Teaching by (Bad) Example

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Julia Comerford, Astronomy

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2006

Scientific progress is built on the interchange of information, yet the channels of such communication are often perilous to navigate: one poorly-designed graph and your main point may be obscured; one too many grammatical mistakes and your research may be considered as sloppy as your writing. In my course on research presentation in astronomy, students learn that they themselves are the first (and often only) line of defense against the misplaced modifiers, clashing colors, and other fumbles that distract, or worse, detract, from the research results they aim to convey. My challenge as their instructor was to teach them to approach their own writing and presentations with a critical eye.

The problem was that the students were not internalizing the lessons taught in class enough to apply it to their own work. At first I showed them examples to emulate. I lectured on the ideal organization of a scientific paper and the best steps to follow when editing. However, this “broadcast” method of teaching is easily tuned out by students. Although they clearly understood the material during class, a lack of retention was revealed in their first papers, which were rough and barely edited. I concluded that the students needed a greater sense of ownership over the material, which they could gain by actively engaging with it and absorbing it themselves. With this goal, I took to the classroom an opposite approach: teaching by bad example.

That week, before the students started building their own PowerPoint presentations for class, I showed them the infamous slide that was held partially responsible for the Columbia space shuttle disaster, as well as several ill-conceived slides of my own. Through collaborative debate and discussion, the class broke each slide down and identified what was bad, why, and how to improve it. During this process I stood off to the side, answering questions where needed but allowing the students to role play as critics and editors themselves. Drawing off each other’s strengths and disparate viewpoints, the class even found mistakes where I had not intended any. For example, our only colorblind student pointed out that he could not distinguish between one specific plot’s red and green lines, a problem I had not previously recognized.

Through this teaching technique my students actively assimilated information by honing their own critical eye. In exercises ranging from scrutinizing titles of recently published astrophysics papers to dissecting a passage devoid of transitions, the class discovered the dynamic process behind writing. These students, who previously equated first drafts with final versions, now took a problem-solving approach to their writing and presentations, and worked through several drafts of their work before their critical eye was satisfied. The interactive nature of the technique, as well as the lively discussion that ensued, had the ancillary benefit of increasing class camaraderie.

After the first session of bad examples, I gauged its initial success by asking the students for a show of hands as to whether they found this new method useful. Five of five hands were in the air, so I continued the next week with some grammatical train wrecks. After the students as a group had undangled the last participle, they actually requested more. Further indication that the teaching by bad example philosophy had been effective came in the end-of-semester evaluation forms, in which four of five students singled it out as the most valuable activity we did.

But the most compelling evidence came in the students’ papers and presentations, which had punchier titles, clearer graphs, more coherent text, more legible PowerPoint slides, and more complimentary color schemes than many of the professional astrophysics talks and papers I have seen. As I discovered this past semester, bad examples sometimes teach the best lessons.