A Satisfactory rating requires course organization, e.g. clearly defined course objectives; course content, syllabi, handouts, readings and/or textbook consistent with the course description; and course level and rigor consistent with student abilities and ISAT practice.
Most of my courses are organized in a unique way that allows each student to customize his or her experience during the semester, while still achieving the learning objectives set forth in the syllabus. A student can complete as many (or as few) of the course activities as he or she likes, but must meet acceptable performance standards and be able to discuss the assignment, its results, and its implications to receive any credit at all. I don’t give partial credit on any assignments, so each activity is either completed (and receives full credit) or not completed (and receives no credit). Any exam that is scored above 85% receives full credit; if a student scores below 85%, they can rectify their score by finding out what questions they got wrong, figuring out the right answers, and coming back for an oral exam (where I can ask questions about anything on the exam). I give students as many opportunities as they need to improve their skills and ability to communicate about each of the topics we study, within the bounds of the semester calendar. Although the first 5-6 weeks of each course follow a defined structure and schedule, the remaining two thirds of the semester is more self-directed and integrates team-based learning. Some students respond very favorably to this approach, and create learning paths that go beyond the basic requirements of each course. Others are less enthusiastic. Course evaluations over the past few semesters have reflected the bimodal opinions of my students on my course organization, but have steadily improved as I have refined my delivery to better accommodate the students who have difficulty planning and completing their own assignments.
Demonstration of my course organization is given below in the form of effective course syllabi and schedules, course evaluation scores that reflect organization around (or more recently, above) departmental means, and student comments. Letters of Support that have been written by students are uniformly enthusiastic about my course organization.
Course Syllabi and Schedules - My syllabi are comprehensive and conform to the standards required by the department. Each syllabus clearly defines the expectations for the course, including policies for assessment and course completion. Dates for exams are defined collectively by the students during the semester, which allows them to study for and complete my exams during times when there are not excessive pressures from other courses. A more flexible schedule is also supplemented by hands-on office hours during Hacking Sessions on Monday nights, and afternoon Open Labs that I host on one or two weekend days a month, which increases class time and instructor availability. A more flexible schedule with additional Open Labs also means that recovering from class cancellations due to inclement weather is very straightforward.
Course Evaluations – Questions #11 (objectives, expectations, grading clearly defined), #13 (value of textbook), #14 (value of homework), and #15 (exams are fair and impartial) reflect on course organization and an appropriate level of rigor. For #11 and #14, I have been consistently at or above the departmental means for the past few semesters (and 4.46/4.34 in Spring 2014).
I have been consistently at or below the departmental average on #13 (value of textbook). Perhaps this is because I have not used a textbook in most of my courses over the past several semesters, preferring instead to use online readings and descriptions that I have written inside the text of the many lab exercises I have created. Alternatively, this could be because students prefer a more traditional textbook in addition to the materials I have provided. I also discovered by informally talking to students this past spring that many students who believed the textbook was useless had not even purchased a textbook. To improve #13 (usefulness of textbook), I have worked aggressively this past year to identify textbooks for all my courses in the 2014-2015 academic years that meet my goals of 1) being relatively inexpensive (~$50), 2) being extremely useful, that is, that course activities map very closely to the contents of the book, and 3) that the book has a high likelihood of becoming a reference that the student does not intend to sell after the course is done. I started implementing these changes in Summer 2014 for my GSCI courses, and expect significantly improved scores on #13 in my 2014-2015 evaluations.
I am particularly excited to introduce our new textbook for ISAT/CS 344 this fall, which is Machine Learning with R by Brett Lantz. After posting a review of his book on my Quality and Innovation blog, he even contacted me to request that I work with him to make improvements for the 2nd edition of his book, which will support my course even more definitively. In particular, we discussed adding material about the social context of intelligent systems.
Student Comments – As I mentioned earlier, not all students have responded well to the freedom I have given them to define their own work plans in my courses. For example, an ISAT 341 student from Spring 2013 wrote that “this type of class just does not work for me. The idea of setting your own pace and due dates may be OK, but when I have 4 other classes that are not this style, they end up taking priority.” However, a majority of students have expressed positive comments about my differently structured courses, with the ratio of positive to negative increasing tremendously by Fall 2013 and into Spring 2014:
“Unique course/learning style. Unorthodox, but it works well.” – ISAT/CS 344, Fall 2013
“Very applicable to real world. Very good class structure. Knowledgeable professor.” - ISAT/CS 344, Fall 2013
“Dr. Radziwill structured this course so that success was a result of being able to focus on topics that were of interest.” – ISAT/CS 344, Fall 2013
“I like that we get to choose what we learn but it is still structured. She really cares about students and wants them to learn.” – ISAT 341, Spring 2013
“Awesome class! I enjoyed the do what you want and earn your own grade. I learned a lot about modeling software and how to apply it to real world situations.” -ISAT 341, Spring 2013
“Expectations are clear, appropriate work load – challenging but not over the top.” – GISAT 251, Fall 2013