Outside of Class Learning Activities: 4th of 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, Tim@CAPERteam.com

This is the fifth in a series of about six very long blog posts on innovative college astronomy teaching written with the straight forward goal –> to provide busy faculty with easy-to-implement teaching strategies that dramatically improve the student learning experience.   The firstsecondthird, and fourth blog posts are available online.

Traditionally, college students learn astronomy by attending about 45 hours of class, where they listen to a professor talk about astronomy and memorize the notes they’ve taken in order to pass the course exams.  Given that we are talking about an astronomically large range of topics when studying the Universe, it probably isn’t surprising that students can achieve more if they work on learning astronomy outside of class time too.


5 Tools for Teaching #ASTRO101

Unfortunately, simply telling students to “be sure to study tonight after class” is insufficient for most college students.  Like it or not, students need very specific tasks to complete—and be held accountable for—if you want students to engage in astronomy outside of class meeting times.  Let’s consider several homework options you need to choose from for helping your students to continue to learn astronomy when you’re not in front of them during

      I Don’t Have Time to Grade Homework

Before you dismiss these ideas about out of class assignments because you don’t have time, let’s first deal with the YEAHBUTs that inevitably are presented as a barrier to holding students accountable for doing academic work outside of class.  A YEAHBUT—pronounced ya-ah-But with both enthusiasm and a bit of indignation—is the list of “Yes, but …” excuses and rationalizations for why something can’t be done.


  • yeahbutYEAHBUT my students won’t do anything that isn’t graded
  • YEAHBUT my students won’t read the book outside of class.
  • YEAHBUT my students are terrible writers, and I don’t want to grade grammar and sentence syntax
  • YEAHBUT I don’t have time to grade homework
  • YEAHBUT I don’t have graduate students to grade the homework for me
  • YEAHBUT I don’t want to negatively impact my end-of-term course evaluations by giving homework
  • YEAHBUT I don’t know what I would have students do outside of class

      High Performance Grading Solution

Let’s first solve the YEAHBUT I don’t have time to grade concern. Some of the biggest concerns secretly harbored by all professors revolve around assessing student work, giving students grades, and how to manage the overall process of receiving, scoring, recording, and returning student work.  There is no question that the grading process can be incredibly time consuming; but, we also know from repeated studies that giving students frequent feedback is one of the most critical aspects of helping them monitor their learning and improve their achievement.  The bottom line is that grading really is important.

For me, probably the most frustrating thing I ever encounter is, after spending long hours marking and correcting a set of student papers, seeing far too many of my students take a few seconds to look at what I have written on their paper and then depositing it immediately into the trash can.  The point of my writing unanswered questions in the margins, leaving encouraging notes at the end of the paper, and carefully calculating a score is to help students improve.  However, I am now convinced that this time consuming task doesn’t always have nearly the positive impact I intend it to have.  So what is the busy teacher to do?  My suggestion is to supercharge your grading system to focus on informing students the degree to which their performances are meeting your expectations and whether or not students need to spend a few minutes discussing their work with you personally, all the while simultaneously decreasing the time you spend marking on student papers dramatically.

I most often use a rapid scoring system that I loosely call, “High Performance Grading.”  In this system, I only write one of four numbers on students’ papers, as shown in Figure 1.  When I give students a score of “2,” this is telling them that their performance is meeting my expectations for this particular assignment.  Their work does not need to be error free to earn a “2”, but errors are minor ones, such as a units, calculation or sign errors.  When I give students a score of “1,” this is telling them that there are some major errors or omissions that need to be corrected.  I my old system of grading, these would be the sorts of errors where I would take time to write notes to the student in the page margin which I had hoped they would critically read, internalize, and improve on future assignments.  These are the same notes that I am now convinced rarely had the impact which I hoped that they would.  For a “1” score, I expect students to come see me, even if it is just for a minute or two.  In this case, students are asked to look at the key before coming to see me and then they convince me they that they understand their errors or I can give them the guidance that they need.  This happens in less time than it takes me to write them a note and I can usually ask probing questions to see if they are building a correct conceptual model.

Finally, I use a “0” score to indicate that students did not complete the assignment in a meaningful way or inform them that their work implies conceptual problems that are going to take longer than a few minutes to sort out.

2-1-0 Scoring Key

Score 2:  Your work is essentially correct and free of most major errors.  Your work is meeting my expectations.  You should quickly check the posted answer key and resolve any differences that might exist.

Score 1:  Your work is missing some important components or has some important errors that need to be resolved before you can progress.  Please take a careful look at the posted answer key and then arrange a few minutes to talk individually with me as soon as possible.

Score 0:  Your work was not submitted according to the directions or no meaningful attempt is evident in your work.  Please see me as soon as possible.

Score 3:  Your work is unusually exemplary and goes far beyond my expectations for this particular assignment.  This score is rarely assigned and you should be very proud of your efforts.

Important NoteStudents should strive to earn a “2-score” on every assignment.  A consistent “2-score” will earn an A for this portion of the grade.  Please do not assume that a 2-score represents a 67% grade or that a 1-score represents a 33% grade; rather, the scores are intended to describe the degree to which students are meeting performance expectations.

I also reserve the right to assign students a score of “3.”  I use this score very, very rarely to reward highly distinguished work.  This score doesn’t really help students’ grade point average, but it does reward students that have submitted work that is more than just correct, but work that goes far above what I would expect.  In other words, their performance is above the level that I intended them to reach.  I find that I do need to continually emphasize to my strongest students that they should be striving for a score of “2” and that a score of “3” isn’t given commonly nor is it necessary to improve their course grade.

There are two important caveats to using this “High Performance Grading” system.  The first is that you need to frequently remind students what the scores mean.  Their automatic inclination is to convert the score into a percentage grade out of 100—yes, even the students who tell you they can’t actually do math all of a sudden can analyze fractions and percentages.  Students will say, “Hey, why did I get a 2 out of 3 on this assignment when I did it right—that’s a failing 67%!”  When this occurs, you have to remind them again what a score of “2” actually means and reassure them that they are still earning an A.

The second caveat is that you need to clearly identify how these scores will be translated into students’ grades.  A professor has considerable flexibility in how this is actually done, but for me, if I have 10 assignments for a unit, I tell students they earn:  100% if ten assignments earn a 2-score and they have no 0-scores; 80% if eight assignments earn a 2-score and they have no 0-scores; a 70% if eight assignments earn a 2-score and they have some 1 or 0-scores; and a 50% if they have five or less 2-scores.  Most computer-based grading programs can be easily set up to automatically count the frequency of various scores.

High Performance Grading is about creating an efficient feedback system for students so that they can more frequently know to degree to which they are meeting your performance expectations for competency.  I find that I am willing to give more assignments because my time allocated for grading isn’t nearly as intense as it was before I adopted this system.  This system also has the benefit of eradicating “grade grubbing” complaints.  I rarely ever have students complain about the scores they are assigned as long as I keep the range of possible scores small.  I would wager that I would get more complaints if I expanded to a five point system.  The bottom line with this approach is to be sure students earn a grade that is consistent with how often they are meeting your performance expectations for each assignment.

In the end, this should not be your only grading scheme.  There are times, particularly at the of the semester, when students need to be provided a more formal and detailed evaluation, particularly in order to spread out a range of student grades more than can be done with a three-point scoring rubric. No single grading technique is appropriate for something as incredibly complex as the measurement of learning.  However, I have found that High Performance Grading is an important and efficient part of a much larger system for grading and assigning student grades that is easy to implement.  Most importantly, my students seem to regard it as a fair and useful feedback system.

Now, with the YEAHBUTs slayed, back to our story

Reading Summaries

Students should be learning material from your textbook.  Learning from written text is a skill that all 21st Century college students need to master across numerous contexts, and mastery takes practice.  Nothing helps students learn from text better than challenging them to rephrase the main ideas in their own words and create summaries of their reading.

For some time now, a national movement in teaching has been bubbling along under the general banner of “writing across the curriculum.”  The underlying philosophy is that an ongoing emphasis on having students write improves learning and that only by practicing the conventions of an academic discipline will students begin to communicate effectively within that discipline.  At some colleges and universities, students are expected to take a minimum number of courses designated “writing intensive” where students are to produce a certain number of written words over the duration of a course.

As a first response, we might be tempted to simply assign students the task of creating a term paper and consider our contribution to students’ writing growth completed.  Unfortunately, repeated experience has shown that, without considerable guidance and mentoring, students do not often create laudable scientific term papers.  This is most certainly highly dependent on context—even students who write exceptionally well in the context of an English composition course do not necessarily transfer their writing skills automatically into the scientific classroom.  Furthermore, science faculty often scoff at the idea that they need to correct students’ spelling and use of grammar in their written work.  In the end, faculty and students seem to be disappointed with the outcome and term paper assignments in introductory science survey courses are often abandoned to the great relief of everyone involved.

Generally, faculty who have had success with improving student learning through writing tasks find that the best writing activities are short or impromptu writing tasks that help students work through key concepts. Often, the most successful writing tasks are limited to less than fifteen minutes of writing time brief, homework assignments.  When assigned during class time, this provides faculty with the opportunity to step out from behind the lectern and observe students’ thinking.  The advantage here is that when student thinking is made explicit to the instructor, this information can be used to guide and target instruction.  Furthermore, when students’ own thinking is made explicitly to the students themselves, this can trigger students’ own metacognitive skills which in turn can lead to developing deeper understanding of ideas as well.

One of the easiest strategies to get students to start writing is to require students to bring a paragraph-long written summary of the big ideas from an outside of class reading assignment.  Asking students to abbreviate and summarize textbook material has the double-dip impact of requiring students to actually complete a reading assignment as well as work at higher cognitive levels by creating their own synthesis of another author’s work.

Instead of “submit a 200-word typed synopsis of the key ideas in the assigned chapter in your own words” try assigning “bring a 75-word hand-written summary of section x.y to class”

To make the assignment slightly more light hearted, I often roll a pair of six-sided dice at the beginning of class to determine if students need to submit their work for grading. I often collect student work if the total number of dots on the dice are even; but, do not if the number is odd.  The end result is that I only have to grade and record assignments about one-half of the time.

End-of-Chapter Questions

In most traditional junior and senior level physics courses, submitting answers to back of the book questions is quite common.  I’d ask, why not do this in introductory astronomy courses too?  Some author spent considerable time creating those end-of-chapter questions and you might as well use them!

Just like in introductory physics textbooks, there is tremendous market pressure on textbook authors to include many more end-of-chapter questions than can any single student can possibly have time or energy to answer.  So, you’ll need to pick and choose which questions students should answer rather than assigning all of them.  I will often assign students to answer the even-numbered questions—I used to ask students to submit answers to odd questions, but I received far too many clarification questions from students about what constitutes an odd or unusual question.

No matter what you choose, the most important idea is that what you ask students to do needs to be clearly, obviously, and unquestionably reflected on your exams.  Perhaps surprisingly, students are perfectly happy to do outside of class work IF and ONLY IF it is clear that doing so improves their ability to earn a higher grade in your course, and specifically, if it improves their exam grades.  Where faculty get negative scores on their end-of-course evaluations from students is if students perceive that they were assigned what they consider to be busy work that didn’t impact their grade.

Therefore, you must, with no exceptions, have at least a few exam questions that are verbatim from your out-of-class homework tasks.  Before you say that’s not fair or rigorous or is dumbing down the course, let me point out that you don’t need to have a lot of these questions, but a sufficient number for students to recognize on their own that doing and understanding the homework really makes a difference in their exam performance.  Remember, at the end of the term, students will be judging you specifically on if you constructed an organized pathway that helped them learn in your course, and this is a great way to do this.

Given the rapidly growing abundance of online homework systems, I should probably say a few words about these.  Personally, I am agnostic about if they are better than traditional homework assignments.  I was deeply involved in the development of several of these online homework systems, my motivation being that too many professors won’t bother to assign much needed homework unless there was an automatic grading system available.  So, my bottom line is that if it is a choice between assigning homework using an online homework system and not assigning any substantive homework at all, then by all means assign online homework.  Students need to devote out-of-class time to learning astronomy.  If you are trying to make a choice between online homework and traditional homework, I personally don’t have a strong opinion.  However, many of my friends do hold strong opinions!

Master ASTRO 101 professor Julia Kregenow from Penn State, who always has well considered thoughts about such things, emphatically says:


Julia Kregenow, Penn State

I love online homework. Since I teach a very large class without much grading help, I use almost exclusively objective questions that can be autograded instantly upon submission. Students love getting their grade right away. Moreover, I’ve set it up so that they get two attempts at the assignment, and only the higher grade counts. They LOOOOOOVE that too. It gives them a safe way to make mistakes, they get feedback, and they use the feedback right away. They can see which problems they got right and wrong the first time, and I often reveal hints that help them if they got one wrong, but not the answer key (until after the due date). If they want to take advantage of a second try (the vast majority do), they have to answer all the questions again. I’m very happy with this approach, both for learning and for student attitudes. 

I started out with Mastering Astronomy about 9 years ago, and it was alright. They had a huge library of questions to dig through, which was time consuming, but once I invested that time I had a nice set of problems I liked. It was easy to reuse them each semester. I’m really picky about my questions and their wording though, and back then it was a pain to edit the questions and/or add your own. I’ve heard it’s better now.


When I changed institutions to a place that used a pretty comprehensive course management system (CMS), where all my colleagues gave online multiple choice homeworks of their own design right through the CMS, I jumped on board and started doing that as well. Over the course of a few years, I gradually built up a set of questions I liked. I started out with just a few questions on each assignment, but as I thought of (or found) questions I liked, I’d add them. Now I’m up to 10-20 questions per weekly assignment.

I also use the in-class lecture-tutorials. One type of question I started including on my HWs is a few select questions from the lecture tutorials we do in class, but recast as multiple choice questions. e.g. “Look at the student debate on pg. X. Which student(s) do you agree with, if either? A. student 1 only  B. student 2 only   C. both 1 and 2   D. neither .  Since I don’t collect or grade the LTs, this is one way for students to check select answers. Also, it gives them a little added incentive to work hard on the worksheets in class: they are getting a head start on their HW.

It is hard to argue with logic like that.

Context-Rich Term Papers

Probably the biggest mistake one can make is to simply assign students to write a 5-page, typed, term-paper or research-report on the topic of their choice.  Years and years of experience shows that this is a painful experience for everyone involved, especially the professor.  The traditional term paper assignment definitely falls under the category of, “when you wrestle a pig, all that happens is you get dirty and annoy the pig.”

For one, the easily available “term paper for purchase” websites makes any traditional term paper dubious.  For another, these things take forever to grade and, if you are curious about many students’ ability to write expository text that is pleasant to read, you will likely be sorely disappointed. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this, but most of my ASTRO 101 peeps have abandoned this assignment.  Most importantly, for the professor who is trying to score high marks on the end-of-term evaluation, it is difficult to convince students that such a task directly and demonstrably improves their exam performance which negatively impacts your scores.

There are numerous educational studies reporting that students learn better and deeper with more duration if they have devoted effort to writing about a topic. If you are deeply committed to having your students write about astronomy, there are some really good options available to you.

 Locally Relevant Tasks

The best approach a professor can use to beat the companies who are selling term-papers is to select topics that can’t possibly be replicated by people outside of your class.  Coming up with these tasks requires some creativity, but here are some examples to stimulate your thinking.  The bottom line here is to think about what people outside of your class couldn’t possibly do.


We aren’t going to be able to cover chapter 9 or 11 in this class, but if we were, provide and explain which five astronomical images you recommend including in a PowerPoint slide sets that covers the material in one of those chapters, that are NOT already in the textbook

  • When you visited the observatory (or planetarium), you observed five objects. Select one of those objects and write a description five important ideas or characteristics you would explain to your family if you could show them that particular object.
  • In preparation for the final exam, select five questions from a previous exam, and re-write them altered for possible inclusion in the final examination. Be sure to include the correct answer for each and an explanation for why it is correct.

Scaffolded Writing Tasks

For novice, non-science majoring undergraduates, big assignments are best done if they are broken up into smaller chunks submitted throughout the term. For one, which was alluded to earlier, imagine that one of your big course goals is for students to enjoy astronomy news.  Learning research tells us that simply telling students to “go read and like astronomy news” is insufficient.  Instead, you need to teach them how to read and enjoy astronomy news by providing a carefully constructed sequence of progressively scaffolded learning experiences.

In the course of a 16-week semester, we judge that there is only time for students to do five assignments in preparation for ramping up for an end-of-term, final paper demonstrating their enjoyment and interest in astronomy news. We propose the following illustrative set of experiences:

hand-outline-clip-art.png(1) select an article and describe why it is directly relevant;

(2) write a brief summary of an article, different than the first article you selected;

(3) discern between two articles given to you by your instructor which one is scientifically-based and which one is pseudo-science or junk science;

(4) write a personal reaction to an article or your choosing you haven’t read before; and finally

(5) create an hypothetical 200-300 word news release/article for a new hypothetical scientific discovery.

We suggest a two week spacing of each assignment starting at week number one so that we would have sufficient time to students them feedback before they started on end-of-term papers. One appealing aspect of this approach is that students are engaging with at least five different articles or source materials, with specific and narrowly defined tasks to attend to with each article, each increasing in intellectual complexity.

The advantage of scaffolding approaches are that they teach students to successfully engage in science journalism, in both a bitesize and critical way.

Context Rich Problem Sets

The reason that previous generations of professors assigned a term-paper on a topic of the student’s choosing was to help students gain some degree of ownership in the task.  Although well intended, it seldom worked. However, this notion of designing assignments where students can obtain some ownership in the assignment is a useful one.

What if instead of defining the assignment, students are able to choose the variables? Such questions result in multiple-correct answers, which give students something valuable to discuss when they compare answers.  Let’s consider some comparative examples:

Traditional Questions

Context-Rich Questions

How long does it take light to travel 3.5 AU? How long would it take to fly a commercial jet plane from Venus to Mars, if you could?
Convert 25°F to Celsius? On a hot summer day on Mars, does it get warmer than it is in this room? Explain.
Of this list of 20-brightest stars, which has the greatest luminosity? Which star in your favorite constellation emits the most energy?
What is the diameter of largest crater on the Moon? If this building was sitting on the edge of the lunar crater Copernicus, near what place would the far side be?

