My spring 2016 teaching reflection

18 May

I love to hear from students at the end of the semester how they felt the semester went. It provides me an opportunity to reflect on my teaching style and to focus on areas where I can improve. In the interest of complete disclosure, I’ve embedded the aggregate teaching evaluations here, and below that, I’ve written some thoughts about the semester

Overview

This semester surprised me in some ways: I expected much poorer reviews in LMC 3412 than I got (my first 5/5 overall effectiveness rating!). But it reassured me in others: My efforts to get students in LMC 3403 comfortable with an environment of uncertainty largely paid off. Below, I briefly describe the two courses I taught, share what was difficult about them this semester, consider what appeared to work, and report some student comments that I most appreciated.

Brief course descriptions

I taught two courses this semester: LMC 3403 Technical Communication, Theory and Practice, which had the theme “Responsible End-User Licensing Lab”; and LMC 3412 Communicating Science and Technology to the Public, which had the theme “Writing the Law of Science and Technology.” I had very small classes, ten students in LMC 3403 and only seven in LMC 3412.

LMC 3403 was experimental for me. I took the approach of spending the first few weeks of the semester doing two things: (a) acquainting students with basic tech comm theory and genres; and (b) acquainting students with a “problem space” that I intended to be the grounds for their final projects. The problem space was the issue of end-user license agreements (EULAs) and terms of use (TOU) on websites, in mobile apps, and in consumer products with embedded software. After we wrote a couple grant applications relating to this subject matter together, the students grouped and picked their own empirical research projects (though one group worked on developing a project website instead–more on that in a future post).

LMC 3412 was essentially a repeat of WRIT 4431, which I taught at University of Minnesota in spring 2015. My version of the class is closely based on the one developed by Professor Mary Schuster there (my Ph.D. adviser). My goal with the course was two-fold: (a) train students to understand (and to a certain extent, to practice) the ways that the law is constructed in written genres, especially court opinions, statutes, and contracts; and (b) help students to develop a basic understanding of three areas where science and technology interact with the law–privacy, copyright and patents, and medicine/healthcare.

What was hard

I’m still learning how to work with Georgia Tech students. They just feel different than students I had at University of Minnesota–both undergrads and law students–though they seem more like Minnesota’s law students in terms of their drive and poise. My Tech students have not been afraid of intellectual challenges; in fact, they seem to relish them. But they are very focused on knowing where they stand, what their grade is so far, etc. Unfortunately, my goal in LMC 3403 is to use “ill-structured problems” to scaffold their problem-solving skills in the communication context. That means forcing the students to work in an environment of uncertainty, not just about what the solution is, but about what the problem is. I tried to find a balance in LMC 3403, where I provided continual feedback to students about their grades at the same time that I encouraged them not to worry about specific deliverables.

In LMC 3412, the challenge was the class size: seven students is too small for a discussion-focused class on a challenging topic. If there are two or three quiet students and one or two of the more talkative ones just pulled all-nighters for tests/projects in other classes, any given class session could be quite quiet from the students’ side. Generally, this group did great, though. But more students would mean fewer silences. To prepare for this possibility in future, I’d plan to have more class activities designed to get the students moving and talking, even if they had not done the readings for that day.

What went well

LMC 3403 proved to be an amazing group of students who really embraced the flexibility of the REUL Lab approach, despite its uncertainty. My goal is to create a “continuous course lab,” where students bring their varied disciplinary backgrounds to study (and perhaps solve) problems regarding a problem space in technical and professional communication. The lab and is projects continue from semester to semester, with students in any given semester receiving projects from the previous semester and  handing them off to the next semester. This semester was a first test of the model: Three groups of students started projects, two of them empirical research projects and one a project website, that they knew they’d be handing on to students in my fall-2016 section of LMC 3403. I’ll post later about what these students accomplished and what we will be doing going forward. The students helped me write grant proposals to extend this approach next year; one was funded. (I’ll post on the continuous course lab concept and the grant-funded project soon.)

The students loved that they were working on “real” problems and that their work would actually be put to use by future sections of 3403.

LMC 3412 surprised me. Despite the sometimes difficult moments of having to coax comments out of such a small group, they apparently valued the content and approach. For one assignment, I had the students write a predictive memorandum about a legal question (having to do with fair use in copyright). I swear that a couple of the student efforts were as good as the top efforts I’d expect from law students at the end of the first semester of legal writing. (I taught such a course at Minnesota’s law school for eight years.) What a thrill it was to read such thoughtful papers!

For the second semester in a row, I received a “Thanks for Being a Great Teacher!” certificate, resulting from a student submitting a comment to CETL. My favorite bit from the student’s comment was “you teach in a way that ignites interest and promotes learning.” I’ll take that!

Student comments I appreciate most

Among the student comments I most appreciated (either because they were kind to me or provided useful, constructive criticism) are these:

  • LMC 3403 student regarding instructor strengths: Instructor “is very well prepared for every class and has everything organized for the students. He is very willing to provide feedback and lets you know where you stand in the class with grades. I have never received this amount of helpful feedback from any other professor at GT.” I spend a lot of time on course prep and building a “course pack” before the semester begins. I think it pays off.
  • LMC 3403 students on desired improvements: (1) “Less readings for the course. We had a lot of readings that we often didn’t go over in class.” (2) “The only thing that I wish was done differently that could be improved in the future is how the reading assignments were scheduled. All of the reading material was helpful, but knowing exactly which articles would be discussed in class for that day and mentioning how long it is estimated to take to read all of it would be helpful. That way I could plan more in advance and contribute more to in class discussions.” In fall 2016, I’m planning to work much harder to get the students to draw explicit connections from the readings to the problems they are working to understand. Overall, I find that my (mostly biz and STEM) Georgia Tech students are not as keen on reading longer essays as my (mostly liberal arts) Minnesota students were.
  • LMC 3412 students regarding desired improvements: (1) “More out of class assignments/project.” (2) “More variance in class type/assignments.” This also came up in the lass class session, when I debriefed students about the semester. When I teach this class, or a variant of it, in future, I’ll plan a little less reading of court opinions and a little more interactive work to get the students “out into the world.” I think in future I’ll reduce the number of legal topics from three (privacy, copyright/patent, and medicine) to two or even one to focus better. At present, I’m thinking of shaping it as “Writing the law of digital media,” as digital media is a research interest for me and is generally of interest to Tech students.
  • LMC 3412 students regarding instructor strengths: (1) “Larson was very interactive and always had insight that could be offered to help us understand the material. (2) ” The feedback on assignments were helpful on figuring out how the work can be taken further, along with the revised submission giving opportunity for students to apply the feedback and make improvements.” (3) “Being able to communicate very tough legal language to the layperson” As for interactivity, I don’t like to lecture, so no surprise there. My continuing view that any communication course must focus on feedback and revision comes with a cost to me (more grading) but also comes with great payoffs (much better final products from students and student appreciation of the chance to revise). I intend to keep it up!
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