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Fall 2021
Facilitated by Cam Grey, Classical Studies, and Andrew Rappe, Chemistry


Cam Gray

Intro courses in Classics serve a number of different purposes:

  • Anchor the major
  • A sector requirement (for students who may never take another course like this)
  • Place to train graduate students for their own teaching

Over the course has shifted his thinking about intro courses

  • They do not need to be encyclopedic
  • Instead use lectures to help students develop skills they need to think like someone in the discipline.  
  • Evaluations often reflect student disappointment with the lack of coverage but the process is more intellectually satisfying to teach.

Andrew Rappe

  • Intro courses reach students who have to take the course (for a variety of different reasons from other majors to med school) and those who are interested because they are majors.
  • Create a course atmosphere that invites dialog and curiosity -- the attitude “we are learning together”
  • Think about ways to get lessons to focus on cutting edge science or on the everyday
  • Perform the way the discipline thinks about what we know “these are the answers we have now but we will have better ones eventually” -- do not pretend you know everything
  • When students have to solve problems help them see why these problems matter 
  • Create a climate that is friendly to students.  Talk to them when you walk into class (“how’s it going?”  talk about stuff not related to class itself and learn names.)
  • Have a lesson plan (so that you can help students see the structure of what you are doing) but make that plan flexible enough that you can follow student interests and curiosity.
  • Talk with students about why you do what you do (that is how will the different parts of class help them learn and provide evidence for why you think that.)


Q:  How do your courses change if you are teaching different types of intro students (ie. regular intro, honors intro, and special program (like Vagelos) intro)?

  • Some general education courses students need certain content (for pre-med for example) so can’t completely jettison content in favor of skill building
  • In honors courses, just add a project -- one that demands that the students investigate their own interests but add support (in chemistry support for computation for example) but also be aware that there are skills (like reading scholarship) that they need help with.
  • For special program: consider the needs of that program so for the VIPER program students need intro but also ethics and group stuff.

Q: How do you think about lectures?  How do you make them useful for students? (who may not be as good at paying attention as they might have been)

  • Begin with a question and use lecture to explore that question (can feel a little improvisational)  have a set of slides that create a backbone but think about lecture as a bit of call and response
  • Provide multiple ways for students to interact.  Using chat can be one mode -- find ways to make chat public even in live classes.
  • Group discussed using poll everywhere (learn more about Poll Everywhere here and learn more about the specific pinned Q&A feature that can be useful for this kind of activity.)
  • Help students see the value of being attentive in lecture by making sure that what you discuss in class shows up on the exam.
  • Break up lecture and allow students to practice the skills you model
  • Use groups -- have students divide into teams of 4 and each person has a job: one reporter, one discussion manager, one note taker, one cheer leader (or whatever jobs seem useful).  Give them something concrete to talk about or a problem to solve.  
  • Use pair discussion and then poll them (can use Poll Everywhere but also can just have students hold up cards with letters on them) to give students time to practice with questions. (The pair work helps them feel better about answering.)
  • Break up assignments into segments so that if you do have students doing a project they turn it in in stages.  Don’t have to grade every stage (turn into canvas and set it complete/incomplete)

Q: How do you integrate textbook and lecture?

In some cases just don’t assign textbook at all instead

  • Lectures become the place where students learn (so students don’t choose read the text or go to lecture)
  • Videos students watch outside class -- students watch before they come to class and then can use class time to talk about things they found challenging or confusing. Instructors don’t feel the pressure to “cover” everything because the videos do that work.
  • Use open source lecture notes (which include problems students can solve)
  • Give students handouts for each lecture that clearly delineates what students can expect from that lecture on the exam.

In some cases continue to use textbook

  • express to students that the text book is insufficient to understand what they have to do
  • Introduce textbook mid-way through semester to help students prepare for their projects (or begin the exploration of their projects)
  • Text book can be a safety net for students
  • Reading a text (an online one curated specially for the class) can help students get ready to attend lecture -- they may be confused by the reading and being in class can help them.  Also having the text under the faculty’s control allows them to set the students’ expectations for a more rigorous class (is somewhat time consuming but worth it.)

Q:  What about assignments? (a big part of this section of the discussion was about student attitudes toward assignments.  There was a sense that students often only did things that got “points” but that was not always a useful attitude but also that if assignments didn’t have points students either didn’t trust them or didn’t feel like they were a good learning tool. 

  • Some classes provided lots of small assignments that students could choose from but that seemed like too much choice (but did provide options)
  • No credit assignments provided as a resource but not mandatory
  • Guided reading questions provide students some support in their reading (but sometimes students believed that answering the guided questions was enough and needed to understand that these questions were just a start.)
  • Open ended assignments that allow students to explore topics and let them show the skills they developed in class (for one class exam is only 25% and the rest is other types of assignments.)

Q: Do you record your lectures and post them?

In some cases yes and in some no but a sense that this is a helpful support for students (and not just when they need to be absent).  Still students need to know that watching the lecture is not the same as being there to answer questions.

Q: How do you manage TAs (and undergraduate LAs)?

This topic reflected a lot of struggle.

  • Many admitted that they didn’t feel confident in their TAs and LAs and so tended to micro manage them (ie be overly prescriptive about what recitation had to cover) others used TAs and LAs largely for problem solving sessions where students worked in groups (so smaller and more conversational).  Want to ensure consistency in recitation and in grading.
  • Others recognized that they had a significant professionalizing element of their work with graduate students so allowed them some latitude in recitation and also involved them in planning student assignments and exam questions (also helped to make sure everyone was on the same page in terms of grading.)
  • Send TAs to CTL workshops (and those who are working in interactive ways to SAIL TA training)
  • Make sure TAs attend lecture and also have regular meetings with them.
  • Have TA work with students in Zoom breakout rooms.
  • Some departments have enough TAs that they can assign two to every recitation.
  • Helpful to have a senior TA who can work with others alongside you.

Q: How do you get Penn students to be curious?

  • Feeling that Penn students often are good at repeating facts but not yet good at the kinds of creative thoughtful questions that will help them learn.
  • Help students learn to ask good questions (Computer science uses a tool called Office Hours Queue (OHQ you can learn more here) and that tool allows them to give students feedback on their questions (early in the semester) and drop them from the queue if they are asking un-useful questions.
  • Tell students they don’t need a question to come to office hours (everyone should come! Give them chocolate for coming)  and that they can learn by listening to other students’ questions.
  • Let students work on the board and show each other what they are doing.
  • Model asking good questions.  Some folks start with a question and then use the lecture to show how that question isn’t useful or the right one to ask and show how they got to a better one by the end.  
  • In class, ask questions yourself and be OK with not knowing the answer (but then follow up with student if you find the answer or find some folks working on the answer)
  • Hold a session with your TAs where you model academic discussion so that students see the ways that questions can have multiple answers.