What these questions all have in common is that students will get different answers depending on the variables they select or the estimates they make.  This is what makes these questions worthy of the descriptor “context-rich.” These sort of context-rich questions have the added benefit of not having answers readily available by searching the Internet.

Observing Logs & Field-Trips

Although we’ve spent the majority of time talking about doing astronomy inside the classroom, it seems incomplete to not discuss going outside to learn astronomy.  Although many ASTRO 101 professors are not able to take their students outside because they teach at a commuter campus where students do not return in the evenings, a well-lit inner city campus, a school without telescopes, or any number of reasons.  But, if you are able to take your students outside, there are some steps you can take to make the experience as productive as possible.  The most important attribute is that students need to create something tangible in the learning process, rather than simply just experience it.

      Observing Logs

It is difficult to argue against the inherent value of taking students outside to look through a telescope.  Many professors fondly remember the first time they looked at the rings of Saturn or the aligned moons orbiting Jupiter, and professors naturally would like to have their students enjoy a similar experience.  As it turns out, simply looking through a telescope is usually an insufficient experience to positively impact a professor’s end-of-term student evaluations.  Just looking through a telescope is often perceived by students as an “add-on” experience that doesn’t improve their performance on exams and too often can be considered busy work.  Disappointing, I know, but that’s the reality of teaching non-science majoring undergraduates.

observinglog      To mitigate for this, I suggest that you ask students to “do something” at the telescope.  If you have enough time, the absolute best thing to do is to have students sketch what they see in the telescope.  Sketching Jupiter’s belts or the Moon’s craters makes students allocate just enough extra-time at the eyepiece to be able to have a meaningful learning experience.

You do need to give students instructions—and perhaps practice in class—on how to sketch an object.  Some students will be quite anxious about this and some practice in class will help reduce any anxiety.  I suggest that you show students a fuzzy image of the Moon or of Mars and show students how to repeatedly move clock-wise around the image adding first very obvious characteristics and then adding more and more detail with each pass.

Moreover, sketching encourages students to detect and identify subtleties that they wouldn’t often notice just glancing at an object.  Finally, on the next exam, I’d include at least one question, simply as it seems, on matching sketches of objects observed to their name or some other characteristic about it, just to emphasize the importance of telescope observations. Really.

     Field Trips

Like when observing at a telescope, visiting a planetarium, museum, or observatory visitors’ center is best remembered by students when they have something intellectual and specific to do there.  This starts with clearly helping students understand the goal of a field-trip.  Let’s consider two possible goals:

FIELD TRIP GOAL A:  Go visit the planetarium and look at the displays before entering.


FIELD TRIP GOAL B:  How do astronomers capture light?

What is the substantive difference between these two goals?  In one case the goal is simply to go and experience.  As it turns out, for students to value the experience, and report it as being valuable on your end-of-term evaluations, students need to know precisely what they are supposed to learn by engaging in this experience.  The second goal is a learning goal, one that can be measured on an exam, and one that can be repeatedly emphasized during the field-trip and supported by specific tasks.

kittpeakvisitorscenter      What sort of specific tasks should students be doing during a field trip?  The time tested approach here is to have students write, sketch, and reflect on things that they see and experience, usually through a worksheet.  The standard time-tested method here is to provide students with a task list of things to do and sketch while they are visiting the facility.  But, all task sheets are not created equal.  Let’s compare and contrast two, illustrative field trip task sheets—the Scavenger Hunt and the Inquiry Guide.

TYPE 1: Scavenger Hunt TYPE 2: Inquiry Guide
1. In display case #1, what color is the shirt?  ___________ 1. Why do the objects in display case #2 fit naturally between cases #1 and #3?
2. In display case #2, what is the second word on the last explanation panel?  ___________ 2. What is missing in display case #1 that would complete the story?
3. In display case #3, which object do you like best? ___________ 3. If you were going to create a 4th display case, what would you build to follow display case #3? Explain.

The differences between the two hypothetical task lists are profound.  In one case, students are answering questions that require no thought whatsoever: This is busy work and not valued by students.  In the other case, students are having to intellectually engage with the exhibits in order to answer the questions.  The second list is definitely more rigorous, and more valued by students.  Remember, students value being DIFFERENT as a result of the learning experiences you have carefully designed for them.

□   On the next assignment you grade, try not writing any notes but giving students a 0, 1, or 2 score and telling students what to do if they receive a 1 or a 2.  Then, ask for feedback from students the next week.

□   Take the marketing video-tour of at least one online homework system that you haven’t used before.

□   Reconstruct one of the end-of-chapter homework questions to be a “context rich” question where students decide on their own variables

□   Ask students to sketch an astronomical image in class this week.  Show them how to do this.

□   Next time you take your students outside the classroom, ask them to create something that goes home with them to solidify the experience.


Earlier posts in this series are:

The anticipated upcoming posts in this innovative college astronomy series are:

  • A Win-Win Syllabus: 5th of 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations



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In Class Learning Activities: 3rd of 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, Tim@CAPERteam.com

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts on innovative college astronomy teaching written with the straight forward goal –> to provide busy faculty with easy-to-implement teaching strategies that dramatically improve the student learning experience.   The firstsecond ,and third blog posts are available online.

There are tremendous benefits gained when teaching through two-way interactions with students that cannot possibly occur when trying the one-direction download approach to teach by telling.  For one, students feel valued when professors take the time to figure out who they are and what they know, and then teach them accordingly.  For another, professors are able to better rapidly adjust and modify the classroom learning environment because they can better understand when students are getting an idea and when they are not.

All of these things will improve course evaluations; however, sometimes professors simply tossing out poorly planned questions to their students can seem disorganized.  It is important not to appear disorganized because the highest course evaluation scores go to professors who appear to have highly structured learning pathways for their students to follow.  One of the best ways to demonstrate one’s commitment to providing students with well throughout, structured learning events is to use collaborative learning tasks as a regular part of class meetings.

5 Tools for Teaching #ASTRO101

Breaking the students into small, collaborative learning groups to solve a meaningful task together is one of the most successful and fully evaluated classroom teaching techniques implemented over the last Century.  Our experience is that the students will readily talk to one another and stay on task for many minutes at a time if the tasks are posed at the right conceptual level, not too easy nor too hard, and students see that struggling with the question has value in improving their ability to perform on upcoming exams.

Case Studies

A long-standing and consistently successful collaborative class activity is the case study. The use of case studies is common in medical schools and law schools, but not so common in astronomy. Case studies create meaningful conversations among students and with the professor by focusing on life-like dilemmas to be solved. Case study tasks ask audience members to synthesize several ideas or evaluate scenarios that have not been explicitly presented to them in the lecture or in available readings.

The best case studies for teaching have an initial appearance of being simplistic and ask students to work at the highest cognitive levels by challenging them to use their new knowledge to create and justify decisions, as well as evaluate scenarios. At the same time, the most effective case studies for teaching give students a rich-task to consider that has a lot of room for student creativity while simultaneously maintaining a commitment to scientific accuracy.

Topic Example Case Studies
Night Sky Your class is going to set up and staff six (6) telescopes at the local county fair next Saturday night for passersby.  What six things would your team observe and what interesting things would you say about them?
Kepler’s Laws A professor offhandedly suggested that comets don’t follow Kepler’s laws like planets do.  Select three comets and determine whether or not they follow Kepler’s Third Law to confirm or refute this claim.
Light & Telescopes Consider a proposal to build a new telescope at one of three locations: central Los Angeles, west Texas, and a rural location between Seattle and Portland.  Provide a data-based argument for which site is best and why not the others?
Earth An international airline company has asked your team to make long-term predictions about future jet fuel usage.  How much farther apart will South America and Africa be in 200 years and how will this impact jet fuel consumption?
Planetary Surfaces In order to create an anti-aging cosmetic advertising campaign, a company has contracted your team to brief them about which of the solar system’s moons has the oldest surface.
Planetary Atmospheres In support of determining how to build human-habitats on other planets, make judgments about how well electricity-producing wind turbines will perform on each of the terrestrial planets.
Astrobiology What recommendation would your team give to a new astrobiologist who is debating whether to focus her future research efforts on the Doppler-Velocity method or on the Transit method for discovering new planets.
Sun Because numerous sunspots can disrupt electronic communication systems (like walkie-talkie radios), which of the upcoming Olympic winter games most need to have backup communication systems that do not rely heavily on radio waves.
Stars Advise a jewelry company creating a new line of gemstones based on various colors of stars.  Create a table to help this company generate names that are consistent with characteristics of stars of different spectral types.
Stellar Evolution The United Nations Security Council needs a written brief from your team describing the supernova-explosion potential for the twenty stars nearest to us.
Galaxies The Ford car company is considering re-releasing a large four-door car called the GALAXY.  Propose three galaxy types for their advertising campaign and provide a rationale for ranking the galaxies from most to least desirable for this purpose.
Cosmology A recent news report says that our Milky Way galaxy is on a collision course with the Andromeda galaxy.  Your team has been hired to create an “info graphic” illustrating why people should not be concerned.

The criteria for which case studies are useful for teaching is relatively straightforward.  First, students must have the ability to understand the scenario being presented to them relatively quickly.  In other words, if students have no idea what the case is about, they won’t engage.  Second, the case needs to have an obvious problem or contradiction that needs to be solved.  If students read the case but don’t see a problem to be tackled, then they won’t engage in it either.  Finally, students have to quickly see that spending cognitive energy in understanding and solving the case is worthwhile and it will either be enjoyable or, better yet, will obviously help them understand the course material better and support them in getting a higher score on the next exam.  This is not to say that the case study cannot be complicated, far from it in fact.  Rather, the teaching case study you select must have the initial appearance of being quickly apprehendable, fruitful, and productive if you hope that your students will readily engage in the task.

What would a professor have to teach students in order to prepare them to be successful at solving a case study?  It is far more than listing facts and figures about the Universe.  In the first example listed in the previous table, students would need to know, at the very least, (i) how to determine which objects are easy to see in a telescope and interesting to discuss; (ii) which objects are visible during the observing window; (iii) how to set up a telescope and find an object; and (iv) which characteristics are interestingly worthy enough to be described and, at the same time, how to communicate these ideas effectively to the general public.  If one agrees that those are things are worth learning, then one must acknowledge that this long, juicy list is not well learned by passively listening to long lectures.  In other words, case studies not only change the way students view learning science, they also necessarily enhance how a professor goes about the business of teaching.

The reason that open-ended case studies with multiple-correct answers works so well in an introductory science survey course is that it directly confronts the widely-held but generally mistaken notion that science is boring and lacks creativity.  Again, in the example above, students have considerable flexibility and ownership in how that assignment is completed.  And, although there are many possible responses, some are certainly better answers than others.  The exciting part here is that case studies tasks with multiple-correct answers give students something to worthy debating one another about when considering the solutions provided by other student groups.  These attributes make using case studies one of the richest interactive teaching tools in the teaching toolkit.

For classroom management, three things are important to predetermine and make clear to students:  how much time students should devote to completing the task; precisely what should be produced; and if groups of students will submit a single item with a shared grade or if students should each submit their own work and if they will be graded individually.  Which you do depends on the nature of how your class is set up overall, but we suggest limiting it to 30 minutes in total: 15 minutes to “do the task” and 15 minutes to create the artifact communicating their result (short-paper, web-page, hand drawn illustration captured with a cell phone camera, PPT-slide, etc.) that demonstrates they completed the task.

Despite many good reasons to do otherwise, in this case, we further suggest that student learning groups submit a single item, and share any grade for it.  In this case, the easiest grading scheme to use is the the high-performance grading system:  score [0]-no meaningful effort; score [1]-needs significant improvement; and score [2]-essentially correct.  Briefly, the distinction between a score [1] and a score [2] is whether or not we feel like we could make a quick hand written note to correct errors or if it would be more expedient to talk to the small group in order to clear up errors.

White Boarding

If you’re worried that analyzing case studies will absorb too much class time or that you can’t keep students focused on a single task for 20 minutes, another strategy is to have students work problems or create conceptual illustrations using white dry erase boards that can easily be held by students.  Before you start to skim this description, we should warn you that many professors find these boards to be imbued with magical attributes that work better for creating student engagement than any other piece of teaching hardware you can buy.

Reminiscent of the individual chalk slates used by students in colonial-time schools, dry erase “white boards” provide a venue for students to create their own illustrations and work assigned problems in a large format that is easy for the professor to monitor.  At the same time, tasking students to write on white boards helps keep students actively engaged in the task at hand through some degree of positive peer pressure. This is because it is obvious to everyone if another student isn’t participating in the task at hand, and students generally want to be part of the crowd.

The overarching idea is for each student—or each pair of students—to have a manageable sized, erasable, white board. Then, periodically during class, students are given tasks to complete on their white boards.  While students are working, the professor can wander around giving help and applying targeted mini-lectures when needed.  When students are finished, they can share their work with nearby student groups, hold their boards overhead for the professor to see, or take a picture with their cell phone and text to the professor.


There are a wide range of tasks students can complete on their white boards.  We’ve had the best luck with focusing on providing students with a scientific concept, and asking them to create an alternative representation of it.  For example, you might provide students with a table of solar system characteristics, then ask students to create a Venn diagram of planets with and without moons.

A small sampling of other white board teaching ideas might be:

  • Devise star hoping techniques to remember star location
  • Represent numerical tables as pie charts
  • Sketch geometry for Eratosthenes’ measurements
  • Create telescope light ray diagrams
  • Venn diagrams of objects within and beyond the solar system
  • Flow charts for stellar evolution
  • Illustrate HR diagrams of differing star cluster ages
  • Explain differences among galaxy appearances

When students share the creative-space provided white boards, there is considerable student-to-student talking going on in the classroom.  Furthermore, using white boards provide a forum for students to more actively engage in the topic at hand rather than simply listening to you drone on and on about an idea in lecture mode, while mindlessly taking notes to memorize later. Of course, it is reasonable to expect a certain amount of “off topic” talk to occur in parallel, but you can keep this to a minimum by enforcing strict time limits on how long to complete the tasks.  Moreover, you can take advantage of peer instruction by positively reinforcing student groups who are working quickly and providing detailed answers, sometimes even holding up their white boards for other students to see as a model.

As you are walking around the room, you can engage students by asking them to explain what they are doing, thereby exposing how they are thinking about an idea you are trying to teach.  You can interact with students by saying, “tell me what you are trying to show here,” “tell me what you have done so far and what you will do next,” and “why are you doing this this way?”  You can even pose the dreaded but deeply engaging question, “if someone were to draw it this incorrect way, what is wrong with what they’ve done?”  This has the further advantage of supporting those students who are reluctant to speak out in class to do so because they have a script to read from or an object to focus on, thereby helping students manage some of their public speaking fears.

Where does one get dry erase white boards?  There are many options available. One approach is to simply buy them at your local big box department store or online suppliers—a 2 ft x 2 ft one is about $20 with a nice aluminum frame.  Another is to go over to your local hardware store and get large sheets of the material used to line bathroom showers—called tiled board or melamine.  A 4 ft x 8 ft sheet costs about $10.  Most stores will cut these panels to any size and if you tell them it is for a classroom, we’ve never had them charge any cutting fee.  black socksAlthough many of our colleagues recommend using 12 in. x 12 in., I personally like 24 in. x 24 in. because several students can write on it at once.  You can keep a stack in the classroom or move them around easily which an inexpensive dolly.  And, if they wear quickly, these boards can be replaced at a very low cost.  You’ll also need a box of dry erase markers (or task students to bring their own) and a bunch of cheap black socks—available at your nearby dollar-store—to use as erasers.

Perhaps most importantly, using white boards leverages the time-tested advantages of peer-to-peer teaching through collaborative groups.  Students will not only say things to each other using different words and analogies than you use, students will draw things differently than you do.  In looking at their illustrations, you can more quickly diagnose the extent to which they understand the ideas and quickly see in their work misconceptions revealed that can be immediately addressed.  You being right there side-by-side with students to coach them to the best possible understanding puts you in the best position to receive high end of semester evaluation marks for an engaged and caring professor who wants students to achieve high marks in your class.

In-Class Learning-Tutorials (LTs)

For quite some time, reflective professors have said, “I suspect lecture isn’t the most effective teaching approach, but I’m at a loss for what I might do otherwise.”  From this perspective, a response of, “well, just stop talking so much” initially seems flippant.  As it turns out, research studies confirm that a professor who simply stops lecturing for a few moments and says to students, “take three minutes and review your notes before we continue on to the next idea” achieves higher student scores—and higher course evaluations—than those professors who provide an unstoppable fire hose downloading information.  This is true even when less material is actually “covered” during lecture because there are limits to how information students can ingest in any single class period. Given that professors often find three minutes of total classroom silence disdainful, except perhaps during exams, the Lecture-Tutorials approach to teaching astronomy was developed to carefully guide student’s thinking when professors momentarily step away from the lectern.

LT-coverDuring class classroom activities have been around for a long time.  The Lecture-Tutorials (LT) approach was initially developed in astronomy by Jeff Adams, Ed Prather, and Tim Slater with colleagues while they were together at Montana State University. The LT approach has now been replicated in similar activity books by others, including: Stephanie Slater, Lancelot Kao, Windsor Morgan, and Rebecca Oppenheimer in astronomy and planetary sciences.

At its core, the Lecture-Tutorial approach provides a series of carefully designed question sequences delivered on paper worksheets for students to answer after hearing an introductory lecture. Working in pairs, students complete the question sheets during a 5-10 minute lecture intermissions, before lecture resumes.  The question sequences use a Socratic dialogue-based teaching strategy constructed on the notion that if students are just asked the right series of questions, the students themselves will develop deeper and more nuanced understanding of the topic under study.

More pragmatically, the question sequences are reminiscent of questions a professor might ask a struggling student who came in for assistance during office hours.  The question sheets themselves are intended to be unintimidating to students, and look quite a bit like one- and two-page worksheets found commonly in K-12 classrooms.

Although some professors use them off-label and not as they are intended (e.g., as solitary homework exercises), experience shows that LTs are best used during class time alongside other students after a mini-lecture to help students better understand the power of conceptual models to explain how the Universe works.  LTs are easy to implement, inexpensive by and large, and do not require considerable ramp-up for professors to learn how to use.  They are available commercially as well as from cost-free from shared-instructional materials websites.



