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.

Value

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:


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3 Comments

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3 responses to “5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations: A Long Introduction

  1. Pingback: Efficient Information Delivery: 1st of 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations | CAPER Astronomy Faculty Lounge

  2. Pingback: In Class Learning Activities: 3rd of 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations | CAPER Astronomy Faculty Lounge

  3. Pingback: Outside of Class Learning Activities: 4th of 5 Secrets to Great ASTRO101 Evaluations | CAPER Astronomy Faculty Lounge

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