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April 19, 2007

Teaching, learning methods on display at symposium

Too many students in Biology 180 were floundering, so instructor Scott Freeman and his colleagues made the students and the course a research project. Based on results, the instructors changed their teaching — and students improved.

Freeman will be the keynote speaker at the 2007 Teaching and Learning Symposium scheduled for 2:30-4:30 p.m. April 24, in the HUB West Ballroom.

Freeman’s talk will be followed by 34 concurrent poster sessions featuring faculty and teaching assistants representing 32 departments and programs. The symposium is sponsored by the UW Center for Instructional Development & Research.

In an interview earlier this month, Freeman said rescuing the students was important because Biology 180 is a gateway course, a foundation for several majors which draws several hundred students nearly each time it’s taught. “Students can really stumble,” said Freeman, who’s taught the course a dozen times.

His research showed a need for several new tools, including practice exams. About a third of students taking the class, for example, speak English as a second language, and while they appreciated the rigor of the class, they wanted more practice with written exams. Eventually, all Biology 180 students took peer-graded practice exams — sometimes in groups, sometimes on their own. Measuring results, researchers found that whether students took practice exams together or individually, learning improved significantly.

Below are summaries of some of the poster sessions:

Hands-on learning of cardiopulmonary physiology. Guided by Scott Weigle, a professor at the UW School of Medicine, 19 undergraduates monitored their bodies’ responses to altitudes 12,500 to 14,200 feet on White Mountain in California.

As members of an Exploration Seminar held Aug. 21 to Sept. 15, the students spent two weeks at the UW Seattle campus learning such things as how oxygen gets into blood and moves around the body. Using each other as research subjects, the students measured several variables, including fitness, volume of feet and hands, oxygen levels in blood, reaction times and performance on athletic tests.

Then they traveled to White Mountain, repeated the tests at altitude and wrote scientific papers about their findings.

The key, said Weigle, was focusing students on one task — a physiological question — and giving them time and encouragement.

E-portfolios as a way to learn writing. Instructors in the English Department and researchers at Catalyst, the UW office whose work includes computerized learning tools, help students in the Expository Writing Program create online portfolios. They’ve learned that e-portfolio students tend to write for broader audiences than those who create paper portfolios. Such students also tend to create more elaborate portfolios — color illustrations, for example. Catalyst and the English Department are looking for more ways to make the portfolios interactive — to make it possible for students to exchange work and otherwise reach broader audiences.

“The World in Motion”: Animation as a way to interest students in the arts and humanities. Philip Thurtle, a professor in the Comparative History of Ideas program, and Stephanie Andrews, a professor in Digital Art and Experimental Media, teach their class to explore what it means to live in a world of constant change. What does it mean to be animated? What techniques are used to create animation? How do animation practices differ around the world? As part of their work, students create an animated short that explores the themes of the class.

Bringing astronomy to sight-impaired students. Several years ago, using a UW telescope, a sight-impaired student saw a bright star for the first time. Both she and those who helped her were thrilled, and that led Ana Larson, a lecturer in astronomy, and Virginia Player, one of her former students, to create a four-part mini-series on the sun, the planets and the stars for students like the one at the telescope. The unit includes a solar system tour where stepping one foot per second is equivalent to traveling at the speed of light. It also includes topographically accurate planet globes; making a comet from dry ice, water and complex carbohydrates such as maple syrup; and Braille and tactile illustrations of celestial bodies.>

For more information on this year’s Teaching and Learning Symposium, go to: http://depts.washington.edu/sotl/2007/index.html