One of the most difficult part of constructing an accurate model for planetary motions is that planets seem to wander among the stars.  During their normal (or prograde) motion, planets appear to move from west to east over many consecutive nights as seen against the background stars.  However, they occasionally (and predictably) appear to reverse direction and move east to west over consecutive nights as seen against the background stars.  This backwards motion is called retrograde motion.


Date of Observation Azimuth
(horizontal direction)
(vertical direction)
May 1 240 45
May 15 210 50
June 1 170 50
June 15 150 45
July 1 170 40
July 15 180 45
August 1 140 50
August 15 120 55


  • Given the data in the Table, plot the motion of the mystery planet on the graph provided (record dates next to each position you plot). Then, draw a smooth line (or curve), using your data points, to illustrate the path of the planet through the sky.
  • On what date was the mystery planet located farthest to the west? What was the azimuth value of the planet on this date?
  • On what date was the mystery planet located farthest to the east? What was the azimuth value of the planet on this date?
  • Describe how the mystery planet moved (east or west), as compared to the background stars, during the time between the dates identified in Questions 2 and 3.
  • During which dates does the mystery planet appear to move with normal, prograde, motion, as compared to the background stars? In what direction (east-to-west or west-to-east) does the planet appear to be moving relative to the background stars during this time?
  • During which dates does this mystery planet appear to move with backward, retrograde, motion, as compared to the background stars? In what direction (east-to-west or west-to-east) does the planet appear to be moving relative to the background stars during this time?
  • If a planet were moving with retrograde motion, how would the planet appear to move across the sky in a single night? Where would it rise?  Where would it set?
  • Suppose your instructor says that Mars is moving with retrograde motion tonight and will rise at midnight. Consider the following student statement:
  • Student: Since Mars is moving with retrograde motion that means that during the night it will be moving west-to-east rather than east-to-west.  So at midnight it will rise in the west and move across the sky and then later set in the east. Do you agree or disagree with this student?  Why?


A characteristic of these worksheets is to ask students to evaluate student statements or even comparing contradictory statements.  This approach works well when novice students have not yet mastered the scientific vocabulary needed to describe natural phenomena. For example, one student might be portrayed as saying to another student, “the Moon has not water because it has no gravity” who then responds by saying, “The Moon does have gravity, like any other planet, and the Moon’s water is frozen as un-melted ice in deep craters that never are exposed to sunlight.”   Students are then asked to craft a response to the question of which student, if either, do you agree with.  In this way, students are given the opportunity to safely judge the accuracy of distant hypothetical students’ thinking rather than directly confront their own personal thinking.  In this sense, the task is less risky than revealing their own personal views and are apt to take more risks at exposing their own potentially incorrect thinking, thus positioning themselves to learn complex astronomy ideas themselves.

It is certainly possible for professors to create their own LTs, although they usually require more development time and fine-tuning than most busy professors wish to invest.  For those who wish to create their own, a basic recipe for creating a LT is shown below.

A Basic Lecture-Tutorial Structure
Q1: Ask something familiar (seemingly unrelated: e.g., distant car headlights)
Q2-3: Simple questions in astronomy context (achieve early success)
Q4-5: More complex questions (elicit common misconceptions)
Q6: Mini-Student Debate (provide students with language to describe scientifically accurate and inaccurate ideas)
Q7: Spiral back to check students have the right ideas (e.g., novel application OR how does your answer to Q5 change after you have looked at your answer to Q6?)

Note that an LT has at least two important characteristics hinted at earlier.  One is asking students thoughtful questions.  The other is using mini-student debates to help students understand what is correct about some ideas and what is incorrect about misconceptions.  Again, the mini-debates provide students with specific language and phrases they can use to “talk astronomy” with one another.  There are certainly other approaches to in-the-classroom activities besides LTs, but LTs are used by more than 10% of all introductory astronomy students across the United States every semester because they are easy to use and work consistently well.

Scaffolded Research Tasks

For many years, it has been common practice to ask students to complete astronomy assignments and astronomy laboratory exercises in the process of learning an astronomy that looks absolutely nothing like what astronomers actually do.


For example, countless astronomy students have used pencils to trace out ellipses with loose string on small square-box graph paper and count tiny squares to “prove” Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion.  Perhaps even more students have carefully plotted the precise right ascension and declination positions of hundreds of stars to re-create the constellations and asterism of the night sky on small square-box graph paper to make their own star maps—star maps that are rarely ever used by the student. If a professor believes, instead, that students learning astronomy should actually be doing astronomy, then these traditional activities need to be discarded.  Undoubtedly, this is not the creative and imaginative work that characterizes modern astronomy.

bfs2e-coverRecently, work by Stephanie Slater, Tim Slater, Chris Palma, and Julia Kregenow has focused on developing sequenced learning experiences purposefully designed to mimic that daily work of a research astronomer. Known awkwardly as Backwards Faded Scaffolding (BFS) labs for historical reasons, this highly structured approach uses an underlying learning notion that novice students need extended and repeated engagements with scientific investigations in order to develop actual dexterity at participating in scientific inquiry

To leverage this idea of the importance of repeated intellectual engagements, the BFS labs ask students to complete five shorter scientific investigations on a topic, as opposed to the conventional approach pursuing a single, longer scientific investigation. The reason that these BFS labs are referred to as scaffolded, is that students are led through instructional sequence quanta where students are initially provided substantial amounts of support.  Then, the instructor-supplied student support is slowly removed over the course of the laboratory learning experience such that the lessons scaffolds are faded.  By the end of each lesson, students are able to devise and complete a scientific investigation in astronomy all on their own.  In this way, students gain confidence in their ability to conduct scientific inquiry in astronomy by gaining more responsibility for the learning from the beginning to the end of instruction.

The BFS labs are also known for being backwards because of how the scaffolds are carefully faded.  In the most common instructional approaches where students are taught how to conduct scientific inquiry, professors traditional teach scientific inquiry in three phases.  The first phase is usually to teach students how to ask scientifically fruitful questions. Second, students are taught to design experiments and observations to pursue evidence.  Finally, students are typically taught how to extract evidence from data and create an evidence-based astronomy conclusion.

IMG_1430 copyWhat is particularly unique about BFS laboratory learning experiences is the recognition that teaching students to ask scientifically fruitful questions is by far the most difficult aspect.  In response, the BFS research experiences teach students to first create and defend evidence-based conclusions from a given research question and given data.  Once students have mastered this, students are then taught to devise strategies to pursue data that can be used in an evidenced-based conclusion for a new research question, which is also provided for them.  Only when students have had considerable experience designing observations and defending conclusions from a number of research questions, are students then taught to create fruitful research questions—now that they have considerable experience doing the processes of scientific inquiry in astronomy.

IMG_1974Let’s consider an illustrative example.  Suppose a BFS instructional sequence in scientific inquiry is to ask students to use an online database of solar system objects showing the planet and moon positions and their motions to pursue a series of investigations.

An illustrative example series of backwards faded scaffolded BFS investigations might be to:

(i) determine the length of time our Sun spins by monitoring sunspots moving across the surface,

(ii) determine how long it takes Jupiter to spin by monitoring the reappearance of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, (iii) determine how long it take Io to spin,

(iv) determine how long it takes Io to orbit Jupiter, and

(v) create your own research project on motions of the solar system.


Two consistently great resources for this can be found by searching the Internet for NASA EYES ON THE SKY or the JPL SOLAR SYSTEM SIMULATOR. But what is vitally important here is that in each case, students are deeply engaged in a progressive series of questions, where the teacher gives substantively less support with each following investigation as students develop skills and confidence.

Slide1But what do you do with this?  We propose the answer is to have students participate in a SCIENCE SYMPOSIA.  Allow us to explain.

A commonly assigned task for college courses is an end-of-term project or term paper. The tacit goal for such an assignment surrounds encouraging students to take a closer look at a particular aspect of one of the course topics and develop a deeper and more thorough understanding of it. At first glance, this seems to be a reasonable pedagogical strategy.

Yet, when we talk to faculty teaching the introductory astronomy courses to non-science majoring students who have used this approach, we often encounter considerable frustration and regret from faculty about making such an assignment. Faculty tell us that they find all too often that their students’ essays fall far short of their expectations. Most commonly, faculty report that their students most frequently submit superficial summaries of disconnected facts gleaned, if not blatantly copied, from websites, news media stories, or textbooks. And, then there is the time consuming and sometimes delicate nature of grading essays or projects. Students too seem to generally dislike such assignments, often pushing faculty for precise requirements such as word-counts, immutable rules for number and type of allowed references, and requests for re-grading or relaxed deadlines certainly there are strategies available to mitigate these issues, but one wonders if all the effort is really worth it.

For an introductory science survey course a commonly agreed upon goal is that students will learn something about the nature of science. The National Academy of Science frames students’ proficiency in science in four dimensions: (i) know, use and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world; (ii) generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations; (iii) understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge; and (iv) participate productively in scientific practices and discourse. Articulating science proficiency in this way provides robust guidance to professors about what sorts of assignments students should engage in as part of their pathway to learning science. No matter how you slice it, this somehow seems to be inconsistent with tasking students to write a term-paper.

IMG_1795 copyWith all that preamble, what we are trying to say is that one strategy to radically alter the commonly used end-of-term essay assignment and instead host a student-lead mini-science conference. At the beginning of the course, students can be assigned the task of completing a scientific investigation of their choosing and create an illustrated poster presentation, much like is done at professional science conferences. Then, you spend the entire term preparing them for doing this, with lots and lots of practice.

Suppose your goals are less ambitious than having students actually do astronomy—maybe you just want them to enjoy and be interested in astronomy.  Well, then scaffolded tasks work for this too.

Imagine that one of your big course goals is for students to engage in and enjoy astronomy news.  Learning research tells us that simply telling students to “go read and like astronomy news” is insufficient.  Instead, you need to teach them how to read and enjoy astronomy news by providing a scaffoled set of learning experiences.

If students need to have repeated and scaffolded experiences with science text, media, and websites in the service of such a goal, exactly might that look like? In the course of a 16-week semester, we judge that there is only time for students to do five assignments in preparation for ramping up for an end-of-term, final poster presentation demonstrating their enjoyment and interest in astronomy news.

We propose the following illustrative set of experiences to support students learning how to be interested in and be able to seek out astronomy in the news:

(1) select an article and describe why it is directly relevant;

(2) write a brief summary of an article, different than the first article you selected;

(3) discern between two articles given to you by your instructor which one is scientifically-based and which one is pseudo-science or junk science;

(4) write a personal reaction to an article or your choosing you haven’t read before; and finally

(5) create an hypothetical 200-300 word news release/article for a new hypothetical scientific discovery.

We suggest a two week spacing of each assignment starting at week number one so that we would have sufficient time to students them feedback before they started on end-of-term poster presentations. One appealing aspect of this approach is that students are engaging with at least five different articles or source materials, with specific and narrowly defined tasks to attend to with each article, each increasing in intellectual complexity.

The advantage of scaffolding approaches are that they teach students to successfully engage in science journalism, in both a bite size and critical way. We find that students actually are able to create really insightful and interesting poster presentations—illustrated “book reports” if you will—by going through scaffolded learning experiences.

□   Set aside 30-min of class time for your students to solve a case study from the examples given, or create your own

□   Before investing in white boards, bring a ream of paper to class and ask students to create illustrations of a concept you just lectured about

□   Make copies of an LT corresponding to your syllabus and try three of them over the next three weeks (they don’t always work the first time or two because students don’t yet know what is expected of them)

□   Pick one of your course goals, and then create five learning experiences for students around that one goal


Earlier posts in this series are:

The anticipated upcoming posts in this innovative college astronomy series are:

  • Useful Homework Assignments: 4th of 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations
  • A Win-Win Syllabus: 5th of 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations

5 Tools for Teaching #ASTRO101

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CAPER Statement on Sexual Harassment Issues in the Astronomy Community

Stephanie J. Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, www.CAPERteam.com, Stephanie@CAPERTeam.com

In 2004, the University of Arizona began an investigation into the conduct of the astronomy education research group at Steward Observatory. This particular investigation was based upon comments provided by witnesses in an investigation into possible retaliation in a unrelated investigation, which was in turn part of a wider investigation of sexually hostile work environment. The UA astronomy education research group, an early version of the Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research (CAPER), led by Dr. Timothy Slater, Dr. Edward Prather and Gina Brissenden, was found to operate in violation of the Universityʻs sexual harassment policy, but was not found to have violated the Universityʻs policy related to retaliation.

In the investigation, it was found that the research team members often engaged in sexually charged dialogue and humor, and that the behaviors cut across ranks. The behavior was found to be both welcome and unwelcome, both solicitied and unsolicited.

As a bachelors-level administrator, Gina Brissenden was not named as Respondent in the investigation. As leaders of the research team Dr. Timothy Slater and Dr. Edward Prather were named as Respondents and both were found to be in violation of the Universityʻs sexual harassment policy in allowing a sexually charged environment to occur in the workplace. As a result, Dr. Slater, Dr. Prather, Ms. Brissenden, Dr. Chris Impey, and a number of postdocs and graduate students were required to attend training related to sexual harassment. Dr. Slater and Dr. Prather were required to attend additional management training.

Dr. Slater left Arizona to take an Endowed Chair at the University of Wyoming in 2008. Dr. Prather was subsequently offered a tenure line faculty position, and eventually received tenured at the University of Arizona. Ms. Brissenden still works at the University of Arizona and works for the American Astronomical Society in a position related to education.

Dr. Slater has made no attempt to hide his role in, or the lessons learned from these events occurring more than a decade ago, from colleagues or students. [Tim’s blog post about this from last year is available here.] As a result, some version of these events is familiar to most members of the astronomy community who are familiar with Dr. Slater and his work.

Although this matter is well known within the astronomy community and occured over a decade ago, this story is currently being recirculated amongst news organizations, as a part of a larger story of how professionals who are found to be in violation of harassment policy may continue their careers. As the senior party in the matter, the news reports have a focus on Dr. Timothy Slater who serves as a Senior Scientist with CAPER.

CAPER believes that sexual harassment is a serious workplace issue, in which the employer is responsibile for ensuring a safe and productive work environment. We stand opposed to the recent attempts to re-appropriate these issues in the name of a social justice war. We further stand opposed to the dissemination of investigative documents, as such witnesses in such cases provided testimony under the assurance of confidentiality. We believe that such acts are corrosive to due process for both complaintants and respondents, and are in opposition to the advancement of social justice for vulnerable parties.

As an education research group, CAPER believes in the redemptive power of effective intervention. Like all educational experiences, sexual harassment and management training have the potential to redirect individuals’ energies toward more productive activity. In such cases, our community should make the most of individualsʻ talents and skills, working toward progress in the field.

As the Director of CAPER, and in fulfilling the roles of observer, spouse, colleague, competitor, friend and adversary to Dr. Slater, Dr. Prather, and Ms. Brissenden for more than a decade, I possess extensive evidence that leads me to believe that the University of Arizona’s training program was effective. This evidence includes: information about subsequent reviews of Dr. Slater’s workplace performance; documentation from the University of Wyoming that Dr. Slater is not, nor has been subject to civil rights discrimination complaints or investigations; and notarized affidavits from a number of current and former graduate students, stating that they have not experienced or witnessed harassment while working with Dr. Slater.

We do not believe that allegations made in the media, by individuals who have the capacity to file formal complaints through legitimate channels, but who have not chosen to do so, constitute evidence. Trial-by-media is not a legitimate pathway to objective truth; rather, it stands poised to interfere by providing an inappropriate platform for attention-mongering and professional vengeance. CAPER stands firmly opposed to such actions. We are an organization that consistently demands evidence-based reasoning in determining the proper course of action related to the human aspects of STEM, and extend that decision-making paradigm to issues within the culture wars.

CAPER heartily hopes that the astronomy community will rapidly mature in its understanding of civil rights discrimination issues, and believes that such advances will be fostered by a reliance on research completed by individuals trained in the field, and through guidance given by competent, legal authorities.

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Interactive Lecturing Techniques: 2nd of 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, tslater@caperteam.com

This is the third in a series of blog posts on innovative college astronomy teaching written with the straight forward goal –> to provide busy faculty with easy-to-implement teaching strategies that dramatically improve the student learning experience.   The first and second blog posts are available online.

To recap the previous posts, it’s all fine and dandy to have a consistent way of delivering information to students using a helpful textbook and an easily decipherable PPT, but that is only part of your task as a professor with the goal of teaching your students to love astronomy.  The next tool you need is one that will engineer the students’ experience while sitting in your lecture. Do students listening to your lecture take on the same bored appearance and passive disposition is often observed when you are showing a long video in class?  If so, it probably isn’t the lack of your clear and well-illustrated lecture. Instead, perhaps students are simply displaying a lack of any active intellectual engagement.  Although some may say students are just apathetic, we maintain that it is your responsibility to convince them that astronomy is actually worth loving.  The bottom line is that no matter how enthusiastically delivered, any information-download lecture is often best described as

the process by which what is written on the teacher’s  notes gets transferred into students’ notebooks without passing through the brains of either.

In other words, to engage students’ brains—and yours—you need INTERACTIVE LECTURE TOOLS.

5 Tools for Teaching #ASTRO101

The first step toward rethinking and refocusing the teacher-centered lecture to a learner-centered classroom where students are intellectually engaged is to accept that much of the responsibility for learning resides squarely on the listener—not actually on the lecturer.

Lecturers can motivate, inspire, and build a series of experiences that make the discipline more accessible; but, professors cannot do the learning for students.  In fact, this notion has encouraged us to promote the perspective,

it’s not what the teacher does that matters; rather, it is what the students do.”

But, don’t worry, there is still plenty for the professor to do!!  The role of lecture in a learner-centered class perspective still exists, but is radically shifted from dispensing knowledge in a conventional course to a focus on guiding students through meaningful learning experiences as a learner-centered experience.  So, the pathway to giving great lectures is actually to say less during class and change listener behavior from passive to active!  This is not terribly difficult to do, nor does it dramatically reduce the amount of information you can cover; but, it does take a intentional pre-planning and a commitment to it being important.  This works incredibly well and professors who have gone down this road toward more active student engagement rarely back to the old way of just teaching by telling.

