More than 110 UA - Pulaski Technical College faculty have improved their teaching practices through a program with the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE). This rigorous, evidence based, 25-week course engages instructors with independently validated research to improve student achievement and close equity gaps. ACUE Focus is a question and answer series where faculty share their experiences with ACUE.
Dr. Aiwei Borengasser
Instructor of Biology, Dept. of Natural and Physical Sciences
Education: Ph.D. University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, M.S. Midwestern State University, B.S. Sichuan University
1. What ACUE Cohort were you a part of?
UA-PTC Cohort Class of 2018
2. What do you teach and how do you think you benefited from the ACUE course?
I teach several biology-related classes, including biology for non-majors, biology for majors, and microbiology.
3. My biology for non-major students are not STEM majors and take this course to fulfill a distributive requirement. They are often made uneasy by the natural sciences, or feel that learning biology is not important for them. When I talk about scientific methods, I can see they are anxious and don’t believe the scientific method has any relevance to their lives.
This is when the “engagement trigger” technique I learned in the ACUE course is most useful. For instance, when I introduce the concept of a hypothesis, I give students a non-scientific-sounding scenario, such as, “What would you do if you found you didn’t have the internet one day?”. After I walk through the steps of the scientific method using this example, the students are surprised at how often they use the scientific method to solve real-life problems. By the end of class, the students appear to have overcome their initial fears and are interested in learning more about how biology can be applied to their lives.
4. Best thing you learned from ACUE?
ACUE is an evidence-based teaching program. It aims to improve the professional skills and knowledge that college educators possess. The program includes lessons on how to design an effective course and class, how to establish a productive learning environment, how to use active learning techniques, how to promote higher order thinking, and how to use assessment tools to inform instruction and promote student learning.
I feel that I have benefited from learning all of the topics from ACUE, especially in regards to establishing a productive learning environment for under prepared students. One technique I learned and practice in my teaching is the approach of “providing multiple opportunities to earn course points.” Some students are not good at taking tests under pressure. Their anxiety hinders their performance even though they know the materials on the test. So I create an online set of pooled quiz questions for each chapter. The students can take the quiz as many times as they want until they get all the questions right. The quiz is set up in such a way that the students receive feedback for each question they get wrong, and the computer records their highest score of all their attempts. Then I assess their learning by giving an exam every few chapters. I also give out points during classroom activities so that the students can make up some points they missed during the exams. By doing so, the students can learn by taking quizzes in a more relaxed environment, become familiar with my expectations, and get ready the larger exams.
The students can also demonstrate their learning by doing a variety of activities in the classroom while earning credit towards their grades. I feel that the techniques I use are successful in terms of encouraging all students to learn. By letting the students take quizzes often and as many times as they want, I create a learning environment where the students can learn and recall the materials I covered in the classroom at their own pace. Furthermore, awarding points for classroom activities encourages the students’ participation and promotes active-learning processes.
5. Do you think your students benefited from you taking the ACUE course and if so, how?
Yes, absolutely. Taking the ACUE course has improved my effective teaching practices, from aligning my activities and assignments to course outcomes to using student achievement and feedback data to improve my teaching.
I will use one of the learning outcomes of my Biology course as an example to demonstrate how I align my teaching methods to learning outcomes. The learning outcome states, “The student will apply the steps of the scientific method in their daily life using specific examples.”
I used the 3-step process to select proper teaching methods and moves. First, I identified that the cognitive level of the learning outcome is at the level of Apply. Second, I identified the types of teaching methods aligned to the Apply level of the learning outcome, such as writing/speaking exercises, Classroom assessment techniques, and role plays and simulations. Third, I Identified the teaching moves and student activities aligned to the Apply level of the learning outcome, including defining the scientific method; explaining the steps of the scientific method using examples; and asking students to write a short essay describing how they can use the steps of the scientific method in their daily life.
By aligning my activities and assignments with the relevant course outcomes, I clearly show the students my rationale for each assignment. This helps the students to better prepare for the assignments. Students will ask fewer questions and feel more confident as a result. And it helps me to check whether my assignments are appropriate to meet the learning outcomes.
6. What was your favorite module in ACUE?
My favorite module in ACUE is “using active learning techniques.” The techniques I selected from the module are “the use of an engagement trigger” at the beginning of the session; “I do, we do, they do” during the middle of the session; and “use one-sentence summary” toward the end of the session.
Most students lose concentration after about 10 minutes of lecture. This presents a challenge for me to keep them focused in class. The three techniques I listed help me to deliver an effective and engaging class session. The students are engaged in active learning for the whole duration of the class. For example, I have observed that I got the students’ attention by asking them why a pet rock is a non-living thing but a chia pet is a living thing. Then I used the next 10 minutes to talk about the properties of life using examples. Next, I asked the students to distinguish living things from non-living things in small groups. They were having fun while applying what they had learned. At the end of class, I asked them to write what they had learned in one sentence. I saw that most of the students had written down the properties of life correctly. I feel that the techniques I used at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the teaching session really helped keep the students focused. It grabbed the students’ attention in the start of the class. Then it re-energized the students during the middle of class. Finally, it helped students re-focus on their learning objectives for the session.