by Christie Dowling, Civil and Environmental Engineering
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2005
As a first-year Graduate Student Instructor, I approached my first few discussion sections with equal parts excitement and anxiety. I prepared an overview of the lecture materials that had been presented in the previous weeks, and was ready to answer questions from the students related to the concepts they would be tested on in their homework assignments. I was surprised when one of my students asked during the second section, “Can you give us the homework answers?” It seemed to me that many students had not come to the discussion section to learn the lecture concepts, but rather to just be told how to do their homework. I was immediately faced with a challenge: how to create meaningful discussion sections that provide useful information without simply giving the answers away. An additional challenge was that attendance at my discussion section was optional — I knew that if students did not find what I was presenting to be useful, they would not continue to attend.
The strategy that I implemented was to create a more interactive discussion section, where I would present concepts and information as the foundation for exploring example problems with the students. I spent several hours each week developing example problems that were related to the concepts the students would need to use in working out their homework assignments, but were at the same time not just “cookie cutter” samples that they could use to complete their assignments without some thought. I endeavored to make each of the examples somewhat fun for the students, and I always included an interactive component where they would work in teams or individually to help me solve the problems I presented. For example, in one particularly challenging unit of the course, students grappled with the concept of biochemical oxygen demand, which is a pollutant that decreases the amount of oxygen available in water. I created a hypothetical fish pond for the students to manage. Together, we explored various aspects of biochemical oxygen demand, including setting up experiments to measure it, discussing the effects it would have on fish, designing strategies to reduce it, and deriving equations to model the level of oxygen within the water. Rather than simply lecturing them about the concepts related to biochemical oxygen demand, I created an interactive problem-solving approach, where the students were actively involved in describing the issue. Rather than simply showing them how to do their homework, I provided a foundation of tools to use to understand the concepts and apply these concepts to problems. This is the type of model that I used in each week of discussion section.
After the first week of using this new strategy, the student who had asked for homework answers approached me and told me that the section had been extremely useful, and asked if I would continue to use that model throughout the semester. This encouraged me to continually develop new and interesting example problems for the students. However, I was also interested in determining whether other students found the methodology to be as helpful as the one student did. Therefore, after five weeks, I created a mid-term evaluation form, which I passed out during my section. The informal survey results indicated that the approximately 20 students who attended my section on a regular basis found the method to be helpful in not only doing their homework assignments, but also in actually learning and digesting the course concepts. One student indicated that the section on biochemical oxygen demand had been especially informative! Furthermore, I noticed that attendance in my section did not decline, as I had feared it would, but increased, especially during those weeks where more challenging concepts were presented. Based on this informal assessment, I feel that students attending my discussion section found the methodology to be helpful. Although it was challenging to create the example problems each week, it was very rewarding to see the students engaged and interested in the concepts, and I feel that this strategy paid off in my first semester as a Graduate Student Instructor.