Posing Questions for Class Discussion

CAPER College Teaching      The key feature of any learner-centered approach is to ask questions.  To be sure, a pointed suggestion of asking some questions during a lecture might seem a tad silly.  However, the number of professors who actually pose non-rhetorical questions during their lecture is astonishingly small.  An even smaller portion of professors actually pause and wait long enough for students to answer!

Probably the biggest mistake that professors make when posing questions to the class is to pose cognitively low-level questions that are too easily answered by the students relying on preexisting declarative knowledge.  Classrooms of students responding quickly, and in unison, is often mistaken for meaningful dialogue. This is widely known as choral-response.  If all the students in the class can recite and answer without thinking about it, it’s probably a waste of valuable class time.

Example Hierarchy of Low-Level to High-Level Questions

      What is a planet?

      How many planets are there around our Sun?

      Why is Mars considered an inner planet?

      Should this newly discovered object be designated as a planet?


If you’re surprised that people tend toward asking easier rather than harder questions, consider the considerable attractive strength of the siren’s song of easy questions.  Posing easier questions more often results in students’ rapidly responding, thus avoiding awkward silence in the classroom.  Posing easier questions more often results in students giving correct answers rather than incorrect answers, thus avoiding embarrassment on all parties.  Posing easier questions are quick to design, thus making class preparation time more efficient. And, posing easier questions usually don’t require long duration answers, thus allowing the professor to more quickly get back to the business of lecturing.  Taken together, its no wonder that people are inclined to only ask easier questions.  Alas, easier questions do not support a professor intent on helping his students to love learning astronomy because the beauty is in beginning to understand the Universe’s complexity. Our recommendation is that the best posed questions should be hard enough that students need to create an idea in order to answer them, but not so difficult as to discourage students. This is definitely a fine line! The most useful questions carefully crafted to lead the students to deeper levels of understanding or to illustrate the power of scientific ideas.

Another attractive distraction that can pull you off track from creating student discussion in class besides too easy questions are “useless questions.”  Questions should drive an energetic conversation between the professor and students and questions such as “does everyone understand?” and “do you have any questions?” do not provide the professor with any desired insight into whether or not the students actually comprehend the ideas being presented.  If a professor pauses and says, “everyone with me?” students naturally respond by silently nodding their heads, whether or not they understand. This common practice is so ingrained we might not even notice when we are doing it.  Questions need to be purposeful. Know what I mean?

CAPER Lecturing in Brazil      The second challenge to effectively posing question in the classroom is providing sufficient wait time.  When posed a question, students need the professor to stop and wait.  This wait time provides students with a moment to consider the question, consider a plausible answer, consider alternatives, then decide they have sufficient confidence to respond.  This cognitively complex process takes time—a lot more time than professors think it should (because experts already know what the answer is).  It takes even longer if the class contains students who are not native English speakers. Studies have shown that if a professor can wait at least ten seconds—which often seems like an eternity when standing alone in the front of the class—then many more students will provide responses and responses will be more varied and nuanced.  This is exactly what stimulates intellectually engaged conversation and drives students to become more motivated learners.

Expert professors find pragmatic ways to stop and provide students with needed thinking-time before soliciting answers to posed questions. One particularly useful strategy to help fidgety lecturers be certain that a full ten seconds elapses before accepting a range of audience responses is to fill the time by turning away from the class, taking a sip of coffee, or flipping through lecture notes without looking at the students.  The time can be increased by asking responders to explain the reasoning behind their answers and not revealing if the offered response is correct before accepting several other plausible answers for comparison.  In much the same way discussion and think-time can be extended by posing the follow-up question, “if someone were to get this question incorrect on a test, what is it they would most likely be misunderstanding?”

As a starting place to find questions worth posing to students, consider the end-of-chapter questions from your carefully selected textbook.  Although they might not be perfect, such questions can be adapted readily to encourage student contemplation.  Another approach is to have an object, simulation, or a demonstration available to create questions around.  Lecturing about science and technology has a distinct advantage over other disciplines in that demonstrations, whether physical or computer-based, can be provocative, provide illustrative clarification, and, most importantly, excite the learner through direct experiences with unexpected phenomena.  Most astronomy professors remember the numerous demonstrations from introductory physics, but are often at more of a loss for demonstrations in astronomy.

However, the research on the actual effectiveness of teaching demonstrations is clear.  Just showing students a demonstration is no more effective than not doing a demonstration at all. The most important part of the demonstration is asking students to predict what they will see—predictions committed to in writing—and for students to predict what will happen when particular variables are changed.  It is the act of predicting and rationalizing these predictions where most of the learning occurs from demonstrations and simulations.  So, stop, and take the time to ask “what do you think you’ll see?”and then compare it afterwards to “did that match your prediction?”

Having Student Names at the Ready

Expert professors capitalize on the human condition.  Humans are social animals who respond to accountability.  What this means is that a student who knows the professor is paying attention to them measurably performs at higher levels than students who feel like they are anonymous.  What this means to professors who want to receive high end of course evaluations is that students will score professors high if they perceive that the professor values them and cares about their learning.  The most efficient way to do this is to frequently call students by name.  Really!

Before mounting a list of objections to why it is impossible to learn the all the students’ names, it is worth considering your own perspective.  How do you feel when your accomplishments—or even just your presence—is noted at faculty meetings or in a Department newsletter?  Being “seen” or “acknowledged” is an indicator of being valued. Being noticed makes people feel valuable, and people who are valued perform at higher levels of excellence.  This is critically important for a professor who wants students to believe they want them to love learning astronomy.  The bottom line here is that the benefits to learning students’ names and using them are innumerable.

One benefit is that calling students by name increases student responsibility and student accountability.  For example, if you are walking across campus and say to a student, “Hi Pat, missed having your enthusiastic responses in class earlier today, is everything ok?” helps to ensure that Pat won’t miss class participation again.  Another is that it makes a professor seem more human, which helps students give one a little leeway for teaching missteps at course evaluation time.

Knowing students’ names also helps to avoid our natural inclination to respond to what is most immediately in front of us. Unfortunately, it is far too easy for a lecturer to hold a discussion with only the students in the first few front rows. It doesn’t take too many sessions before students farther back in the classroom realize that questions posed by lecturers without accountability systems don’t actually need to be contemplated because only the first few rows are required to respond.  As a result, some system that holds all the students accountable needs to be implemented to be effective.  Some lecturers draw names from the class enrollment list at random from a hat to ask specific students questions and evenly ask people throughout the audience to participate.  One popular technique is to write students’ names on popsicle sticks using a color code that distinguishes male names from female names so that faculty can evenly alternative between males and females even though the process appears random to the audience.

There are far too many name-face-memorization strategies available to list here.  With a little bit of Internet searching, we’re confident that the perfect approach will present itself to the reader.  Probably most common is to take pictures of students and create an approximated “seating chart.”  This works well because students rarely change their seat location after the first week of class or so. It takes up some valuable class time, but pays enormous dividends in convincing students that you value them as individual learners instead of a necessary inconvenience.

Memorizing Student's Names

Acknowledging that some professors are terrible at name memorization and that one of us is certifiably handicapped at successfully learning student names, a Band-Aid approach is to insist that students fold over a piece of paper as a nametag at the edge of their desk every class.

Using Think-Pair-Share Voting Questions 

College students often consider their relationship to the professor as adversarial. Purposefully asking students meaningful questions and calling on them by name is an important first-step for warming an otherwise chilly classroom climate.  These warming effects can be quickly multiplied if a professor takes extra steps and leverages the innately social nature of college students.

Professors often lament that if students are given a chance to talk amongst themselves, that students will be out of control.  Reframing this to be more student-positive, a repeatedly successful strategy to capitalize on students’ social proclivities is to pose a multiple-choice question to students in a three-step think-par-share format.  Sometimes called Peer Instruction or clicker-questions, there are a variety of ways to accomplish this, but what follows is the most straightforward.

Example THINK-PAIR-SHARE Question

What direction does a comet’s tail(s) point?

1(A):  Away from the direction it is moving

2(B):   Away from Earth

3(C):   Away from the Sun

4(D):   Away from the ground (upward)

STEP ONE:  Students in the classroom are asked to individually THINK about a posed multiple-choice question and then, without talking to anyone else, commit to and vote on an answer.  It is crucial that people actually commit to an initial idea so that they can actively compare their initial thinking with any new understandings that might result after discussion with a peer.

Slater lecturing in San Francisco      The expert professor always asks the students to vote simultaneously and anonymously.  This can be done by holding one, two, three, or four fingers close to the chest to respond such that only the professor can see, reducing a students’ risk at publically revealing a potentially embarrassing misconception—and to keep students from mindlessly copying each other’s answers.  Colored or lettered index cards can also be easily used.  Even a folded piece of paper works with large A, B, C, and D letters crudely written in each quadrant.  The important piece here is that students are committing to an answer and you are getting information on their understanding.

STEP TWO: The second step is to ask students to PAIR with another person in the class, usually the one sitting next to them, and to SHARE their answers.  It is critical here that students not simply share which answer they think is correct, but actually verbally articulate the detailed reasoning behind their answer.  In the most common implementation, we ask audience members to convince their neighbor “why their answer is correct.”  After a minute or two, at most, of collaborative discussion, they are then asked again to respond, or vote, to the question a second time.

The are many underlying reasons that this peer-teaching works so well.  One is that when students struggle to explain their thinking, they are building better conceptual models—this is the same mechanism underlying when professors say that they never really learned physics until they started teaching it.  In other words, explaining an idea to another human improves ones’ own understanding.  A second is that student-peers share similar language, experiences, and metaphors that are often unknown to professors which can help better explain a concept: Students can often explain ideas to one another more effectively and efficiently than professors can.  These are notions a master professor thinks is worth capitalizing upon.

  1. Students individually commit to response
  2. Students compare their reasoning
  3. Students revise their initial responses

STEP THREE:  The final step is to ask students to again simultaneously and anonymously vote again.  The professor is then in a position to determine if most of the students are “getting it” and can move on to the next lecture topic or if many of the students are still struggling, and re-teaching needs to occur.  This feedback for pacing the speed of instruction is critical.

This third step is also a time for the students to get immediate feedback from the professor about if they are getting the ideas correct or not.  Students flourish—and give better course evaluations—when they know whether or not they are understanding the concepts.  As a side note, we don’t often blatantly tell students, “the correct answer is “C”, but instead usually say something more vauge like, “the key idea to getting the correct answer here is ________” emphasizing the conceptual approach for answering the question, rather than rote memorization.


Once professors become adept at using this voting and discussion approach, there are unlimited variants that work well.  One alternative is instead of using two or three questions per week, to instead use four or five questions per day.  Increasing the number of questions can be inadvertently too taxing on the students if questions are too dissimilar.  Professors who use numerous voting questions usually only change one OBVIOUS part of each question, thereby giving students more practice and do so without much student-to-student discussion.  For example:

Examples of Rapid Voting Question Sequence
At sunset, a FIRST-quarter moon is visible in the At sunset, a FULL moon is visible in the At sunset, a THIRD-quarter moon is visible in the
1(A): West 1(A): West 1(A): West
2(B):  South 2(B):  South 2(B):  South
3(C): East 3(C): East 3(C): East
4(D): not visible 4(D): not visible 4(D): not visible

A second, but similar approach is to use calculator-free mathematical reasoning tasks.  Questions like these ask students to quickly judge or rank magnitudes emphasizing the quantitative nature of astronomy.

Examples of Rapid Quantitative-Reasoning Questions
Which is largest? Which is farthest? Which planet is farthest?
 1(A):  The Sun  1(A):  The Sun  1(A):  The Sun
 2(B):  The Moon  2(B):  The Moon  2(B):  The Moon
 3(C):  Jupiter  3(C):  Jupiter  3(C):  Jupiter
 4(D):  Pluto  4(D):  Pluto  4(D):  Pluto

The underlying hope of the think-pair-share, clicker-voting questions approach is that through social conversations with peers, students will develop a more complete and nuanced understanding and the voting allows professor to carefully monitor the students’ conceptual growth.  In other words, THINK-PAIR-SHARE is a strategy for a rich feedback mechanism and more of the highly valued interactions between professors and students.  Certainly some questions work better than others: We find that vocabulary questions rarely work because there is nothing conceptual to discuss. Among many places, libraries of voting questions, sometimes called “clicker questions” are widely available through publisher’s websites of instructor resources and its usually more efficient time wise to borrow other’s created questions instead of always devising your own.

Using Mini-Debates

All learner-centered lecturers have at least one thing in common—the students are actually creating products rather than just passively listening to a lecturer dispensing knowledge.   Students in even the most basic of learner-centered learning environments do more than mindlessly recopy notes projected by the lecturer.

At some point, deeply learning astronomy requires students to move from mostly listening to someone talk about astronomy to instead themselves to learn to “talk astronomy.”  (The education-phrase-ology for this is “participate productively in scientific practices and discourse.”) So, how might one infuse the learning of astronomy with opportunities for students to practice “talking astronomy?”

Using Mini-debates consistently engage students in scientific thinking and discourse. The general idea is to challenge students to critically review a given and highly-structured “student debate,” which expresses common naïve ideas in student’s natural language.

Example Mini Student Debate

Consider two students talking about astronomy.  With which student, if either, do you agree and why?

1(A) – Pat says:  The seasons occur because in the summer, Earth is closer to the Sun.

2(B) – Chris says: I disagree. The seasons occur because there are more hours of sunlight in the summer than in the winter.

Students are asked to commit to a judgment on whether or not they agree or disagree with two, clearly stated hypothetical “student statements” and generate explanations of their reasoning.  We say highly-structured here because widely unconstrained tasks like “splitting the class in two halves and each has to debate the two sides of whether or not Pluto is a planet or if Andromeda is within or beyond our galaxy” rarely work as well as initially envisioned.  In contrast, a mini-debate provides students with the precise language that they can use for discussion.   And, fortunately, takes far less class time.

Dr. Slater lecturing in San Francisco      Experience suggests that modifying existing multiple-choice questions from old test-banks often provide excellent starter-material for rapidly developing new student mini-debates.  The strategy here is to first pull out the correct response and the most common incorrect response from an existing multiple-choice test item.  Then, take these two choices and reword them into a student debate using more casual but increasingly complex natural student language.

The bottom line here is that the most valuable role of an expert is not to simply tell students what they know; rather, it is to use their unique expertise to build rich scenarios for students to analyze using novel ideas.  Adding the pedagogical tools of invitations to learning, predictions of demonstrations, think-pair-share questions to discuss, mini-debates to be analyzed, and sample test questions, will dramatically improve the intellectual engagement of your students if they can see how these aspects improve their learning and course grades.  In other words, be sure to show students precisely how these things show up on your exam so that students know you are working hard to help them be successful.


  • Pose un-graded sample test-questions to students
  • Exchange “any questions?” with specific questions that provide evidence of student understanding
  • Purposefully increase “wait time” to 10-seconds when asking questions
  • Learn and use students’ names by taking individual pictures of students holding name signs
  • Introduce 2-3 think-pair-share voting questions into each class
  • Insert 6-8 rapid fire voting question sequences each week
  • Develop a mini-debate for each week

Earlier posts in this series are:

The anticipated upcoming posts in this innovative college astronomy series are:

5 Tools for Teaching #ASTRO101


Filed under Uncategorized

Efficient Information Delivery: 1st of 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, tim@caperteam.com

This post is the second of a monthly series of very long blog posts on innovative college astronomy teaching.  This post includes ideas about: need for a textbook; making useful PPT slides; finding the best images; using videos in class; and communicating with students via txt & email.

You can find the first, introductory post here.

The basic premise is quite simple.  You know astronomy and they don’t.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to transmit what you know into the heads of those who don’t.  It sounds deceptively simple, doesn’t it?  You’re right, it’s anything but simple.  We promise you that when done well, teaching is arduously difficult and emotionally draining work. As astronaut and famed astronomy educator George “Pinky” Nelson would often quip, “Hey, education isn’t rocket science.  It’s infinitely harder.”

5 Tools for Teaching #ASTRO101We’ll start building your new toolkit with an efficient information delivery system.  You know stuff—like astronomy—that students need to know.  You also know important information like what’s the most effective pathway to learning the broad domain encapsulated by astronomy.  You also know when exams occur, and how students’ grades are calculated.  You might even know which day students’ will complete their course evaluation forms evaluating whether or not you helped them learn and followed an organized pathway to get them there. All of this information needs to get from you to your students at the right time, at the right pace, and in a comprehendible format.  In this chapter, we’ll show you ways to accomplish this important task.

Carefully Selected Textbook

The first-tier question a compassionate teacher who wants their students to love astronomy grapples with is precisely where do students get that information from?  (If you don’t know why we are advocating a goal of students loving astronomy as a result of your course, then you skipped the first chapter and need to go back and read it first.  Really.) This dilemma is often characterized as the astronomy teachers’ version of Shakespeare’s haunting question, 2B or Not 2B, to book or not too book?  In other words, will you require that student buy a specific textbook?

There are several reasons why professors sometimes decide not to assign a textbook.  One is that books are expensive.  Another is that there are wonderful and extensive free resources available on the Internet.  Still another is that because professors lecture, students don’t need a redundant source of information.  What we hear most commonly is that students at “my <insert my institution’s name> can’t or don’t read the book anyway.”  These are all reasonable things for a professor to think.  The problem is that all of these reasons are all flawed and adopting them does not enhance one’s chances at improved teaching evaluations.  Although the table below summarizes flaws in these Not 2Buy perspectives, the most important reason is that no one has ever heard a student say unprompted, “the single best thing about this class was that she didn’t require us to buy a textbook.”

