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Classroom Assessment Techniques

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Arthur B. Ellis, Clark R. Landis, Kathleen Meeker
Department of Chemistry
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Art Ellis

Art Ellis
After teaching chemistry courses to undergraduates for fifteen years and watching student evaluations monotonically decline, I began exploring ways to improve my teaching techniques. Reading Sheila Tobias' books and encountering a description of Eric Mazur's Peer Instruction method provided me with perspectives on negative student experiences in my large lecture course and suggested that ConcepTests might make the course more accessible and user-friendly.
5,6 Large lecture sections can be dehumanizing for many students, and actively engaging students during the lecture can significantly improve that experience.

The first time I tried the method was the first day of class in 1993. After describing a simple experiment, I sketched two possible graphs on the blackboard for the outcome of the experiment. I then asked my class of 250 to turn to their neighbor, introduce themselves, and persuade their neighbor that their answer was correct. There was a moment of stunned silence, like the class was thinking "You mean he's going to let us talk in class?" Then the class erupted into animated discussion. The intensity of engagement was absolutely exhilarating. I was instantly sold on the method, which I have subsequently found to be remarkably versatile and effective. ConcepTests strongly support other features of the course designed to make it more user-friendly, such as an absolute grade scale and promotion of study groups.7,8

In comparing notes with other instructors, not everyone has as much success on their first try with ConcepTests. Phil Sadler and Eric Mazur have described the experience of using ConcepTests as experimenting with a different but improved tennis grip, in that you may reasonably expect to hit some balls into the net initially, but eventually you can be far more successful in your game.9

Clark Landis

Clark Landis
A few years ago I was preparing for a new semester of General Chemistry and found myself bored. Not bored with the idea of teaching General Chemistry so much as bored by the thought of standing in front of a large group apparently disinterested students and talking. "Why don't science classes have the interactive dynamism that I recalled from literature and philosophy classes?", I wondered. Finding no easy answers, I resolved to change the class so that class had less lecture and more dialogue. Aware that the large size (>150 students) of my class would pose some problems, undaunted I forged ahead and reserved 10 minutes per class for open discussion. Visions of Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue danced in my head.

Reality was cruel. The first time, I tried to prompt open discussion by asking a question and asking for anyone to respond. After a long awkward silence, one person, and no one else, spoke up. This pattern continued for several lectures until the complaints started rolling in. "Why are you wasting our time asking us questions that we don't want to answer?" was a common refrain. About the same time, I went to a colleague's class and saw ConcepTests in action. Students voted, they discussed, they ENGAGED. In my next class, I asked a question, supplied possible answers, and asked them to vote for the correct answer. More than a third of the students participated, a 2,000% increase over my previous approach! As I continued the pattern: - question, possible answers, vote, discuss with your neighbors, vote again, etc. - the student participation grew. Not by changing my intentions, but by adapting my methods, the classroom grew lively, interactive, and fun. Since that experience, my old styles have not returned, nor has the boredom.

Katie Meeker

Katie Meeker
As a graduate teaching assistant for courses taught both with and without innovations such as ConcepTests, I have observed that discussion sections in which ConcepTests have been used often lead more easily to true discussions, as opposed to question and answer periods or time spent simply re-lecturing. Asking the students to work on group problems leads to a raucous noise as they tackle the problems, while in some other courses, getting students to talk about science together can be considerably more difficult. Students who have experienced ConcepTests are often more vocal in other aspects of the course; more willing to ask questions in discussion section and more collaborative in the laboratory. These students often demonstrate a great deal of clarity of thought when answering problem set and exam questions.

5. Tobias, S. They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second Tier, Research Corporation: Tucson, AZ, 1990.Tobias, S. Revitalizing Undergraduate Science: Why Some Things Work and Most Don't, Research Corporation: Tucson, AZ, 1992.

6. Tobias, S. Revitalizing Undergraduate Science: Why Some Things Work and Most Don't, Research Corporation: Tucson, AZ, 1992.

7. Ellis, A.B. Chemtech, March 1995, 15-21.

8. Ellis, A.B. J. Chem. Educ., 1997,74(9), 1033-1040.

9. Mazur, E. In "Indicators of Success in Postsecondary SMET Education: Shapes of the Future; Synthesis and Proceedings of the Third Annual NISE Forum"; Workshop Report No. 6; University of Wisconsin: Madison, WI, 1998.

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