Course Reflections: Medical Ethics SUM10

[Note: This was originally published at my previous blog, Prospeculating, on 22 Jul 2010.]

This summer I taught medical ethics at Binghamton University in a radically different way than it is typically run.  Now that it is over, I want to review both my own and my students’ experience of the class.  Lisa Lane’s post going through her evaluations inspired me to do a similar, albeit more in depth, look at my own course.

[Psst!  If you’re one of my students, you can skip the background section—you know all the info!]

Background:

As with most courses offered during the summer by the Philosophy department, a course of this type (in order to get enough students) needs to be held online.  Binghamton University compounds the problem by making the summer session only 5 weeks long.  This places certain technological and pedagogical limits on what is possible.  I decided to take this as a challenge to my typical teaching method, however, and sought to push myself on how a course could be run.  Further compounding the situation was my own personal circumstances—my wife and I were expecting a baby on June 30th.  Seeing as how both of us had been born six weeks early, there seemed a good chance that the baby would be born smack dab in the middle of the semester.  Since I was already looking to try a completely new approach, I decided to take this as a further challenge: create a class where my absence for a few days would not be detrimental to the student’s learning experience.

This meant moving away from my typical “teacher-centered” style (this refers to a style that focuses on feeding students information—the typical lecture format, in other words).  I decided to design the course so that the majority of learning was between students—through discussions and information sharing.  Each weekday would be a different kind of activity: Mondays would be the “traditional” portion, where I would post a lecture and students could post questions and comments; Tuesdays would be “News Day,” where students would post links to news articles and comment on them; Wednesday would be “Case Study Day,” where students would argue from an assigned position for a conclusion to a case; Thursdays would be “Debate Day,” where students would engage each other over a predetermined debate question; and Fridays would be a reflection day, where students could earn extra credit by writing summaries of the week’s activities.  On all of the non-lecture days, I would keep out of discussion and each week two to four students would be responsible for leading the class (the Group Leaders).  At the last minute, I also added a Twitter component to see how the students would use it, requiring three tweets a week.  I provided the students with a collaborative learning packet, which included activity instructions, grading rubrics, and “seed” questions and tips to get them started.  Additionally, I gave them weekly progress reports to help them improve their work.

And here is how the course turned out:

Content:

The first set of questions asked on the evaluation was how well the course met the stated goals in the syllabus.  I wasn’t particularly worried about this question, as I had my own opinions, but a highly negative response would indicate problems in need of fixing.  However, the students were overwhelmingly positive in terms of the success of the class.  The only negative comments concerned the lack of time (which I unfortunately have no control over) and small number of topics (to which I am considering some solutions).

Personally, I thought that the course did fairly well in establishing a nice knowledge base in medical ethics.  The only major problem area was in laying down a decent understanding of different ethical theories.  After running the course, I think that I need to more effectively introduce the varying ethical conceptions from the start.  Although the students generally did well in their discussions, there were times when there were definite problems with perspectives like virtue ethics and, especially, care ethics.  In the future, I will have to make sure that these are more solidly grounded.

I was also interested in seeing which topics the students liked and disliked the most and what they would have liked to discuss in the class.  Unsurprisingly to me, the students overwhelmingly wanted to get rid of the Eugenics unit and add a unit on Assisted Suicide/Euthanasia.  I’ll definitely make that change the next time I teach this course.  I also liked the comment that recommended adding a more international perspective to the class.

Structure:

My biggest concern in the evaluation was getting feedback about the structure of the course.  How well did the students feel the course ran?  Was the learning experience satisfactory with other students leading the course?  Was my absence felt?  How did they like the different activities?

My first concern was with the collaborative learning packet.  I had pictured this as central to establishing the tone, format, and strategy of the class.  It was essential that the students understand the expectations on them from the start.  To this end, the packet was largely successful as the students generally agreed that it gave them a clear idea of how to handle each kind of activity.  It was heavily consulted by all students to help guide them through the class.  However, there was more disagreement on the clarity of the grading rubrics, as some students felt that even with the weekly progress reports the grading scheme, although generally on target, was not always clear.  The biggest frustration for some students was that they felt they were following my advice and the instructions, but still failed to increase their grade.