Reason Not 2Buy Flaw
Books are Expensive Compared to tuition, fees, parking, and supplies, the price is negligible.
Free resources exist on the Internet Webpages & YouTube videos suddenly come and go and often lack the pedagogical supports that learners need (bold faced words, consistent reading level, comprehensive coverage, and peer-reviewed accuracy)
Any old version of any used astronomy book will do Students experience unequal exposure and inconsistent vocabulary
Books have errors Unless you’ve had 30 professors scour your lectures and notes for errors, you’re guilty of inaccuracies
My lectures and notes are sufficient Students, particularly those whose first language isn’t English, need a way to digest information slowly and repeatedly
My students don’t read it anyway You’re right, if you don’t hold students accountable for reading there is no reason to study a book

Getting around these flaws takes some highly skilled tap dancing and we propose it just isn’t worth the Herculean efforts needed to successfully go textbook-free.  You are exposing your course evaluation scores to some serious liabilities if you and your notes are the sole source of information and expertise in the class.  Sure students CAN go look up stuff and get another perspective, but we propose that most don’t.  In the case where there is no clear supporting textbook readings assigned to students, the end result is an implicit and sizeable pressure on students—probably completely unintended by the professor— to simply rote memorize nearly everything that their professors say (or type onto a PowerPoint slide).  It is these “memorized transcripts” that end up being what students are able to answer on exams. At the same time, a hidden social contract in the introductory astronomy class causes professors themselves to feel a sizeable pressure to only ask questions about what they specifically talk about in class.

For our money, this is a LOSE-LOSE bet.  Taken together—and especially in light of the arguments forwarded in the previous post—it seems that the winning approach is to consider professor’s job to be about linking students’ thinking to the ideas of astronomy and giving students feedback about how well they are learning the concepts. This is in contrast to being the one individual responsible for delivering astronomy ideas in their entirety.

As a brief aside, we know that some folks have tried using trade books, coffee table books or extensive fact-based web sites.  Although these are attractive, particularly in how they are illustrated, they lack the tried-and-true pedagogical tools that many, many students, publishers, and authors have worked through and tried to perfect over the years: explicitly stated learning goals, headings to structure student thinking, end of chapter summaries with review questions, and, gasp, even bold-faced vocabulary words to help focus student attention.  We’re not arguing that these things are perfect and are not often overused. However, what we would say is that these pedagogical clues are important enough to student readers that having them in a textbook is more important than the pretty pictures and pedagogy-free writing of coffee table books.   Web-pages, no matter how attractive, usually suffer from this same disadvantage.

Investigating Astronomy by Slater and FreedmanReturning back to the dangers of going textbook-free, there is a real threat to equity here, but it isn’t that textbooks cost too much. The fact is that some students are preferentially disadvantaged more than other students when professors purposefully choose not to assign readings connected to their teaching from a textbook—those are the students who already struggle with learning from your lecture.

Teaching using a textbook as a tool is pedagogical skill well worth learning.  There is ample research out there suggesting consistent text readings are important resources for many students, including those students who are most in need of extra help.  Many students cannot take notes and listen to lecture at the same time.  Students with specific learning disabilities—reduced working memories, learning English as a second language, hampered with poorly developed spatial reasoning skills—struggle mightily to glean concepts and facts from lecture alone.  Moreover, non-standardized narratives from the Internet often lack the critical learning cues and structured coherence usually found in among textbooks.  Moreover, not having a textbook that is a core feature of your class unnecessarily makes life harder for our students who have A.D.D., reduced working memory.  All of this points to a simple solution to the quandary of 2Buy or Not 2Buy.  Students need to be assigned a consistent source of well-presented information.

What about students that don’t read? We posit that the consistent problem that most professors’ face related to textbooks is nothing short of Operator Error.  Some professors never ask students to be responsible for learning from their textbook.  Some professors even stand at the front of the classroom and read out loud a textbook for students. Really.  In either case, students have no reason to read the book.

We’ll give you specific strategies down the road for how to leverage students’ outside of class reading and how to hold students accountable, but for now, let’s settle this question of 2Buy or Not 2Buy—you need to choose a textbook consistent with your teaching philosophy and make it a core feature of the organized learning pathway you design for your students.

Useful PowerPoint Slides

Notwithstanding unexpected technical difficulties, I can remember the only time I’ve seen an astronomer intentionally teach for an hour without support from a writing board or a projector, computer, overhead transparency, or slide carousel; if you haven’t guessed, it was Harvard’s astronomy historian, the legendary Professor Owen Gingerich. So, we are taking it as an initial boundary condition that you’ll be using visual support as a consistent strategy to get students information about your class.  Just like we’re not advocating any specific textbook for you, we’re not advocating any particular commercial tool.  However, so that we have a shorthand notation for the general concept of some projected visual, we’ll hereafter use the commonly recognized abbreviation for MS PowerPoint, PPT.

We already know that you definitely don’t want use PPTs that have too many words, too small of figures, distracting transitions and animations, or insufficiently contrasting colors.  You’ve endured too many of those yourself at professional science conferences.  But, the question at hand really is what about your PPT will help improve your course evaluations?  In other words, what will enhance students’ perception that you want to help students learn and that you follow an organized pathway?  Fortunately, purposefully designed PPTs can dramatically help here.

As a first step, we should review the basic rules of what does and does not help on a PPT.  You might be thinking to yourself that you already know all of these things, but a quick tour through your building peaking in on other professors’ classes or wandering through scientific conference presentations should remind you that we can all forget the basics too often.

When faculty conduct surveys of what students do and don’t like about their professor’s PPT slides, they universally plea for professors to stop reading their PPTs to students.  Really.  Beyond that, consider the following:

Students DON’T like Students DO like
Too many words Short phrases to copy
Animated images Easy to read graphs
Unnecessary animations Slowly increasing  complexity of graphs
Inconsistent format Short video clips
Too many colors Consistent use of colored font for emphasis

Here is a place where a review of your materials from a confidential, critical friend can help.  A critical friend is the one-person you can depend on who will take time to quietly let you know when you have spinach stuck in your teeth or that you embarrassingly mistyped something in that ranting Department-wide email-memo you are about to send.  This person does not necessarily need to be at your institution, and perhaps it is better that they are not. But it needs to be someone you respect as an equal as well as a confidant. If you don’t have a critical friend, you need to start nurturing such a relationship so you have someone with which you can exchange your PPTs with to check for problems one of you might have missed.

The basic time-tested guidelines for PPT your critical-friend should check are:

The NO-List for PPT Slides

  • No hard to see colors

  • No more than six lines of text

  • No more than six words per line

  • No complete sentences

  • No adjectives

  • No punctuation

¨ The problem with projecting complete sentences is that students have been long conditioned to write down everything on the PPT, no matter how much you beg them to do otherwise.  This includes the capital letters starting the sentence, illustrative adjectives & adverbs, and punctuation at the end. We promise you that you do have the unexpectedly large amount of your limited each week available to allocate toward teaching your students how to effectively and efficiently take notes in addition to teaching astronomy.  You could staunchly maintain that college students should already know how to take notes and it isn’t your responsibility to teach them how, but then you’ll likely demonstrate to your students that you aren’t actually interested in helping them learn.  In other words, a wise professor wouldn’t unnecessarily provoke sleeping bear on this one, especially if the bear also completes end of course evaluations.

Provide Naked PPT

The notion of avoiding complete sentences on your PPT is part of the broader teaching strategy not overwhelming students.  You probably wouldn’t be surprised if we reminded you that learners cannot learn from a spouting fire hose of information drenching them with as many facts as possible.

Although the PPT-experts say you should avoid unnecessary pictures, we would argue otherwise. PPTs that only contain bullet points are as monotonous as some of those memorable professors you had in graduate school.  Pictures, even if gratuitous, serve to break up the boredom potential.  Regardless, you should always talk about the images you project.  Unlike you, novice astronomy students do not readily know what an image is or what is important about it.  Students also won’t have any sense of scale, even if a tiny legend is embossed across the bottom.   We’ll talk about where to find pictures for your PPT and how best to use them in a bit.  However, we need to talk about organized systems to get information to your students using PPT a bit more.

A perennial question among professors is whether or not to provide students with photocopies of your PPT, or if they should be provided online.  The first order argument for distributing
them early is that students can allocate their scarce class time attention to annotating the PPTs rather than furiously taking complete notes of their own.  There are obvious advantages to this, not the least of which is ensuring you actually have your notes done more than 60-seconds before class starts. This also means that students who miss class or didn’t successfully copy down all of the PPT’s information have a back-up information system.

A contrasting perspective is that students won’t be motivated to come to class PowerPoint with Missing Information: The Naked PowerPointif the PPTs are available elsewhere.  We have to agree with the students on this one; if the only reason students have to come to class is to get information to memorize from the PPT, why go to class at all?  The remaining chapters in the book are written specifically to counteract this notion:  Your class time should be so well organized and carefully designed to be so incredibly valuable that your students wouldn’t imagine missing it in their wildest dreams.  If that’s not motivation enough to keep reading this book, we don’t know what would be!

If you do decide to distribute the PPT to students, we recommend that you strategically remove key information that students need to fill in.  Many professors find providing what we affectionately call Naked-PPT to be highly effective.  More formally known in the formal science teaching literature as “guided notes”, these are PPT with key information removed and replaced with a blank line for students to complete themselves.

PPT Displayed for Class PPT Given to Students
Definition of a Planet Definition of a Planet
1. orbits a star 1. orbits a _____
2. enough mass to become spherical 2. enough _____ to become spherical
3. dominant object in its orbit 3. dominant object in its _____


The underlying thinking here, confirmed by systematic education research, is that the process of students’ actively dressing the Naked-PPT during class will keep students more attentive.  Moreover, changing your PPT into Naked-PPT is takes just a few seconds.  First, complete and save your PPT presentation that you’ll be presenting in class.  Second, save your final presentation a second time with a new name, adding –Naked.ppt to the end of the name. In this Naked-PPT version remove one or two vital pieces of information from some of the slides. As a word of _______ here, don’t go overboard and remove too much information. You only need to add a few blank lines here and there to make strategy this work like a charm.  Removing too much information will make students perceive you are trying to trick them into coming to _______ by withholding information they need to succeed, which they will resent and report when they fill out your end-of-class _______ forms. Finally, distribute this Naked-PPT version to your students instead of the version you present during class.  It works with images too!

The process of creating fill-in-the-box images is surprisingly easy.  All we have done to create the example shown is insert rectangle shapes over some of the targeted words and filled them with white.

Another strategy engaging teachers use is to slowly increase the amount of information on their PPT.  Like the potentially provocative label Naked-PPT, in the old days professors would call this strategy by an equally lewd name, the ‘stripping transparency.’  The strategy then was to cover most of your projected information with an opaque piece of paper, and slowly reveal information as it was needed by the students.

Definition of a Planet Definition of a Planet Definition of a Planet
1. orbits a star 1. orbits a star 1. orbits a star
2. enough mass to become spherical 2. enough mass to become spherical
3. dominant object in its orbit


The thinking in those days past, which is still applicable today, was that students would hurriedly write down everything on the screen before listening to anything the professor had to say and, in the process, miss the first half of the professor’s lecture.  This is because most students  can not listen and write at the same time, so the tactic was to limit what students had available to copy at any one time.  Today, the strategy is to use the Animate function in most PPT computer programs to slowly dispense information.  Adopting some version of this yourself is probably a wise choice for your presentations. Not only does this work well for bullet lists, but it also works well when teaching with images, which we will describe in the next section.

No matter how you use PPT, most professors find creating PPT to be an enormously time consuming task that effectively crowds out the more important aspects of teaching students to love astronomy.  This is especially true if you are a perfectionist.  The truth is that students don’t notice or appreciate whether or not your slides are perfect.  We recommend that you adopt the perspective that 80% good is good enough.  This isn’t so you have extra time to get to the golf course; instead, we want you to use all your available teaching-innovation energy to implement the interactive teaching strategies in the remaining pages of this book.

You might be surprised to learn that nearly complete PPT sets already exist for your class.  Most book publishers have already paid someone to work really hard creating PPT sets for each chapter (they’ve also created test-item libraries, among other valuable resources).  Typically, these PPTs already use images from your selected book and have the most important vocabulary included.  If this isn’t enough, there are also PPT repositories online for all topics that are uncovered by Internet searches.  Moreover, you can even use PPT sets designed from other books. If you don’t know where to find these, call your book’s publisher and marketing representative who will enthusiastically share the many resources they’ve created.  By all measures, none of these PPTs you’ll find are close to perfect, nor are these tightly aligned to the specific teaching you want to do. These are, however, sufficiently good starting places to adapt to your own teaching, especially if you adopt“80% good is good enough so there is ample time to improve other parts of class” thinking.

Awe Inspiring Pictures & Video

Let’s pause for a moment and be glad you don’t teach accounting or finance classes. Those are fine disciplines, we’re sure.  However, they don’t have nearly the array of inspiring images available for teaching that we have in astronomy.  Some people might get chills looking a supply & demand graphs, but we most definitely do not.  Instead, images and videos help illustrate to students that astronomy is first and foremost an observational science.  Better still, astronomy is… beautiful!

Finding The Perfect Image

Let’s start with the question of where to find pictures, images, illustrations, animations, and movies before we discuss how to use them most effectively.  The problem here is not that there are insufficient visual resources available for teaching.  On the contrary, there are far too many available and the vast array can be as overwhelming for students as it is for us!  The question is not what, but which?

As a seemingly unrelated story, consider people trying desperately to follow a successful diet in order to lose weight.  Weight loss is straightforward in theory: Weight loss occurs when more calories are burned in the course of a day than consumed.  As told to us again and again by our elders, the difference between theory and practice is that in theory, there is no difference.  What doesn’t work when is simply to try to power through life knowing you should eat carrots instead of burritos for lunch. What the nutrition researchers tell us is that a dieter’s most successful strategy in this case is to eliminate options.  In other words, the most successful dieters pick five healthy meals they like to eat and eat only those meals, no options.  If you go off the path and try something new, that’s the first step to falling off your diet. This doesn’t sound appealing, and it’s not, but it works.

Let’s apply this same notion to finding pictures and videos to help your students leaHubble Space Telescope Nebula Collagern astronomy.  Just like there are at least 36 different hammers in the tool section of your local hardware store, there are at least 36 different places to find that perfect image of a planetary nebula for your PPT.   One of us has spent hours and hours and hours looking for just the single, perfect image to illustrate a concept to students.  Hours and hours for a single ideal image.  Really.  We beg you; do not fall into the timeless black hole of endlessly searching for the perfect image.  Instead, adopt the dieter’s approach and painfully limit the number of places you’ll look for an image to five online repositories.  You can choose to look at more places, but at your own peril.

To re-emphasize, probably any five resource repositories will do as long as you have one for the night sky, one for planets, one for stars, and one for galaxies.   At the risk of infuriating many of our good friends who have devoted countless hours to making the perfect repository themselves, we offer a starting five that might work for you.  The web addresses are current as of this printing, but always subject to change, are:

Five Astronomy Image Repositories

Yes, Wikipedia has great images.  Yes, Google Images has wonderful pictures. Yes, the European Southern Observatory has well-classified photographs. Yes, you’re right, that place does too.  Astronomical Society of the Pacific and Foothill College’s resource-guru Andrew Fraknoi keeps an active list of nearly a hundred such repositories.  As we said earlier, there is no shortage of places to find stunning astronomy to share with students.  Remember, your task is to not be paralyzed by the overwhelming opportunities.

Anytime you go to an image repository, look for links to “Top 10” or “Heritage Collection” or “Greatest Hits” or “Anniversary Images” to find that sites most popular images. Be aware that some images are copyrighted, and only some exist in the public domain, but most are available for “fair use” for limited educational purposes.  Your first-tier approach to avoiding legal violations is to always note on your PPT the precise web address where the image came from so that your presentations model how to students can avoid plagiarism.

Engaging Students with Images

map of Laramie, WyomingNow let’s turn our attention to how to use images most effectively for teaching.  As a first step, you will be rewarded handsomely if you nurture within yourself a habit of always talking about each projected image three times.  Before you balk at this, take a moment and imagine an expert weather newscast for a city you probably don’t live in.  The best journalists are trained to say, “Let’s take a look at the weather out in the Rockies.  The chilly, north winds are picking up the southeastern corner of Wyoming.  The city of Laramie is expecting another two feet of snow.”  Notice how they’ve oriented the audience three distinct times, each one with more specificity than the last: (i) Rocky Mountain region, (ii) state of Wyoming, and (iii) Laramie.  Because it takes an un-oriented viewer a few seconds to digest an unfamiliar image, the strategy of “say it three ways” when talking about an image slowly gives the audience time to catch up with you.

Now, imagine how you might talk about the image of a comet nucleus three times.  Perhaps you could say, “Here we have a city-sized comet.  The 6-mile wide comet is mostly made of ice which begins to melt when it is close to the Sun. You can’t see this view from Earth because the comet is so tiny; this close up picture was taken by a spacecraft visiting the comet.”  Notice these three sentences aren’t three separate things you want students to memorize. Rather, these are three things that give students things to notice while their brains are trying to figure out what the picture is.

In addition to habitually orienting your listeners to the image by dragging your feet about getting to the good stuff, expert presenters also explicitly point out what viewers should notice.  Whereas inexperienced presenters use a laser pointer and rapidly circle things on the screen like they are using a burning Fourth of July sparkler to write their name in the air, the best presenters do something much better.

PPT Markup OptionsA picture really is worth a thousand words, and students can be quickly overwhelmed by the information contained within a single picture.  One strategy is to insert an oval shape over an image to direct students’ attention to what’s most important. Even better, many PPT-style programs will allow you to draw on an image while you talk about it.  Television sports commentators do something similar when drawing on an image to highlight player positions or holes in the defense when explaining a particular aspect of a game.   The most common way is to draw on your PPT is to call up a drawing tool by doing the equivalent of a right-click on your PPT when in play/presentation mode and select pointer.  If students have a copy of your PPT, they can also draw on their copies, further engaging them actively in your presentation.  Drawing on your PPT further slows down your presentation, giving students a much needed chance to catch up with you and better follow along with your presentation.

Posing Questions Instead of Answers

But, if you really want to engage your students, giving them boring figure caption style descriptions is not the way to go.  Instead, we recommend that you pose questions about the pictures you are showing. Posing questions requires students to engage in the picture and make inferences, whereas clearly stating facts requires nothing on the part of students other than to write it down.

