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Meredith Professor Addresses Challenges and Sees New Opportunities in Mixed-Delivery Courses
Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor of Teaching Excellence James Spencer adapted his graduate course, Research and Career Resources in Forensic Science, for hybrid instruction this fall. It was a necessity but also a chance to try something new. “I see mixed delivery as an opportunity to do some things better than before,” says Spencer, a professor of chemistry and forensic science in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We certainly miss the person-to-person physical engagement, but we can still offer great courses.”
Spencer is one of several Meredith Professors interviewed by Syracuse University News to discuss their preparation for the semester and how they are addressing the challenges to their teaching presented by social distancing guidelines.
Research and Career Resources in Forensic Science introduces students to fundamental concepts in science research and how research fits into forensic science practice specifically. As part of the course, each student must come up with an original idea and develop a complete proposal using campus resources, such as Syracuse University Libraries. In addition, the class explores avenues of scientific communication as well as helping students develop important professional skills and resources.
In this Q&A, Professor Spencer discusses how mixed delivery presents specific challenges, how to mitigate those issues and specific approaches he is taking in his classroom.
What are the challenges in bringing a science course online?
I think the greatest challenges occur in large introductory 100-200 level courses, such as CHE 113 (Intro to Forensic Science) that I have taught both in person and online. These classes involve mainly lecturing and its typically a challenge to provide opportunities for direct engagement with or between students. Often these classes are examining fundamental principles with a lot of ground to cover. An example in chemistry would be, if I have a chemical reaction, how do I balance it? In an in-person setting there might be little discussion involved. Sure, we might work some problems upfront, but it still is directed learning. Making these kinds of learning happen online, with purposeful engagement, can be challenging. But it really can be done quite effectively.
Are there any advantages to mixed-delivery instruction?
When I was thinking about shifting online, one of the things I started thinking about was what could we do better online that we cannot do in person. I started thinking about at least having a component piece of the course that is practically very difficult to do in a physical setting.
One of these is to have guest speakers come in from virtually around the world. For example, I have a friend of mine who was head of the Pan Am-Lockerbie investigation for the FBI, and he was the agent in charge of the Oklahoma City FBI station, among other posts. Normally it would be impossible for him to visit our classroom: he is a thousand miles away but he’s more than willing to spend an hour online with my class. What a unique experience for my students!
I have lined up over half a dozen of these amazing volunteer speakers. The students are going to be able to meet people who are subject matter experts their fields. They will hear from an anthropologist who was part of the joint armed services remains recovery operation. In addition, I have a speaker from the Department of Defense, a forensic psychologist and others. It would be nearly impossible for these people to actually visit a live classroom but are very willing to join the class and be interviewed “live” online. The students seem to love this and there’s been plenty of lively discussion and exchanges so far.
In addition to industry being integrated into the classroom, what other approaches are you taking this fall?
I’m recording myself delivering presentations that students would otherwise hear in a lecture. I set up a little makeshift studio upstairs in my house, with some lights and a little green screen. For those, I have been using Zoom and creating 20- to 40-minute lectures on many different topics. Those are posted together and accessible like a course library. Students can watch these and read materials that I post on Blackboard.
Class time is then spent having discussions rather than me delivering a traditional lecture like I normally would do standing in front of the class, something like a “flipped” classroom. In this case, I give the taped lecture to them as an assignment and then that will hopefully spur us into a conversation in our live class. I have taught this way in past spring and summer courses. I have found that my preparation has students more willing to partake in a discussion online than in person. I do ask students, unless there is some overriding reason, to please turn on their video so that we are not all talking to nameplates. I think that this really helps to inspire a much better discussion.
I have also worked to develop small modules in collaboration with a wonderful former Ph.D. student of mine. Known as process oriented, guided inquiry learning units (POGILs), students complete short 5- to 10-minute exercises that first introduce a topic. For example, one module deals with pseudoscience and how to recognize it. For example, students are asked to identify their astrological sign for the day by only reading the descriptions—no astrological sign is given. When inevitably the number of students that chose their correct sign from the descriptions turns out to be statistically random, it introduces that whole topic of pseudoscience nicely. Scientific literacy, like thinking critically about the abundant examples of pseudoscience all around us, is just one part of this lesson. There are several other things that helps them consider real science versus pseudoscience and how do you tell the difference. I think it helps them get their mind focused on what is the problem before they start learning all the content.
How has using process oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL) helped students in the past?
The Ph.D. student I worked with wrote her dissertation comparing four years of my general forensics class that did not use these POGILs with four years of classes that did use them. We had thousands of students in the pool before and after, and then we broke it down to look for trends and correlations with learning outcomes. It turns out that the students who it seems to help the most are those that tend to struggle a little bit more in the class. POGILs introduce a potentially complex scientific idea by first acclimating students to the concept being considered. This work was also the first quantitative study about the effect of this form of active engagement.
How do you approach having students take exams online while ensuring academic integrity?
One tip that I have applied from the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence is to go back and go through all of my syllabi carefully and make sure that I am explicit about certain things like academic integrity. Making clear these expectations, as well as the details of what is allowed and not allowed on exams and assignments, seems to help. In my introductory 113 class where I have 300-plus students, I have relied upon Blackboard; in it, I can develop a large test pool that can swap questions and answer choices around randomly, and time limits on exams helps too.
Some instructors that I have worked with for smaller classes have students take an exam with Zoom video running, something with multiple camera required, so that the instructor can proctor the exam.
In the class I am teaching this fall, exams are less of an issue because I am entirely using formal papers, essays, proposals and other written assignments. This is a course in which we ask students to do a lot of writing. That tends to mitigate many of these issues.