Saturday, January 8, 2011

Non-majors course

I'm really vacillating about how I feel about this non-majors' course I'm teaching. My colleague from another institution loves hers (she is extremely energetic). But my departmental colleagues keep cautioning me, don't expect too much. I know that its not just about jumping around and making things affective (telling gross stories, stories about people), that I must engage them in process. But honestly, I'm a little afraid of really pouring myself into it and having my heart broken by a bunch of hostile and disengaged students. I get the impression that this is where my colleagues are.

I know that some teachers specialize in teaching science to proclaimed science-haters, such as my friend from another institution. I want to do a really good job, but probably won't end up specializing in it. I wonder just how much I can give this course with my current lifestyle. I wonder if I can forgive myself if it doesn't go as well as it could. I wonder if it will reflect badly for my long-term contract review. Fill-in-the next segment of this blog with nervous angst.

Does anybody reading teach (successfully) a non-majors course? Is keeping their interest as delicate as I imagine? What do you do? What is your attitude going in? That you are going to help that "one" starfish? Or that you are going to be able to engage everyone with your time-proven techniques?

starfish story


  1. Ok - First off my thoughts are that you should not expect to wow all of the students and it will not be perfect. What you need to figure out is what works for YOU - and this may mean adjusting as the semester goes on. I find that more student interaction vs. the "high energy entertainment" is what works for ME. I pose a lot of questions and let the students discuss with their neighbor (Think-Pair-Share ) and then answer -- I currently use clickers, but have done it many other ways in the past. The general ed class I teach has very disinterested students -- and I find my reviews are good and often mention the effort I put in to making sure they understand rather than just bombarding them with information. I am happy to chat more about specifics and to share ideas.

  2. I taught a great non-majors course. Find issues relevant to students' lives and use them to teach major concepts. Don't try to entertain or go through a laundry list of topics. As K said - lots of questions and discussion. The great thing about non-majors is you can focus on big ideas that students will need to understand all the issues in the media, and you can skip stupid memorization that someone decided must be covered in intro classes because it will be needed for upper division courses (even though students will have forgotten it by then).

  3. I do, and it usually goes well. I agree that building in a lot of things for them to do works well - a few minutes to digest things or immediately apply ideas at several points during the lecture leaves them feeling less overwhelmed, and more likely to feel calm and in control of the material (hence they give better evals).

    I also put more effort in than with my majors classes to two things, a) finding links to issues and b) making sure they knwo what to do.

    a) - this means that, for almost every topic, I try to have an anecdote, or to overtly mention its relevance to understanding the consequences of climate change or making better cars or whatever. It gives tham a familiar 'peg' to hang the new knowledge on, offers some interest and a sense that "humans do science, not just machines" if you see what I mean...

    b) this means that I go to greater lengths to overtly spell out my expectations, and to make sure that they know what the standards/habits are in MY discipline - things the majors know about. That might include spending ten minutes doing an exercise on reference citing the week before an assignment is due (because you just KNOW that each department has its own quirks...), or giving extra tips about how to actively read the set chapter (e.g. after reading you should be able to define these terms and have found three examples of fleems).

    I get comments like "I thought I'd hate this course, and Beach Studies is definitely not for me, but DrB was a great teacher and I did a lot better than I expected". So i guess I do something right. As K said, happy to share ideas if that would help? (mollimog at gmail dot com)

  4. As a TT professor of Spanish at an institution that resembles a lot yours, I usually teach 2 languages courses (for the core requirement) and an upper level class each semester. Although the upper level class usually has at least minors, their backgrounds, knowledge, level and expectations are very different. Some expect a course in Latin American civilization to be something like a well written travel book, and it's frustrating. So what usually works for me is to make very clear at the beginning of the semester what I expect from them. Throughout the semester, I give them examples of what's appropriate and what's not for an assignment. And I've finally decided to give them the topics they are allow to write about on their final paper, in order not to receive essays that look like "copy and paste" from textbooks. I usually get a few that drop in the first month, but those who last end up enjoying the class, learning, and giving me pretty good evaluations.

  5. I find it useful to remember the point of such a class. It isn't to make practitioners, but people who can communicate as expected of college graduates, can see value of a field and can pose real-life problems in the language of a field. The reason I think this helps is that it reminds me that getting to the end of the book isn't as big a deal. Students show up (particularly in math and science) having been damaged by years of mediocre teachers assaulting them to stick to a schedule so the next instructor doesn't complain. You are teaching the last class any of these people will ever have in this field, so you are free of these problems.

    A corollary to this is JaneB's point about making sure the lessons tie back to interests and values your student's share.

    People like to talk about classroom management for these classes because it's one of the few times uni instructors have to actually think about classroom management (compared to secondary instructors). As a rule, engagement is good, getting feedback (clickers) is good, small steps are good and having students discover things for themselves is good. Clearly, this is important for all teaching, but more general education courses require it while major courses can get by without it.