Imagine for a moment a series of powerful images you will probably show your students: Hubble Ultra Deep Field, Martian Surface Water, Pluto’s IAU Vote, or Thirty Meter Telescope atop Maunakea. It’s only natural to want to tell students about the images, but facts won’t make students love astronomy. What could happen in the classroom if, on the other hand, the images were used in conjunction with questions, rather than the facts? In the spirit of being provocative, consider alternative figure captions in the table below:

Just the Facts Alternative Engaging Questions to Consider
IMAGE: Hubble Ultra Deep Field
This picture shows more than 10,000 galaxies in a tiny region of space Do astronomers compete against one another for highly limited telescope time?
IMAGE: Mars Phoenix Lander discovering water
Water observed on Mars How could a Faster-Better- Cheaper Mars Phoenix Lander is created from spare parts and finds water beneath rockets?
IMAGE: 2006 IAU Vote on Pluto
Pluto is now classified as a dwarf planet Pluto is still there; but, why can’t smart humans agree on its category?
IMAGE: Artist’s Conception of Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea
TMT is being built in Hawai’i Where should the next great new telescope be built?

Our thinking here could naturally be misinterpreted as suggesting that facts are unimportant or that students don’t really care about hearing cool facts. In stark contrast, we are convinced that students really do want to hear about what’s it called, how big is it, how far away, and how did it get that way? What we are advocating here is that although precisely articulated and cleverly articulated facts are definitely cool, they are insufficient on their own to deeply engage the audience in a memorable experience. Given that memories are the residue of thinking, it behooves the compassionate professor to be sure that the students has the opportunity to ponder questions, make inferences, and be positioned to welcome the facts and figures available to them when they’re primed and ready.

Using Videos in Class

You’re probably already thinking that high-quality videos exist to do precisely what we’re talking about—present high quality images and use additional graphics to support the presentation.  This might tempt you to replace large portions of your class time with high-production videos.  These videos can play an important role in the organized teaching plan you have created for your students, but only to a point. There is definitely a right-way and a wrong-way to use videos as part of your class.

It’s not that there aren’t great video resources out there.  On the contrary, there are amazing video resources available for teaching astronomy, perhaps more than any other field (except perhaps oceanography).  The number of high production astronomy videos made in the last decade is nothing short of astronomical. Satellite television providers such as the Discovery Channel, History Channel, NASA TV and Science TV have joined the longstanding and highly respected video production efforts of IMAX, PBS, and the National Geographic Society NatGEO—just to name a few of the many talented production efforts out there—to super high-production quality videos and video series.

For one, the most highly rated of these videos show the best “talking head” profiles of some of the most influential and photogenic astronomers around.  Neil deGrasse Tyson has thousands of social media followers and has even appeared repeatedly on wildly popular television talk shows like Comedy Channel’s Daily Show and the Steven Cobert’s shows among others. High-production quality videos go a long way to helping students see that astronomy is a human enterprise.  Moreover, many of these videos do a reasonably good job of showing today’s astronomers as being highly diverse in racial demographic and quite a few women.

The good news here is that television can play a role in helping expand and enhance the stereotypical image of an astronomer from being only a white-haired (or non-haired) white male smoking a pipe in a cold, mountain-top observatory to a more contemporary view of astronomers as being equally likely to being a partying group young males and females from across the racial spectrum.  As evidence, we remind you of the various NASA mission video clips showing young astronomers dancing, yelling, and celebrating during successful Mars landings. These videos are enormously popular on video websites like YouTube.  Some of these individuals even acquire a tremendous social media following that greatly extends their previously allotted 15 minutes of fame.  In other words, these videos can serve to enhance the image of astronomers as people, and perhaps even improve the nation’s evaporating science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) career pipeline.

Perhaps more important than showing our tribe of astronomers as being a diverse group of people, these videos include the latest and greatest graphics-intensive animations and computer simulations.  There are only three words to describe these animations—and all three of them are “WOW.”  Many of these animations have a wow-factor that make even the most curmudgeonly critical astronomers look up from their computers and pause to watch.  Over the last decade, the entire career field of scientific visualization has stood up to take advantage of and match new computer graphics capabilities with the high-computing power that was once restricted to supercomputers and is now found waiting inside desktop machines.  NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Scientific Visualization Studio, as but one example, has hundreds of videos ready for Internet download that can be used equally well in television documentaries as well as in astronomy classrooms.

More to the point, if these exceptionally well-produced video resources are there and ready to go, then why don’t we just turn them on and let them run for the entire class session?  Or maybe you’re thinking, if students can watch these amazing videos in the evenings while wearing their bunny slippers, then there doesn’t seem to be any need for students or faculty to go through the hassle of fighting for a parking place and coming to campus at all!  Taken together, the current situation seems to be that we have engaging and good looking speakers describing super high-quality animations just a mouse click away. This entire notion of using videos IN class—or using videos FOR class altogether—sounds like a no brainer, WIN-WIN situation for everyone. This is especially true when you remember that too many astronomy professors are simply terrible lecturers to begin with.  With all of this, you might be inclined to say, “hey, what are we waiting for? Bring on the videos?

There are downsides here.  As it seems with every “force” in the universe, there are unfortunate dark shadows of using even the highest quality and most scientifically accurate videos in your astronomy class.  One has to do with the innate—and perhaps immutable—nature of students.  Will students pay attention to a video better than a live lecture?

At the same time, your colleagues probably wonder, even if only as a mere idle curiosity, how many students are really paying attention to a lecture as an hour wears on. We often hear colleagues say, “ah, today’s students just can’t seem to pay attention like they used to.”  Probably not surprising, the answer from decades old research is not many: This research was done back in the days when our colleagues were young so they are really talking about themselves!  Despite some nostalgic thoughts otherwise, it’s no different today.

In the end, students are not likely to naturally watch a video with any more interest than they are to passively watch your lecture.  Research backs too backs up this supposition.  Alison Gopnik, author of the famed book Scientist in the Crib, reports in her more recent research that infants do not pay attention to a Skype video call from their mother with nearly the same attention that they will when mom is physically present.

The more argumentative reader might pose that students are able to watch Hollywood movies for hours on end with rapt attention, remembering some of the most obscure details.  Again, research helps us understand what is going on.  Daniel Willingham proposes in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School, that video material being presented needs to at least have the potential to make an emotional connection with the listener in order to be deeply remembered.  Hollywood movies and adventure television shows do this in spades: the damsel in distress ready to be rescued, the seemingly impossible to solve mystery, the hero’s journey from adversity to triumph.  Given the above, one should be greatly surprised if even the most accurate of black hole animations stands well-poised to make an emotional connection for many students.

Another component of a darkly shaded side of using videos has to do with the innate nature of professors.  By and large, professors seem to be insanely busy people—if you aren’t sure this is true, all you need to do is ask a few and they will be happy to tell you how busy they are. Many professors travel frequently and need to miss class.  Because professors are people, when a professor has to miss a class or don’t have time to prepare for class, one seemingly easily implementable solution is to show their class a video.  As a substitute for a well-planned lecture, rather than no lecture at all, a video might initially seem like a reasonable option.  As pointed out earlier, modern videos have fantastic animations, good looking and well-spoken experts, and sometimes engaging story lines.  But the reason we have professors who are experts in the field teach classes is not that they are great speakers—if we only needed great speakers we’d hire actors to teach our classes—rather, we hire experts because they should be able to coach students along the pathway of learning astronomy.  When a professor understands the material, they are able to probe students understanding by posing examples and counter examples of different concepts to help students extend their understanding.  Moreover, they are able to provide rapid feedback to students who are struggling to learn astronomy in ways that performing actors just can’t do.  In other words, it’s the two-way human interaction that is needed, not the attractive downloading of information, which constitutes effective astronomy teaching.

Fortunately, there are some effective strategies you can use right away to take full advantage of high-quality video resources. The most basic rule is to use only short video clips of about 3 minutes (5 minutes as an absolute maximum).  The underlying secret to success is to have a very specific reason for using the video clip and to fully inform students what they are about to see, why you are showing it to them, and what they are supposed to take away. This is precisely the same tried-and-true presentation skills from physics education research about how to do effective classroom demonstrations: What a professor does BEFORE showing demonstration is much more influential than anything that a professor does after the demonstration.  This is going to be true with using videos too.  In fact, one sure-fire strategy is to pause a video (or demonstration) in the middle and ask students to justify predictions about what they think might be going to see next.  Really!

Providing Video Discussion Guides

If you are committed to having students watch a really great, but hour-long video presentation—like COSMOS—then the cardinal rule is that instructors need a scheme to help students intellectually participate in and interact with the ideas in the video.  Motivated because we are trying to improve the different Internet-based, asynchronous distance learning astronomy courses we teach, we have been experimenting with Student Video Guide worksheets.  The general idea underlying the Student Video Guide is to keep the student intellectually engaged with the video while it is playing.

Leveraging Bloom’s Taxonomy, we present the students with three distinct levels of quVideo Discussion Guideestions, each with increasing levels of complexity.  For an hour-long video, we first ask four to eight factual, knowledge-level questions from the video.  An example is, How far above Earth’s surface is the Hubble Space Telescope?  The point of these first-tier questions are to help students focus on the more relevant facts shared in the video.  The second thing we pose to students are two to four deeper level, synthesis and evaluation questions from the video.   An example is, “Were the Hubble’s observations of Mars or Saturn the most scientifically valuable?”  Finally, we post one or two self-reflection questions.  The point of these questions is to attempt to make the information in the video more emotionally relevant to students so that they have a better chance of internalizing the ideas.  An example of one of these self-reflection questions is, “Of the many Hubble images shown, which 12 HST images would you pick to use in a calendar and why?

To be clear about how we use these, we give the students the questions on the Student Video Guide before the video starts and encourage them to look over the questions before the video starts so that they know precisely what that are looking for while watching the video.  We quickly grade them for only three completeness: 2pts-mostly completed thoughtfully, 0pts-not very thoughtfully completed, and 1pt-somewhere in between.

The truth is that there are amazing video resources available for teaching astronomy.  However, education research clearly shows that it is irresponsible just to turn on the video as a classroom babysitter in your absence and blindly hope that students might benefit.  Videos need to have a specific purpose for their inclusion and their rationale explained to students to generate their buy in.  In other words, for videos to be an effective way to get information to students, you need to successfully convince students that the videos used will specifically help them get a better grade in your course and, most importantly, will help students love astronomy.

Teaching Email & SMS

To remind you where we are, students give the best evaluations to those professors who students perceive will help them learn and follow an organized learning plan to help students get there.  In the domain of getting information to your students in an organized way, let’s talk about communication systems.

As a caveat, we’ll say at the outset that how to best communicate with students changes quickly.  Before the ink is even dry on this printing, specific email or cell phone systems might have become extinct as technological dinosaurs.  So, we beg for your forgiveness in our seeming to be luddites and beseech thyself to read between the lines for the overarching ideas that you can apply right away.

Create a Teaching-Specific Email Account

Probably the single thing that has changed the most since we started teaching is that students and professors rapidly—and too often thoughtlessly—pose questions and provide information by Email.  In the old days, students usually had to wait until after class or attend a professor’s office hours to ask questions and professors had to wait until the Department photocopier was available to distribute information.  This means that business-as-usual isn’t the same as it used to be.  A professor who wants to get a high evaluation score on “The professor was available” needs a winning strategy.

For the moment, let’s take a short aside and talk about strategic Email management.  Because nearly all of us will strongly agree with the statement, “I get too much Email.” a professor who loses student information or doesn’t respond to students in a respectful or timely fashion will get lower evaluation scores than they would like.

The common misconception among faculty is that students expect professors to be available 24/7 to respond to their emails.  We suspect that this tacit belief is originates from faculty often expect other faculty to be available 24/7 to respond to their Emails.  While it is true that students rightfully complain that faculty rarely respond to their inquiries, or if they do, they do so with a seemingly disrespectful, “It’s in the syllabus.” we think that students are perfectly happy waiting for a response as long as they know WHEN to expect a response.  Think for a moment about when you send an Email and you receive an away-vacation auto-response telling you when to expect a reply or what to do if it is an emergency.  Do you get upset or do you work manage it?  We suspect that most of you manage to work with that constraint of no one being at the other end to respond at that precise moment.  What does make everyone cranky is not knowing when to receive a response; fortunately, this is easy for you to fix

The solution here is to create an email account specifically for students in the classes you are teaching to use.  We happen to use slaterclass@yahoo.com and that is the address we give to students.  We tell students and repeat on the syllabus:

Please don’t contact me at my university.edu Email address because so much spam and junk mails comes through there that I will likely miss your Email, which I really don’t want to do.  When you Email me at this special address I’ve set up for this class, I will be sure to get it and you’ll get a response by the end of the day on Tuesday or Friday when I respond to my Email.  If there is an emergency and it can’t wait, don’t use Email to contact me, call my office phone number and leave a message so I can get right back to you.

Be sure to set up a polite and respectful auto-responding vacation message that repeats basically the same thing.

I received your email. Thanks for taking the time to send it.  However, I usually can only check and respond to emails on Tuesday and Friday afternoons.  If you haven’t heard from me by then, please contact me again.  If this is an emergency and can’t wait until then, please call my office at 808-123-4567 and leave a detailed message.  See you in class!

That’s it.  Really. This is all it takes for students to feel like you care about being sure you get their Email message and that you care about their learning.

But this is only half the battle.  You also have to respond when you say you are going to.  However, when you’ve set up a special Email account just for class issues and set up a time when you are going to respond, this becomes very easy if you follow three simple rules.

Three Simple Rules for Your Teaching Email Account
Rule #1:  You will NOT forward this Email account to your most frequently used Email account.  This helps you stay focused on other academic pursuits without distraction.

Rule #2:  You will ONLY read and respond to your teaching Email account on specified days and times.  This allows you to have all of your class information at the ready and not be distracted by other academic pursuits.

Rule #3:  You will PREWRITE most of your answers and copy -> paste your responses then make small edits.  This allows you to provide seemingly thoughtful and un-rushed responses helping students know you care about their learning and follow an organized pathway to help them learn.

We keep a folder of responses-to-students.txt files that we can readily copy -> paste into Emails to students.  They all start with a real salutation (Dear ______) and a polite introduction saying their Email was appreciated (Thanks for taking time to send your question by Email), and then most often restating some information that was contained in the syllabus (If you can’t access your online homework, you’ll need to contact Tech Support at 800-123-4567 right away. Don’t worry, we’ll drop your lowest homework score from your final grade calculation so that a technical hiccup won’t negatively impact your grade).  We then add an ending sentence about something from the class or in this week’s sky so that they can see the Email response is current (Don’t forget to look for Mars in the western sky this week at sunset).  The multi-fold goals here are to: (i) provide thoughtful and timely responses to students, (ii) save you time, and (iii) keep teaching-issues separate from other academic pursuits and responsibilities.

Adopt a Cell-Phone TXT Message Distribution System

You’ve probably noticed that students often communicate using the mobile phones in ways besides using Email.  The really frustrating part for professors is that the most popular communication system seems to change every semester, so it is hard to adopt one.  However, if your goal is to be sure that students can get timely information delivered to them—and it is—you need some system to quickly get information in front of them so that they know you follow an organized system to help them learn.

We happen to like a system called Remind.com—which we hope isn’t too out dated by the time you read this.  We’re not advocating this one specifically, it’s one of a million that are out there.  What we like about Remind.com is that you get a separate code for each class you teach and give to students who sign up to receive your text messages.  It’s totally private and no one can see anyone else’s cell phone number.  You can also pre-schedule your outgoing text message reminders.

The importance of this system is that you can send reminders about assignments being due the day before, or announce impromptu study sessions, or tell students about interesting sky phenomena they could observe (like a ISS flyover), or let students know that you’ll be a few minutes late to class because you couldn’t find parking and to please wait for you.  Having a system to provide information and gentle reminders to students is an important part of designing and following an organized learning pathway for them.  In other words, it helps broaden your communication pathway.

Virtual Office Hours

If you want to supercharge students’ views of your commitment to teaching them to love astronomy, we recommend you consider holding some virtual office hours online.  In days not so long ago, professors who held office hours in dormitory cafeterias or nearby coffee shops were often rewarded and awarded for their efforts.  If you’re not in a place where this makes sense, then Internet-based virtual office hours can be an attractive option.  There are countless ways one could do this by doing a little Internet searching.  These might be Google Video Hangouts, Twitter-Chats, Skype desktop video conferencing calls and the like.  You could encourage students to just drop by and chat or you could provide structured exam review sessions.  The main thing here is to make yourself easily available at specific times, rather than opening yourself up to constant but fragmented access.

This is important even if no student ever actually shows up because it provides yet another opportunity to demonstrate how much you care about your students learning to love astronomy. And who knows, maybe you’ll end up getting to talk even more about current affairs in astronomy than class time normally allows.


  • Carefully select a textbook and make specific reading and task assignments from it
  • Dramatically limit the number of words on your PPT
  • Distribute Naked-PPT for students to complete during class
  • Start with pre-existing PPT sets and make them educational
  • Limit how much time you spend looking for images and videos to share with students
  • Caption images with questions rather than facts
  • Use short video clips with structured questions to answer
  • Create a teaching-specific email account and use pre-written responses
  • Adopt a rapid-messaging system to alert students to class and sky events
  • Use online, virtual office hours to increase students’ access to you

If you didn’t have a chance to see an earlier post in this series, check out:

The anticipated upcoming posts in this innovative college astronomy series are:

  • Interactive Lectures: 2nd of 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations
  • In-class Collaborative Activities: 3rd of 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations
  • Useful Homework Assignments: 4th of 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations
  • A Win-Win Syllabus: 5th of 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations

5 Tools for Teaching #ASTRO101


Filed under Uncategorized

5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations: A Long Introduction

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, tslater@caperteam.com

This post is the first of a monthly series of rather long blog posts on innovative college astronomy teaching.

