Talking Teaching

June 19, 2012

thinking about academic reviews

In a couple of months I’m going to be involved in a review of another institution’s academic programs. So, as you might expect, the subject of reviews has been much in my mind, & it came up again yesterday when I was discussing paper content with a couple of colleagues.We were talking about a 3rd-year paper where, as it turns out, about half the class doesn’t have any formal background in a particular topic. (We will so not go into the ‘whys’ of this at the present point in time, but they have to do with alternate routes into & through a program.) This places obvious constraints on what the lecturer for this topic can actually cover, & they give a ‘review’ session at the start to try & cover the basics – really helpful for the ‘newbies’, and a quick refresher won’t do any harm to those who have encountered the material previously, either. But it also begs the question: how do we do our best to ensure that all students in that paper will have had previous exposure to some of the relevant concepts, albeit at a lower conceptual level?

And the obvious answer is, the program that this paper’s part of needs a review of its own. If a particular set of concepts are deemed important in developing a student’s understanding of the topic/subject, discipline, then we need to make sure that they’re introduced and then regularly reinforced – at progressively higher levels – as students progress through that program. And we need to look at where that information would be most apt.

As an example, let’s take part of the content I’ll be helping students to master next semester: the ideas around the Hardy-Weinberg equations. (These allow you to calculate allele and genotype frequencies in a population, given a set of assumptions about that population, & so to determine if it’s undergoing evolutionary change.) None of my first-years will have encountered this material before, so I give a broad-brush introduction & explain why the H-W equations are useful in population genetics, & that anyone intending to go on in ecology is going to encounter them again at third-year.

Which is fine, but then as a result of that inital conversation I sat down & had a think about where & when that particular set of concepts is going to be reinforced & further developed. I know that the lectures at 3rd-year are much higher-level than those I deliver, so what’s the link, the progression, between the two? Is the best place our second-year evolution paper? Probably not, as not everyone in that paper will have taken the first-year paper I’m about to teach. (So should we make it a compulsory prerequisite? I’m not convinced, as that would close off access to people with only the one biology paper but a keen interest in the history & evolution of life on earth, & I believe that would be a Bad Thing.) What ab0ut the second-year ecology paper? This is the most logical place to do that progressive build on the first-year intro, & it would segue well into the 3rd-year paper. H-W gets a mention there, but is it enough to further scaffold students into the requirements of the following year’s paper? And if the answer is ‘no’, then how do we address it – without impacting on the students’ acquisition of all the other relevant material???

I feel another review coming on…

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