by Bryan Zeitler, Molecular and Cell Biology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2003
One of most difficult challenges that I have encountered as a GSI is getting students to participate in class discussions. While I have had success in implementing lecture strategies that emphasize open-ended questioning and peer discussion, one thing I find particularly frustrating is achieving a meaningful class dialogue after student presentations. Despite repeated calls for questions or comments from the class, it is not unusual for me to be the only one speaking after a student talk. During my GSI appointment for the MCB130L Cell Biology laboratory, I implemented a written and oral peer review process that encouraged students to actively participate during and after student presentations. The results exceeded my expectations: the process was well-received by students, participation increased dramatically, and there was a noticeable improvement in the quality of the presentations over the course of the semester.
One of the major components of the MCB130L curriculum is the presentation of data derived from both student experiments and the primary literature. Since effective public speaking is an essential skill for today’s scientist, students in the class are required to give two group presentations during the semester. From previous teaching experience, I had typically observed an obvious audience disinterest during student presentations and encountered silence when seeking discussion and comments. To stimulate participation, I decided to try an incentive-based, anonymous peer review strategy. Before each talk I gave every member of the audience a half-sheet of paper with four sections instructing the students to: (a) Summarize the talk in 2-3 sentences; (b) List 1 interesting thing they learned during the presentation; (c) List 1-2 questions that they had about the presentation; (d) List 1-2 things they enjoyed and/or would recommend to improve the presentation. At the top of each sheet was a place for the student’s name that I would remove prior to returning the evaluations to the presenting group. To promote discussion at the end of the presentation, I asked for different volunteers to summarize their comments for one of the four sections on the evaluation form. I would then collect the evaluations and compare my personal assessment of the presentation with that of the entire audience. I also assigned a significant percentage of each student’s presentation grade simply for completing these evaluations. I hoped that this simple exercise and incentive system would increase participation by actively engaging the students in the presentation. Having them pay attention to both the content and quality of the talk served to improve their own skills as both scientists and presenters. The review process also enables the students to recognize not only what their peers prefer in a presentation, but also what they find to be helpful when giving a talk.
The results and student response to the peer review process were overwhelmingly positive. Foremost was the marked increase in questions and comments from the audience after presentations. Students often would raise issues that were points that I intended to mention, strengthening my comments; whereas other times I realized that I might have been too difficult in my initial assessment of the presentation. Several students commented that they preferred this system over short quizzes of the presented material, since they could focus on the quality of the talk without having to worry about writing down every detail. I also found that the evaluations had an indirect effect: the quality of the talks over the course of the semester improved significantly. After hearing a repeated consensus about the attributes of a good presentation, students began to incorporate the suggestions of their peers into their second talks. Overall, I was very pleased with the outcome of this simple implementation of the peer review process to enhance class participation. I look forward to using this technique in other appropriate areas during my next GSI appointment.