Assignment-centered teaching

Screen shot 2013-05-02 at 3.59.28 PMI have been attending teaching workshops given by the graduate teaching community (GTC) at UC Davis for over a quarter now. Last quarter’s workshops focused on course design, which couldn’t have come at a better time as I was in the process of taking charge of a comparative vertebrate anatomy lab section (EVE105, see description here). Throughout the workshop series, I learned to think critically about the goals for my lab section and how key decisions such as what assignments I give, how I grade, and how I structure the lab period can affect what students actually get out of the course. I gave a workshop on techniques for designing courses with large non-lecture course components (such as labs) called: “Chunk-o-time course design.” Eventually the blog post on my workshop will be found here.

This quarter we are discussing effective grading techniques guided by readings from the book Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment by Barbara E. Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson. Today we will be discussing chapter 2 on coverage- versus assignment-centered course design. In super short summary, the authors argue that assignment-centered courses “increase the chance that professor and students will move from mere coverage of material to the kinds of evaluation, analysis, application and synthesis embodied in the best kinds of assignments.” They make a good case that most of us, when handed a textbook, would sit down and design the syllabus by assigning chapters to each week, with midterms and finals interspersed that cover the material assigned prior to them. This is the typical coverage-based approach. On the other hand, the assignment-based approach starts with explicit higher-level learning goals, then requires you to figure out the assignment that best matches each goal (while taking into account feasibility, time invested in grading, etc), followed by timing of the assignments and identification of the necessary material and skills that must be covered prior to the assignment. In other words, you basically work backwards to the foundational material or the general coverage part of the course.

In the spirit of this chapter, I thought I would begin the suggested exercise of writing out explicit learning goals, assuming that I will be teaching a comparative vert lab again someday soon.

By the end of this course I want students…

1) To become morphological problem solvers, using what they have learned about the homology and functional significance of structures to place organisms phylogenetically and infer something about their diet, habitat, locomotion, etc.

2) To recognize the underlying structural commonalities among seemingly disparate vertebrate organisms while also being able to identify clear differences.

3) To be able to trace the evolutionary history of a number of structures, such as the bones in the first and second gill arch.

4) To develop dissection skills, becoming a careful and confident dissector.

5) To gain experience working on  functional morphology using high speed video and basic mathematical skills to answer a specific question.

6) To get interested in the animals we study in detail (e.g., lamprey, shark, salamander, dog) and get inspired to continue to study vertebrate diversity through other upper level courses.

7) To amass a foundation of anatomical knowledge, terminology, and phylogenetic understanding that will prepare them for any other vertebrate —ology courses (e.g., Ichthyology, Ornithology).

Whether or not these goals suggest many changes to our current syllabus, I think that writing down explicit objectives–and even sharing them with your students–is a great way to evaluate and justify how you assess your students.


About sarahjlongo

I'm a first year graduate student in the Department of Population Biology at UC Davis. Broadly, I am interested in studying both the patterns and processes of evolution in actinopterygian fishes.
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One Response to Assignment-centered teaching

  1. Pingback: Using the grading process to improve teaching | Sarah J. Longo

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