This post includes teaching advice on the topics of how students approach end-of-course evaluations; how many math problems to work; how to motivate students from the first day; and the AAS Advocated #ASTRO101 Teaching Goals.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. The journey to learning to teach astronomy can often seem like you’re the lead character in Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.  If you don’t understand the obscure reference, don’t worry.  As it turns out, when you teach astronomy, you’ll also introduce references intended to help connect students to your class to which some of your students immediately identify with, while others completely miss the connection.Tale of Two Cities Book Cover Image

For most of us, the long and winding road to becoming an expert astronomy professor starts with the highest of expectations and the very best of intentions.  All too quickly, many of those hopes and dreams are dashed and broken against the metaphorical rocks; within days you can’t find enough time to adequately prepare your detailed lecture notes, students bring a dizzying array of reasons why they couldn’t pay attention in class-if they were there at all, and students’ exam performance turns out to be far lower than you ever imagined.  Then, adding insult to injury, at the end of the course, you get to muster as much grit and resilience as you can to prop up what’s remaining of your self-esteem for the all-to-personal commentary soon-to-be-levied on your teaching performance by student teaching evaluations.  What seems worse, is that these student-completed teaching evaluations will be collected from students before the course is even over and students can see the final fruit of the harvest, never allowing you the chance to correct any misunderstandings or misperceptions students might have about your course.  Perhaps things will get better next time you teach the course…or perhaps not.

Astronomy Cartoon Image: All Stars Are AlikeMost of us are left with the question of, what else could I do?  Could I give more precisely articulated lectures with better illustrations?  Maybe I need to insert some humor?  Perhaps I should get rid of that stuffy-archaic textbook and let students read free assigned material from the Internet?  Maybe I just need to give students detailed study-sheets to better help them prepare for exams?  Or, maybe it’s not me after all—could it be the inadequacy of those student-evaluation feedback forms, because a simple bubble-sheet form with a short space for comments couldn’t possibly be the right tool to get accurate feedback from my occasionally apathetic students?

Maybe little of the above scenario accurately describes your teaching experiences, or captures any concerns you imagine about your future teaching experiences.  Alternatively, maybe you’ve got a class design that is working exceptionally well and you are looking for ways to fine tune and supercharge it.   In either case, we’ve learned a lot about teaching over the last twenty years and we’d like to share what wev’e learned with you under the goal of:

providing busy faculty with easy-to-implement teaching strategies that dramatically improve the student learning experience.

Some of what we’ve learned comes from recent insights gleaned from systematic studies of teaching and learning from the field of astronomy education research.  Other ideas have come from adaptations the writings of scholars working in cognitive science and the learning sciences.   But, most of our perspectives have been born from our personal battles and in-the-trenches experiences teaching thousands of college students about the wonders of the world stretching beyond Earth’s atmosphere.  If you’ll come along with us on this journey, we’ll share what we’ve learned with you in the hopes that you can avoid many of the same mistakes we’ve made, and ultimately become your students’ compassionate teacher through this fascinating universe –and live to tell the tale.

Improving Your Course Evaluations

We’ll begin our journey with an end in mind, improving the end-of-term student evaluations of your course.  We’ll should be honest with you and tell you that a sneak-peek to the end of this journey will reveal that we actually have intentions to transform your classroom into a learning machine.  As it turns out, transforming your classroom to focus on student learning rather than on your teaching performance has the side-effect of improving your course evaluations too.

Course Evaluation Example ImageLet’s start with what doesn’t work.  A quick Internet search on improving your class will yield a long list of things virtually guaranteed to improve your course evaluations: having students call you by your first name, wearing casual clothes, telling jokes and stories of sex and violence from the field, starting every class blaring popular music, and, the most universal recommendation, bringing donuts to class on evaluation day.  These ideas are often accompanied by notions that students want a professor who is cool, doesn’t make them work very hard, and gives everyone good grades.  All of these ideas have the same thing in common: They don’t work.  Really.

You might not know this, but there are entire University Departments of brilliant scholars who study higher education, and have been doing so for many years.  They’ve developed an entire body of literature on college classes and they have studied the course evaluation issue from every possible angle and analyzed every imaginable piece of data.  What they’ve learned might simultaneously terrify you and make you feel better.

When students read the questions on one of the many course evaluation forms available to colleges—and some of these forms are quite long—students reinterpret all of the items to be one of just two possible questions:

ONE:  Did the professor want to help me learn?

TWO:  Did the professor follow an organized plan?

That’s it.  All those questions so laboriously worded about the extent to which the professor is creating respectful learning environments, being responsive to student questions, holding office hours, having detailed knowledge of the class content, and returning graded work on time need to be thrown completely out the window.  Students simply reword them in their own mind into just two.  These two are so important, it seems worth stating them again for enhanced emphasis:

ONE:  Did the professor want to help me learn?

TWO:  Did the professor follow an organized plan?

We view this as a wildly fortunate opportunity because both of these ideas are actionable.  In other words, there are specific, concrete things you can do to enhance students’ answers to these questions when they apply them to you and your class.  You don’t have to follow any of our recommendations here – but you do so at the peril of your course evaluations.

The reason that focusing on these two questions works so well is what underlies them.  At the end of a 15-week course with you, where students spend nearly 45 hours with you—and perhaps allocate even substantially more time cumulatively engaging with astronomy by reading, doing homework, completing assigned laboratory exercise and astronomical observation tasks, and preparing for exams—most students really want one thing: to be different as a result of this extended experience.

As a quick aside to the genuine skeptic who pauses and says, “Uh, wait a minute, some of my students just don’t want to learn astronomy. What about them?”  You’re absolutely right.  We concede that some students don’t want to learn astronomy.  In fact, we’re willing to go out on a limb here and suggest that nearly all of your students fall into this category.  I mean, in most introductory astronomy survey classes, you have no astronomy majors.  In fact, you probably have no science majoring students at all.  Many of these students have already decided years ago that they aren’t “science people” and are only taking your course because they needed a liberal arts, general education course to fulfill a science course elective requirement.  We agree.  This is often who is in your class.

Its a Dirty Jobs Image from TelevisionHowever, we’d like to consider, if even for only a moment, a radically different perspective.  A single change in perspective might be all you need to dramatically transform your course from an experience to be endured by students to one that is life-long transformative for students.  The perspective is this:

What if it was your JOB as the professor to help students love astronomy?

Adopting this alternate perspective dramatically changes the astronomy course as something done TO students into something done FOR students.  Let’s take a quick reality check here: It’s not hard to teach people about astronomy who already love astronomy.  In fact, it might be argued that a professor would have to intentionally try to be unsuccessful at teaching students who already love astronomy.  We content that nearly anyone could do tackle that simple task.  Yes, we know that happens, but that’s not what we’re talking about.  Instead, what we want you to do is to be highly successful at teaching students who enter your classroom already convinced they don’t love astronomy.  If you organize your class for these hard-to-reach students, nearly everyone wins—even those students who enrolled in your class correctly thinking astronomy is awesome.

What Are the Goals of Your Class?

If the task at hand is to create a class that results in students loving astronomy—which we believe is a highly worthwhile goal—what should your formal course goals be?

it doesn't matter which way you go if you don't know where you are goingMost colleges strongly suggest, if not require, that course syllabi explicitly list course goals.  We agree.  If students and their professors specify what students are supposed to learn and what professors are supposed to teach, you have a much better chance of success.  The converse isn’t very attractive.   Remember that the beloved Cheshire Cat in Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland sagely said that if you don’t know where you want to go, it doesn’t much matter what you do.

We’ve already proposed one overarching goal, and we think you should tell your students what you want from them.  We promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised how that changes how they feel about you and your class.

YOUR GOAL: Students will LOVE astronomy.

Naturally, the next step is figure how are you going to help them achieve such a lofty goal.  We’re going to advocate that we don’t talk about the details of how just yet, but instead focus on the what.  Don’t worry, we’ll get to precise recipes for you to use soon enough; however, the tools and techniques might not make any sense unless we provide just a little more context.

Who Are They and What Do They Want?

You are probably fortunate to have a wide diversity of students in your class.  Just look at your students. Your students come in all different sizes, colors and ages—just like a beautiful cluster of galaxies.  And in much the same way, the most interesting parts of galaxies are the underlying mechanisms and processes, things far deeper than their superficial good looks.  If you’ve got a wide variety of students, then you need a wide variety of techniques to understand them.

Folklore long shared from professor to professor tells that there is an unresolvable conflict between you and your students.  On one hand, so the story goes, professors want students to learn as much as possible and, on the other, students want to learn as little as possible.  If you tacitly hang on to this false dichotomy, teaching astronomy isn’t going to be nearly as pleasant as it could be.

What if you reframed it to be a win-win?  What if what professors really wanted was for their students to start to love astronomy and what if, at the same time, students most desired to be different and be transformed by enrolling in your class?  That’s a vastly different frame of reference and begs the question, what is it that professors want their students to know about astronomy?

When we asked hundreds of astronomy professors what they thought the goals of their astronomy class should be, we were prepared for a really long list.  After all, we are talking about professors whose job it is to teach about the entire universe, often in a single course!  To our pleasant surprise, we found that nearly all their responses clumped into three big ideas.  They emphatically told us that they wanted their courses to engender in students:

  1. an appreciation for the size, scale, and structure of the cosmos, including understanding the predictable motions of the night sky,
  2. an understanding of the nature of science and how astronomy is done, and
  3. an interest in studying current new events in astronomy as a life-long learning activity.

Not a single person, even as a joke, listed that they wanted their students to memorize our Sun’s diameter or the number of kilometers in a light-year.  If we read between the lines here, what we see is that many people want their students to love astronomy too. Almost nothing in this list looks like memorizing a long list of fragmented facts and formula.  We’d like you to consider the possibility that your seemingly apathetic students might buy into these three goals too.

We’re certainly not the only people to wrestle with this question.  The elder-statesmen of the American Astronomical Society also posed the question of what is it that college students completing an introductory survey course in astronomy should understand.  After laborious meetings on both coasts of the United States, they came up with the following list of astronomy content goals and values goals:

AAS Astronomy Content Goals

Students should gain:

  • A cosmic perspective—a broad understanding of the nature, scope, and evolution of the Universe, and where the Earth and Solar System fit in
  • An understanding of a limited number of crucial astronomical quantities, together with some knowledge of appropriate physical laws
  • The notion that physical laws and processes are universal
  • The notion that the world is knowable, and that we are coming to know it through observations, experiments, and theory (the nature of progress in science)
  • Exposure to the types, roles, and degrees of uncertainty in science
  • An understanding of the evolution of physical systems
  • Some knowledge of related subjects (e.g., gravity and spectra from physics) and a set of useful “tools” from related subjects such as mathematics
  • An acquaintance with the history of astronomy and the evolution of scientific ideas (science as a cultural process)
  • Familiarity with the night sky and how its appearance changes with time and position on Earth

AAS Skills, Values and Attitudes Goals

  1. Students should be exposed to:
  • The excitement of actually doing science
  • The evolution of scientific ideas (science as a cultural process)
  1. Students should be introduced to how science progresses and receive training in:
  • The roles of observations, experiments, theory, and models
  • Analyzing evidence and hypotheses
  • Critical thinking, including appropriate skepticism
  • Hypothesis testing (experimental design and following the implications of a model)
  • Quantitative reasoning and the ability to make reasonable estimates
  • The role of uncertainty and error in science
  • How to make and use spatial – geometrical models
  1. Courses and professors should leave students:
  • More confident of their own critical faculties
  • Inspired about science in general and astronomy in particular
  • Interested in and better equipped to follow scientific arguments in the media.

We content that this is a reasonably good list from a group of very well intentioned professional astronomers.  It might not be perfect, but it’s a place to start our discussion.  You are welcome to disagree with some of the fine details here and there just as we do, but you’ve got to start somewhere and your Departmental colleagues might commend you for using this AAS-endorsed list. More to the point, if you match these concepts—or any reasonable list of concepts for that matter—with your passionate and unwavering goal of helping students love astronomy, it becomes an exceptionally good launching point.    But, knowing “what to teach” is only part of the battle: You also need to know to “how” to teach if you are going to make a course that unequivocally demonstrates to students that you want to help them learn and, simultaneously, you follow an organized plan to help them learn.

How Do I Motivate These Students?

Although we all wish it were otherwise, your students have every reason to assume you’re not really coming to class each day to help them learn or that you will actually follow an obviously organized pathway to get them there.  This is due in part to students having had more than a decade of learning experiences before taking your class, some overwhelmingly positive, and many others not so much.  Your students are also probably taking several other classes during the same semester you’re teaching them.  It will be useful to you if you are compassionately sensitive to the fact that college students have numerous distractions and requirements across different professors in disconnected courses with contrasting demands adding to their long-history of widely varying school-learning experiences.

That’s a lot to consider, and we beg you to stay with us.  What you’ll discover by the time you finish this journey is that there is a whole lot more to teaching astronomy than standing at the front of the room and accurately saying all the right words in front of pretty pictures; if that is all that was required, we’d simply hire out of work Hollywood actors to stand and deliver information. Colleges don’t hire actors to teach because it turns out that your scientific expertise is a vitally necessary condition to successful teaching when you have to goal of helping students to love astronomy.  But, although your astronomy expertise is necessary, it isn’t sufficient by itself.  There are lots of highly knowledgably people who can’t teach their way out of the legendary wet paper sack.

In the day-to-day science of astronomy, we often encounter complex systems with numerous, interacting variables.  When this happens, we often organize our thinking into a model that can be used to test ideas and make predictions.  In much the same way, we can apply this powerful idea of using models to manage some of our astronomy teaching-decisions and make some predictions about which teaching approaches will likely work and which are probably doomed to fail a priori.  Let’s consider a model describing the variables of student motivation about loving astronomy.

motivation road sign imageAstronomers sometimes think that motivation is a vaguely vague thing, but there are highly-respected scholars from the opposite side of campus who have thought carefully about motivation.  They describe student motivation toward learning something as a robust mixture of three distinct things: is there value in the task, what is the probability of success, and is there supportive help available?  Let’s consider each of these in turn.


The first component of motivation to learning something is based on an assessment of value.  In other words, students ask themselves, “des this class help me meet my goals?  Students’ first answer might be related to intrinsic value of education and the wonders of the universe, but more than likely not.  Unless you rationally and intentionally convince students otherwise, their values naturally are inclined to meeting social goals, graduation goals, career goals, and the like.  If you want students to have different motivation stemming from something else they should value, then you as the professor will need to put in purposeful effort to change the value-proposition. To be blunt, the position that students should enter college already valuing astronomy and that professors’ have no responsibility to change students thinking is academically pleasant, but naively foolhardy.

Perhaps unintentionally, too many professors do precisely the opposite of selling their course’s value to students. The fastest way to reduce the “value” a student sees in your class is to put your class in conflict with things that the student values more:  their graduation, their job, their kids or their family. This might surprise you because you might not have noticed that college today is vastly different that the college’s we went to. Remember only 15% of college students nationally are traditional, non-working, dorm-living, college-aged students.  If you have an attitude that your lecture is more important than other values students have—whether or not you agree with those values—you’re going to reduce their motivation.  Fortunately, there are easy-to-implement tactics available to you to instead increase the perceived value of your course.

      Probability of Success

The second component of motivation to learning something is based on a student’s calculation of the probability of learning astronomy in your class.  In other words, students ask themselves, “Can I do this thing that I have to do for this class?

Many of your students have had less than successful experiences in the past with science courses, and perhaps more detrimentally, in mathematics courses.  Perhaps some of your students’ were forced to participate in a K-12 science fair and none of their plants grew, resulting in them thinking science isn’t for them.  Maybe some of your students struggled with their pre-algebra class and gave up on the possibility of being successful in courses that feature numbers and arithmetic a long, long time ago.  You might find that you need to make sure you class doesn’t look anything like unsuccessful experiences your students have had in the past.  One time-tested strategy to efficiently convince your wary students that astronomy is going to be yet another unsuccessful and unpleasant experience is to emphasize the importance of strictly using unfamiliar metric units in the seemingly complex mathematical formulas of astronomy on the very first day of class.

      Availability of Supportive Help

The third component of motivation to learning something is based on a student’s assessment of if there is help and support in learning astronomy.  In other words, students ask themselves, “Is the professor going to help me learn this?” and “Is there an organized course structure that will help me learn this?

We’re still amazed at the number of professors who proudly tell us that they always explain to their students on the first day of class that about 1/3 of their students drop their class.  This is reminiscent of the age-old story of professors trying unsuccessfully to motivate their students to work hard in their class by instructing their students to look first to their right, and then to look to their left, and then informing students that by the midterm exam, one of them will no longer be in the class.  The problem is that this approach works really well: Many students naturally give up before they even start.

Instead, knowledgably professors know that their students are making this calculation and purposefully build their entire course organizational structure around supporting student-success.  To the uninformed professors who haven’t thought about this, they might naively think that professors interested in student motivation are simply dumbing down their courses or catering to students by making things less than rigorous.  The problem is that unmotivated students simply don’t learn.  These students also appropriately give professors lousy course evaluation scores. In stark contrast, professors who explicitly organize their course based on supporting students’ learning are more than half-way toward becoming an award-winning astronomy teaching guru.  The hidden secret that no one says out loud is that building a highly organized course makes life profoundly easier on busy professors too.  Later, we’ll give you the tools you need to build a student motivation-enhancing syllabus.

Can’t I Just Work Problems?

One more thing that must be described in this foundation building post. Many professors assigned to teach introductory astronomy have some experience, or considerable experience, teaching introductory physics.  If you are one of those few lucky physicists who are assigned to teach astronomy, you need to know that you’re starting out a disadvantage.  Many of the important skills you’ve perfected teaching physics to science-majors are well-poised to interfere with the best of teaching intentions.

We propose that there are at least two distinct places where you’re going to have to consider major changes in order to be successful: working physics problems and international systems of units.  Let’s first talk about working problems in class before going to the thornier problem of selecting the appropriate unit system to use in teaching introductory astronomy.

Teaching with Physics Problems

We can all readily agree that astronomy is a quantitative science at its core.  We can also agree that many astronomy courses are taught within the context of a college Department of Physics.  Moreover, many of your colleagues will perceive your class to be more rigorous if students are frequently reaching for their scientific calculators, like their physics students do. Given these three facts, it seems only natural that an astronomy course could be taught with the successful techniques of a physics course.  Moreover, teaching an astronomy course that is reflective of a physics course has the added benefit of disabusing students of the misconception that astronomy is all about picking out constellations in the night sky. Unfortunately, adopting this perspective is a guaranteed way to earn low teaching evaluations.

You might be asking yourself, what am I supposed to do during class time if it isn’t work example problems on the board?  Or, you might be saying to yourself, what will exams look like if I’m not grading their ability to solve numerical word problems?  These are reasonable questions. Again, we’ll implore you to digest the rest of the ideas proposed here: By the end, we’ll think you’ll wonder how you’ll have time to do all the classroom things you want to do rather than endlessly work example problems on the board.

