Tuesday, February 28, 2012

reporting from the Animal Behaviour graduate course

Last week Ben Chapman and myself organized a graduate course on Animal Behaviour. This was a first for us, and for Lund, so we were very excited to see it go as well as it did. Here a report from the course.

But first, let’s go back in time about 6 months, when Ben and I went down to gorgeous Portugal to learn new skills at the First IV workshop led by Diane Ebert-May. Here we heard about and learned to put into practice techniques for student-centered learning. I wrote about that in a previous blog. With this in mind, we designed last week’s course, and we have a feeling that we were successful, more on that below.

To remind you, with student centered learning, the students are actively involved in their own learning: students are thinking about the concepts, research questions and discuss these with other students and teachers. This means that we worked hard to provide the opportunity for the students to be active during the classes. Some of the telltale sings of our approach working can be seen in these pictures below.

Apart from us practicing our teaching techniques, we covered a large area of topics, and invited in-house and external experts to the course to provide the students with the view from scientists at the front of their field. These in-house experts were: Michi Tobler & Caroline Isaksson (physiology and behavior), Mathias Osvath (animal cognition), Charlie Cornwallis (sexual selection). We also invited three workshop leaders from outside Lund. These were Dan Franks (university of York), who inspired us to think about social networks in biology and how to analyse them. Niels Dingemanse (Max Planck institute for Ornithology) who has developed methods to analyse animal personality data. Hans Slabbekoorn (Leiden University) led a workshop on acoustic analysis and told us about environmental influences (anthropogenic or natural) on animal communication.

Each of them gave inspiring contributions, and the students, including Ben and I, learned many new things and were inspired to think about our own research from a bunch of new angles.

Thus, from our perspective the course was a success. All Ph.D students completed the course, the content and teaching styles were diverse and the students were actively engaged in their own learning. The anonymous student feedback was also positive. The mean overall course score was 3.94 in a scale between 1 – 5 where 4 = Excellent! Interesting and covered all relevant information. Students scored the overall difficulty of the course at 3.13, where 3 = The right level of difficulty. We also asked students anonymously in the evaluation whether they would recommend this course to a colleague. 100% of respondents replied ‘Yes. Our aim was to teach the course in an active learning style (see Handelsman et al. 2004, Science), and we encouraged all contributors to involve discussions and student-centred learning techniques where possible. This style received very positive feedback from students: In response to the two questions “Comments generally about the course/What did you like about the course?” 14/16 completed feedback forms spontaneously praised the interactive approach and our use of discussion within classes to facilitate learning. Students were very positive about the opportunity to interact socially with one another and also the visiting lecturers, and enjoyed the research talks. The highest feedback score was for the ‘speed dating activity’ where students had 2 minutes in pairs to come up with an interesting collaboration. After the 2 minutes had passed students switched to a new partner and designed a new collaboration. This allowed everyone to apply their creative skills to generate new and exciting research questions and worked very well.

Critical feedback from the students

We also received important feedback on how we could improve the course should it run a second time. Many students found the data analysis workshops too intense and difficult, which is reflected in their lower mean scores (~3/5) compared to the more general classes. There were also requests for more examples from the invertebrate literature. Both of these issues raised could easily be addressed; in the first case by modifying the workshops to make them more inclusive and less software oriented; in the second case we could include a contributor working with an invertebrate system.

We also received positive feedback from the staff and visiting speakers involved in the course.

Ben and I would like to thank all the collaborators, in-house and external, for working so hard with us to make this course a success. The effort clearly paid off!

Below the statistics on the feedback:

Scoring: 5 = This was the best hour and a half of my waking life; 4 = Excellent! Interesting and covered all relevant information; 3 = Good, but could be improved; 2 = Not so inspiring; 1 = An effective substitute for water boarding

1 comment:

  1. I think you should be proud of yourself for doing this, and it will clearly benefit your future careers in terms of the great experience you got. So even though I was not involved in the course, it is my strong impression that it was very appreciated and welcome, and I am sure there will be a lot of interest that you run it again in the future. Congratulations and well done!