoing while still keeping a focus on compassion. His poem is reproduced with permission below.

Recently in Biology, I learned some disturbing history,
Usually, I don’t like to focus, on negative aspects,
But occasionally, it’s quite necessary,
I learned about HeLa cells, the implications,
Henrietta Lacks, was her name,
She was mistreated, quite a shame.
Then Tuskegee, and John Hopkins,
Unconsented infections, forced sterilizations,
Untreated diseases, inhuman conditions,
Unbelievably, a complete disgrace,

If you haven’t heard, research it,
You wouldn’t believe me, if I relate.

What can we learn, from this story,
Mistrust and hate, in our society?

Let’s not travel, down that treacherous path,
Let’s together create, a new legacy,
Don’t turn a blind eye, don’t be afraid,
Passive inaction, condones misdeeds,
Allows excuses, for terrible behavior,
Allows horrendous, immorality.

Some might argue, “For scientific progress,
Look at all the help, that we’ve provided,
Saved a lot of lives, it’s justified.
If we hadn’t done, what we did,
We would be behind, half a century.”

That’s a slippery slope, where do you draw the line,
Lets use some common sense, and practicality,
If your that passionate, about your studies,

Test first on yourself, let us know how it goes.

Others might ask, “How do I make a difference?
I’m but one person, in a world full of injustice”.

However, don’t lose faith in our society,
Like a pebble in a pond, ripples travel far,
What seems miniscule, can make a world of difference,
Lets set an example, for our future,
Instill some morals and ethics, in our young,
Teach them about, our history,
Not just the good, but uncaring misdeeds.

I commend our teacher, Dr. Gerhart Barley,
In using her position, to spread some knowledge,
Lets learn from our mistakes, the world is ours,
For better or worse, it’s a conscious decision,
With that in mind, lets be a society,
Of unprecedented love, and soulful caring.

#MarthasMom Final Results

The extra credit fruit versus veggie weekend is over – and I have all your favorite #MarthasMom posts right here!

To start off, I want to give a shout-out to my friends who joined in the movement without any extra credit incentive in the class. I even found a good example of my own, courtesy of the Safeway dairy aisle.

My students also found a lot of good examples!

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I particularly enjoyed the students that tested their friends’ knowledge of fruits and veggies. It seems there’s always someone that just prefers meat regardless…

Fruits, vegetables, and #MarthasMom

Today in my Biology 172 class at UH-Mānoa, we covered the life cycle of angiosperms. This comes at the end of a week full of complicated and frustrating life cycles, traits, and structures of different plant groups. Many of the terms (gametophyte? endosperm? sporangia?) and concepts (double fertilization, waaat?) are new and rather foreign to the students. Thus, it adds a little levity to the class when we get to my favorite game on angiosperm day: fruit or vegetable?

Officially, fruits are the mature ovary of a flower, which protects dormant seeds and assists in their dispersal. The common perception of fruits as sweet and dessert-like means that lots of things people colloquially refer to as vegetables are actually fruits. For example, all of the following are fruits: nuts, beans, olives, peppers, squash, pumpkin, pickles, and the list goes on!


Correction: nasty, bitter, evil FRUITS!

This mis-identification problem is rampant in grocery stores and social media, and pointing it out is a favorite insufferable know-it-all pastime of mine. As an example in class today, I showed a screenshot from my friend Martha’s Facebook page where she had posed a question about people’s opinion of bell peppers. Numerous people discussed their preference of these ‘vegetables,’ but Martha’s mother-in-law Linda brought us hope for humanity when she knew they were part of the nightshade family, Solanaceae, which also includes potatoes (vegetable), tomatoes (fruit), and eggplant (fruit). For the record, I did refrain from being an insufferable know-it-all this time, and calling everyone out on Martha’s wall.

I’m about to accidentally call them all out, though, in a much more public way.  I gave my students an impromptu extra credit opportunity: observe your own example of mis-identification of a fruit as a vegetable and share it to social media with a hashtag that I can track. We discussed several options for hashtags, and voted on the popular ones. The overwhelming first choice was #MarthasMom. I had not actually told Martha or Linda that they would be featured in my class today, but fortunately they both are amused by the notoriety.

So, keep an eye out on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (or on all of them at Tagboard, which I just learned about today!) for my students and their #MarthasMom posts over the holiday weekend. In fact, feel free to join the movement if you see an example yourself! I’ll screenshoot some of them to post here next week for all our enjoyment.