As an interim suggestion for now, we suggest that you adopt as read-alert, all-engines-stop, warning that things in your class aren’t going well anytime a student reaches for a calculator.  Really.  Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to teach your students to engage in juicy, high-level mathematical reasoning in astronomy.  To give you a brief glimpse of where we are going, we’ll show you how to do mathematics with your students by eliminating boring and perhaps pointless plug-and-chug arithmetic from your class.

Selecting Units of Measurement 

Much of astronomy is concerned with systematically solving the mysteries of how big and how far.  You can’t escape using numbers to describe how many planets in the solar system, how big is the Sun, and how far are we from the center of the Milky Way.  We’re not suggesting that you don’t use numbers, far from it. Instead, we’re warning you upfront that you should be compassionately sensitive to how non-science majoring astronomy students can viscerally respond when they encounter long tables of large numbers laced with unfamiliar units.

For Centuries, physics teaching professors have helped their students see intrinsic value the metric system.  The benefits of a 10-based measurement system are undeniable, especially when contrasted with the archaic system used in the United States.  A problem solving strategy that involves converting any numbers in an end-of-chapter word problem into the meter-kilogram-seconds paradigm is a time-tested problem solving strategy leading to success.  Taken together, a professor might naturally assume that astronomy should be taught using metric units.

A long-standing debate in the teaching of astronomy at the college level—and science in general—is whether to teach using metric SI units or customary US-standard units.  At first glance the argument seems to be based on two juxtaposed positions.  On one hand, US college students are largely unaware of the metric system and therefore need to be provided values for distance in more familiar units.  On the other hand, real science is actually done in metric units and students studying in a science class should use the language conventions of science.  It is this second position—authentic science uses metric units—that most college science faculty adopt.  A cursory survey of most astronomy textbooks reveals that most distance values are given in metric units (with US-standard units often provided parenthetically) in the narrative sections, with data tables using metric units most frequently.  This seems like an issue closed to debate.

If you didn’t grow up in the United States, you might not know that the question of which system of units to teach under has been a raging debate for decades, at least. The United States’ historical efforts to go-metric have been a complete failure and are relatively well-known.  We don’t have space here—in any unit system—to delve deeply into the US’s metrification attempts, such as unfruitful efforts to change all US highway road signs to metric, which I believe only still exist south of Tucson.

Rigorous education research shows is that people—and even some scientists—conceptualize sizes and scales based on benchmark landmarks and mental reference points from their experiences. Most college students naturally tend to think of the world in terms of objects that are: small, person-sized, room-sized, field-sized, shopping mall-sized and college campus-sized objects, big and really big.  The greatest impacts on how people develop these benchmarks are outside-the-classroom experiences involving measuring movement—walking, biking, car travel—as opposed to school experiences where they have rote memorized numbers from tables. Consistently, it is to these common experience anchors that college students use various measurement scales.

For us teaching astronomy, we use our extensive experience as scientists in quantifying the world to automatically and often unawareingly change between scales.  For example, when measuring the distance between Earth and Neptune, we automatically know if we should describe it in meters, astronomical units, or light-travel-time, depending on why an astronomer would want to describe such a distance.  For experts, using meters, AU, and ly is readily interchangeable whereas for most college students, these are three totally separate determinations.  This disconnect between you and your students requires your careful attention.

When I ask my students how far it is from where they are sitting to the front entrance of the building, or to the city with the state capital, they can usually give me a reasonably close answer using units of their OWN choosing, often it is time in minutes or hours, or in distances like American football field-yards or miles.  If I specify the units their answers must be in, such as feet or kilometers, my college students generally have no idea.

Experts are fundamentally different than students.  We readily move between parsecs and light-years, whereas our novice students cannot—no matter how much we wish they could.  As it turns out, if students could easily move between measurement systems, they wouldn’t be novices, they’d be experts and we teachers might be out of a job.  In other words, we can’t simply tell students that a meter is about a yard, and two miles is about 3 kilometers and be done with it—if it was that easy, we’d have done that already and there would be no ongoing debate.

One might naturally think that astronomy students should be able to easily memorize a few benchmark sizes (e.g., Earth’s diameter is 12, 742 km and an astronomical unit is 1.4960 E 8 kilometers) and then they could handle almost anything by subdividing or multiplying.  The problem is that the characteristic of an expert, as compared to a novice, is that experts chunk ideas more easily, allowing experts to make quick estimates.  Novices have no strategies e available to be able to do this.  The bottom line here is that astronomy students rarely have a well-developed sense of scales going beyond their human-body size and experience with movement from one place to another.

If you’re still following this long discussion, what we’re saying here is when a professor says a comet is 10,000-m across, the Sun’s diameter is 1.4 million-km, the Virgo cluster is 16.5 Mpc, and a quasar is at a “z of 7”, students either have to stop being active listeners to your lecture for 30-seconds and figure out what those units mean and, subsequently, then inadvertently miss what you really wanted them to know, or they have to ignore any and all referenced numbers all together so that they can keep paying attention.

The teaching challenge here is that I suspect the most important thing you want students to take away from a lecture about a quasar at a z of 7 isn’t precisely how far away it is, but instead what it tells you about the nature of the universe.  The risk here is that introducing numbers and unfamiliar units gets in the way of the ideas you are most likely trying to teach.

The research alluded to earlier points to using relative sizes as being more fruitful for helping students learn than absolute, numerical sizes.  Expert teachers try to rely on things students are most familiar with and then help students to use simple, whole number ratios.  For example, experienced astronomy teachers on North America is about three Texas’ wide, the Moon is about one North America, Earth is about four Moon’s, Betelgeuse is 1,000 times larger than the Sun, and …. Notice we don’t have to type very many of these ratios before you yourself start skimming to the end of this paragraph: That’s the same experience your students too often have. Fortunately, many modern astronomy textbooks now give planet sizes in Earth-radii, just like we have long given solar system distances in astronomical-unit Earth-orbit sizes. I think this is a really good starting place. After all, five years from now when you run into an alumni student, do you really want the one thing that they most remember about your class to be the distance to the Crab Nebula in parsecs?

Across the domain of astronomy, there are countless astronomical ideas with which I want my students to engage.  We propose that you adopt the position that you help your students deeply engage in physical processes and causality of astronomy, stimulated by wonder and curiosity.  To do this, you’ll need to choose to give up on allocating the time necessary to fully teach the metric system and focus all of your available efforts on teaching things in terms of relative sizes and avoid using a self-defeating calculator-task whenever possible.

To say again for emphasis sake: Experienced mathematics teachers will tell you that you can’t really teach the metric system with a single 15-minute lecture to novices. Teaching the metric system takes a commitment throughout the entire course.  The notion that metric is easy because it is all base-10 is nonsense when it comes to teaching astronomy, despite my desire for it to be otherwise.

Reprise: Who Gets the Best Teaching Evaluations?

Excellent Check Box imageAs we maintained from the beginning, we again promise that astronomy can be a highly rewarding class to share with avowed non-science students.  This requires you to adopt some bold new perspectives that are clustered around changing your emphasis from being about what do you say in each class instead to how do I build something students value as both a supportive learning environment and organized class pathway?  Would you entertain the profound notion that if every one of your students felt personally valued and important to you, you could more easily help them learn to love astronomy?

The 5 essential tools you need are specified in this series of blog posts.  They are all easy-to-implement.  Moreover, they based on timeless principles of how to engage people in learning.  We’ll provide several options within each tool, because classrooms vary from one place to the next.  At the same time, precisely how you use the tools will vary depending on your teaching experience and comfort level.  What we can promise you is that nearly everyone who commits to using them never goes back to their old ways of lecturing to students.  This is a powerful toolkit that we are sharing so that you can improve your teaching of astronomy.

5 Tools for Teaching #ASTRO101

Fortunately, the hardest part is making the mental adjustment from an old perspective of everything being about you to a new perspective where all decisions are made in the interest of the student.  Once you’ve made that paradigm shift, everything will start to fall into place.  Not only will you get better teaching evaluation scores, but your students will actually learn astronomy and you’ll enjoy teaching your students even more than you do now.

The anticipated upcoming posts in this extended innovative college astronomy series are:


Filed under Uncategorized

How Sexual Harassment Gossip Interrupts Improving Astronomy Teaching

Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, tim@caperteam.com

Most of us want basically the same things in our teaching—for our ASTRO 101 students to be informed about astronomy and, simultaneously, think that astronomy is awesomely cool.  To reach such a worthy goal as a community of astronomy educators, we have to learn and share from one another.

Learning and sharing to become a better astronomy teacher takes courage.  Most astronomers have been schooled to think that they can expand their reach to solve any problem and that their opinions are automatically well informed.  That posture doesn’t get us very far. To become a better teacher, one has to have sufficient courage to declare that they don’t know everything there is to know about good teaching.

Most ideas about teaching are not new; but not everyone knows the old ideas,” says Euclid.

Moreover, learning how to teach astronomy better this year than you did last year from (or with) someone else requires mutual respect and trust.  Unfortunately, broad swaths of our astronomy community are suffering from a lack of mutual respect and trust.  Far too much of this is due to the ongoing and disgustingly UN-discerning rumor mill surrounding sexual harassment.

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education headline says that one in four women have been sexually assaulted. Sexual harassment and sexual assault can be terrible and disgusting things.  No one should have to participate in a sexual quid-pro-quo in order to advance professionally in one’s career.  And, no one should have to tolerate sexual assault—assault is a criminal act.  I know that these things do happen in astronomy too often, and are often unreported because the victim believes, or has been told, that their careers will be ruined if they reveal the perpetrator’s identity.  I know that these things have happened to people in my immediate academic family, and it is devastating. Less than ten years ago during her graduate school education, my wife was sexually assaulted, by a senior astronomy statesman, who told her he would ruin her career if she ever told anyone.

Although the precise details can vary from institution to institution, sexual harassment policy violations also can occur when someone is the target of unwanted sexual advances they are unable or unwilling to stop.  And, despite what the media seems to enjoy reporting, I understand that the most common sexual harassment policy infractions can occur when employees trying to meet their job requirements are unable to when they hear excessive sexual joking, banter, or innuendo.  This includes the sometimes extremely creepy and unwelcome “hugging” greeting.

It is no secret that sexual harassment has occurred within my own professional life.  More than a decade ago, a group of my colleagues and I violated my University’s sexual harassment policy by allowing a hostile work environment to exist that was characterized by sexual joking, banter, and innuendo that was both welcome and unwelcome, solicited, and unsolicited. These colleagues included Dr. Edward Prather and a number of post-docs, graduate students, and supervising administrators. I am reluctant to reveal confidential information that would embarrass or perhaps irreversibly damage the professional careers of those involved or who gave confidential testimony, as many who have put this incident far behind them would be put in a situation to deal with it again; and, it is unclear to me that these matters, from more than a decade ago, are the business of anyone outside of that group. As a result, all of us involved were required to participate in formal sexual harassment training. Further, Ed Prather and I took additional management training to help us be sure it didn’t happen in the future.

More than ten years later, the rumor mill now enthusiastically whispers that I am a serial sexual harasser. All ongoing gossip to the contrary, no further evidence of sexual harassment has ever been presented to a mandated investigative authority since that time. On the contrary, through multiple reviews, both the University of Arizona and the University of Wyoming formally determined that our conduct is sufficiently safe to grant both Dr. Prather and me tenured positions that require us to interact intensively with both undergraduate and graduate students.  Although it has been suggested that sexual harassment training doesn’t work, it definitely worked for me. I now continuously educate my graduate students—male and female—about sexual harassment and how to be sure it doesn’t happen, how to avoid being a victim, and how to report it when it is observed. We learned our lessons for how to make a more productive research team.

As evidence that I’m not a serial sexual harasser, in the last decade, my performance, including my interactions with faculty, students and staff, have been exhaustively reviewed no fewer than three times:

  • In 2006, the University of Arizona conducted a 360-degree management review of me that surveyed supervised employees, peer colleagues, and my supervisors. This review was voluntary. No piece of data related to sexual harassment was reported. If evidence had been found, another formal investigation would have ensued as required by US law, and this did not occur.
  • In 2008, when I was being recruited to my Distinguished Professorship at the University of Wyoming, a full inquiry by the University of Wyoming was conducted to be sure that I was not found guilty of any violations since a 2004 investigation of activity, conducted by the University of Arizona. No evidence was found, and I was awarded tenure and the rank of Full Professor.
  • In 2014, my Departmental colleges were investigated for a potential racial discrimination violation. In such an investigation, there were many opportunities for evidence of sexual harassment or sexual discrimination to be revealed.  No evidence in either case was revealed, and no violations were found by competent professionals trained in evaluating evidence for discrimination and harassment.

It would not be a large exaggeration to say that I have been subject to more instances of scrutiny than any other astronomy professor in the United States for more than a decade.  During that time, there has been no evidence of sexual harassment, and no finding of sexual harassment, within institutions that have a vested interest in finding and exterminating occurrences of this nature.

In the United States where I am a citizen, an individual’s employer is the mandated, competent authority for investigating sexual harassment violations.  Not a Facebook group, not a committee of a professional society, not an Academic Department, not even the Police Department. Over the course of the past decade, my two employers, the University of Arizona, where I was a tenured faculty member, and the University of Wyoming, where I am now a tenured full professor, holding an Endowed Chair for Excellence in Science Education, have received no complaints of sexual harassment, either through direct complaint, or through comment in any investigation that they have conducted on any faculty or department at their respective institutions.  If they had, they would be federally mandated to investigate and make a finding.  Obviously, this didn’t happen, although the rumor mill might make one think it did or perhaps that a University might have some vested interest in protecting sexual harassers.

My repeated observation is that gossip surrounding anything sexual can be painfully funny because it is rarely even scrutinized as plausible by those spreading the gossip themselves—that’s because juicy stuff is more fun to spread than facts!  Recently, I have been forwarded emails or seen online posts feeding the rumor mill about me that say completely false things.


What does all of this talk about sexual harassment have to do with blocking the improvement of astronomy teaching?  The problem is that when uninvolved people hear that there has been a sexual harassment violation, they are often extremely quick to pass moral judgment, even when they don’t know all the facts or the contexts.  And, because most sexual harassment investigation reports are confidential in order to protect those who testify, people naturally fill in the blanks of what they don’t know with the worst or most juicy possible scenarios.  Even people who testify in the investigation itself rarely know all the details. What follows then is the rapid, widespread, and uncontrolled gossip about our peers—the rumor mill ensues destroying everyone and every actionable, good idea in its path.

Even though it has been more decade since our violation happened, I and my group members constantly run head-long into the destructive gossip-driven rumor mill.  This ongoing gossip blocks us from doing what we are really good at doing; helping professors be better and more effective teachers.

Even many years later, I still have been suddenly removed from professional mentoring-programs, asked not to speak at conferences, been denied grant funding to do faculty workshops at minority institutions, been questioned about if I should chair certain committees, and have been morally chastised online by people I have never met or spoken to, all because of what people continue to imply about an alleged and inflated history of sexual harassment.  When people do take the time to question rumors, they are easily corrected.  Today, it can be unnecessarily hard to recruit new graduate students, even when the numbers clearly show I have been very successful graduating female students, that my group still is predominately female, and that the journal I publish and the meetings I host feature female scientists more prominently than male scientists. No one ever seems to bother to actually talk to my graduate students and ask, “How is it going?” or “Has sexual harassment ever happened with your advisor?”, or even “Why would you work with Slater given the history we hear in the rumor mill?” because the facts of today wouldn’t be as exciting to share as imagined stories of discrimination and harassment of the past. Worse, blocking proven pathways to success in this way only serves to handicap the growth of our community unnecessarily. In other words, this gossip, whether or not it is about me specifically, unnecessarily blocks the improvement of astronomy teaching by making it nearly impossible for the mutual respect needed for learning and sharing of ideas to happen.

I know that sharing my story won’t change anyone’s mind that’s already set: A jury of public opinion rarely seeks truth. On one hand, one would reasonably expect that this many years later, I’m a surely different and more mature person than I was as a younger, more indulgent man; I’ve learned a tremendous amount from my students, colleagues, family, and church.  Becoming a Christian and having the good fortune of recently marrying a solidly-grounded, Christian woman has helped me tremendously to have more compassion and deeper empathy, whereas before I mistakenly had too little.

On the other hand, I too often clearly see a severe lack of real substance in discussing today’s astronomy’s social-cultural issues.  There are those astronomers who ask, “is she female enough to speak on women’s issues” or “is she too privileged to make judgments about black issues” or “as a previous sexual harassment violator, should he be allowed to participate ever again,” instead of intellectually considering the value of what is being proposed.  Just the same as people who mistakenly make judgments of people based on their skin tone or a guess at their genitalia, too many astronomers use a what-does-the-gossip-say filter before they think.  This is wrong and impedes our community’s progress.

I am inclined to lay much of the blame of this on the Boards and Councils who created Committees for purposes of advice, but then they never provided these individuals with seriously needed oversight.  These overzealous and unsupervised committee members then can do unthinkable things, such as try to publicly shame their targets or create coordinated attacks on individuals who have differing points of view.  The problem now is that these committee members have exposed the members of supervising Boards and Councils to legal action.  One might try to argue that these individuals are working independently of their convening association, but it is a pretty easy legal argument to show that because they were initially organized under the banner of an association’s committee, that the association is itself libel.  If these sub groups working within professional societies continue to try to serve as investigators, judge, jury, and sentencers, I suspect that we’ll quickly see each of the professional society Board and Council members quickly scrambling for their own lawyers.

I do hope that sharing my story will encourage astronomers to pause—even if just for a moment—before passing on unconfirmed gossip about other astronomers they’ve never actually met, especially for things they weren’t involved with themselves. These are real people, with careers, spouses, children, and grandchildren you are crushing. My kids read what you post on the Internet too, where nothing is really private. The astronomy community, and the broader college STEM teaching community, is cracking under the weight of the ongoing, destructive rumor mill, and I am at a loss of how to stop it other than calling it out for what it is—gossip.  This gossip is stopping everything, especially our ability to be good teachers and to create communities where others want to belong.


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