I think this last point bears special consideration.  My guess is that this is a combination of imprecise grading rubrics and imprecise comments.  Of course, there is always a degree of students simply not understanding what they are doing wrong, but it is precisely (and especially in this class) my job to help them see what needs correction and how to make those corrections.  Changes are clearly needed in cleaning up the grading rubric and making it either more open or more precise.  Luckily, the majority of students found the collaborative learning packet and progress reports helpful in improving their work.  Knowing which students had problems correcting their work is helpful because it gives me a good idea of the areas I need to focus on fixing for future classes.

The main feature of the class was the student-led approach.  Initially, I was very worried about the progress of the class.  However, by the conclusion of the fourth week, the vast majority of students were working at a “B” to “A” level rather consistently.  The steady improvement of the class was clear.  This did point out a problem with the structure of the class: the improvement was not necessarily quick enough for a course of this length.  I think that the speed of the improvement came from the students’ initial confusion with the format.  The first week of class was structured around three lectures introducing the basic concepts.  In retrospect, it would have been more fruitful to pair these with activities that would have introduced each kind of interaction and collaboration the student would use throughout the week.  I think this kind of performative introduction would both help the class become more comfortable and familiar with the format before any real grading began and drastically cut back on the learning curve.

Most satisfying was seeing the students running the course by themselves.  While I initially found it a bit painful to stay out of discussions on Group Leader days (I am typically very hands on in class), I came to appreciate the independence of the students in teaching each other.  The students likewise appreciated the independence the course structure gave them.  According to the students, the student-led discussions fostered a less oppressive environment, where they felt more free to express their opinions.  The largest reason for this seemed have to do with authority: an instructor making a comment was held to be completely right, a student could be wrong; thus, there was more room for discussion.  (This feeling was mirrored in comments on how the Lecture Days were run.  The students generally appreciated the approach of trying to draw them out on their positions and think more about the “why” behind their opinions.)

Group Leaders conducted themselves well.  Students pointed out that it forced them to really research the week’s topic and try to fully understand what they were posting on.  When they were not Group Leaders themselves they generally felt confident in the students leading the course because they felt that those students had put as much effort as them into the course.  There was a generally positive attitude towards the student-led elements of the course.

However, there were also some negative aspects.  Prime among these was the Group Leaders’ feelings that they were “flying blind.”  This point was especially emphasized by the first group of students to lead the class, but also repeated by others.  I think that this largely comes down to a failure in the placement of the progress reports and also the lack of introduction to the assignments mentioned earlier.  Left to themselves, the students had freedom, but this also meant ambiguity.  One student suggested moving the progress report to the middle of the week (before Debate Day) or having a smaller progress report at that time in addition to a larger progress report at the end of the week.  I agree with these recommendations.  Although I want to maintain the hands off approach for future classes, there has to be a more immediate form of feedback for the students to really excel.

Interestingly, this need for more feedback did not extend to a feeling of being abandoned.  All of the students were clear that instructor availability was more than adequate.  While some students thought that more involvement might have helped things run more smoothly, there was a general feeling of satisfaction with instructor involvement.

The biggest failure of the class was the Twitter component.  I originally added it as an extra credit assignment, then, at the last minute, decided to go all in and make it a required part of the course.  Although Twitter did not distract from the course, the student consensus was that it was not a necessary part of the class.  On the other hand, the students did appreciate the extra links that were posted by other students and the ability to make comments without any grading requirements.  Yet, I tend to agree that the Twitter component was largely superfluous.  I think there are better ways to achieve the same results.  I will continue including it, but as extra credit only.

Other Student Suggestions:

Include a best post of the week in each students progress report.

Grade on a sliding scale based on the student’s starting work.

Make other students post earlier, so Group Leaders have more time to respond.

Conclusions:

Although some students were ready to declare this a resounding success, I prefer to simply leave it at a mere success.  There is a lot to fix and a lot to change, but this was overall a good experience.  I was especially glad to hear that class discussions encouraged outside reading, outside discussions, and even outside thinking!  Ultimately, this course style has the potential, with tweaking, to really bring out the best in students.

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