Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Changing 20%

In the last post, I described how I altered my office hours into homework session. It led to improved learning gains from my students and better evaluations for me. This was a specific example of how a small change of some specific things in my class greatly improved my course pedagogy.  There is a rule of thumb when making changes: only change the worst 20% at one time and keep the best 80%. Following this rule of thumb allows changes to be made a little at a time. It isn’t so daunting to make just a few changes to a few things.

For example, from year 1 to year 2 of teaching a particular course, I change my office hours to discussion sections, I added in small group work, and I started doing more computer demos as examples in class. I did not overhaul my lectures or completely change from a lecture style to an inverted classroom. For the following year, I made more changes to the course that included more student participation and active learning during class. If I could have taught the course for several more years, I would have eventually completely overhauled the course into an inverted classroom.

I want to point out: The additions and changes to my course did not require any extra time on my part. As anyone with any new course, I spent a lot of time the first offering coming up with the curriculum. Years 2 and 3 were a breeze compared to the effort of year 1, even with making important changes that greatly improved the course. The items that you change should strive to approach the scientifically documented best practices for scientific teaching. Honestly, my first year of teaching my course, I was struggling to get the material into lecture format in time for class. My teaching was not innovative or inspiring. Only the best students probably learned anything and they probably did not retain it. The blandness of my course was evident in my moderate evaluations of about 3.6 out of 5. The 20% changes I made were in the direction of best teaching practices. More student participation. More interaction with the teacher. More one-on-one time. My evaluations improved to a 4.2 in year 2 and a 4.9 in years 3 and 4 with students writing that I was the best professor they had in college and being nominated for university-wide teaching awards. I was able to make these improvements without a huge effort or commitment of time because I only changed 20% at a time.

Here is another issue: In order for this process of change to be effective, you need to teach the same course multiple years in a row. This is essential for any new faculty who is trying to get tenure. If your department will not let you teach the same course multiple times in a row, they are not being supportive and you absolutely need to demand it. They may tell you that they need you to teach something else for whatever reason, but really, they could do whatever they want. If teaching the same course multiple times in a row is not a regular thing in your new department, you need to put it in your contract or get a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the department chair. If you chair won’t do this for you, you need to go to the dean’s level to put pressure on the chair to ensure you can repeat the course. This is such a minor thing that most chairs will immediately agree, but you have to know to ask for it.  If they ask you to change the course you are teaching after only one time, simply refuse. Don’t be nice about this. This is your career, and it depends on you teaching relatively well (relative to your colleagues), so make a stink if they aren’t helping you.

Do others have examples of simple changes that can be made to improve teaching that don’t take a lot of time? Or examples of 20% changes you made that made a huge improvement to your teaching? Guest post or make a comment.

Comments on: "Changing 20%" (8)

  1. One of my favorite quick fixes is Just-In-Time Teaching. This is a method wherein you give a short assignment to the students typically due about 15 or 30 minutes prior to class. The assignment can be a warmup exercise based on the readings, it can recap something from the prior class or it can assess if students remember a foundational skill relevant to the topic of the day. The idea is to get the students engaged in the material prior to setting foot in class. You then browse the answers quickly immediately prior to starting class so that you can start the class with a comment based on how the class performed. If they did well, complement them and move on. If they could not do something that you expected them to be able to do (such as the foundational question or one that identifies a common misconception), then you had better stop and address the issue before moving onward with the new material. To make it work, you must be consistent and do it for every class and you must spend a minute or two at the start of class addressing the problem they did. It also helps to award a trivial number of points for completion. Grade on completion not correctness here. Remember, the goal is to judge if they can do an exercise and you don’t want them circumventing the challenge and copying from one another.

    Many resources are available on line to learn more about JITT including:

  2. Sarah Keller said:

    Here’s a quick one: Assign a homework problem requiring students to write an “exam question” that would be appropriate for a future students taking the final in the same class, along with the answer key. Students get a nice review of the course material while they are hunting for ideas. As a bonus they discover (and are usually surprised to find out) that writing a decent exam question is hard; they become more appreciative of good exams with interesting problems.

    Some compiled hints are at: S.L. Keller and A.L. Smith, Advice for New Faculty Teaching Undergraduate Science J. Chem. Educ., 83, 401-406, 2006.

  3. […] how you went about teaching your assigned courses. You should emphasize innovative changes, those 20% changes that we talked about before, that made your class better. If your evaluations improved over time […]

  4. […] ago, I had a post that was related to teaching about how to better your teaching slowly, but making 20% Changes. From that post, I received this inspiring guest post on the topic of changing 20% from a PreTenure […]

  5. […] are some of the 20% changes you can make for next time, as I have posted about in previous posts (here and […]

  6. […] Changing 20% (here) after I blogged about this as an effective way to make changes in teaching (here). I am so happy this blog works for someone – anyone! I love hearing from you. If you want to […]

  7. […] you can make incremental changes to your teaching to be more effective and get better evaluations (here, here, here, here). But, you cannot implement changes if you do not get to teach the course […]

  8. […] easy ways to get him some better evaluation scores. These changes fall along the lines of “Changing 20%” which is the scheme I advocate for making any changes for your life in general (for […]

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