Faculty Experiences - Debra Pires


Life Sciences Core Curriculum

Interview topics:

What matters most to you in your teaching?

How are you using technology as a tool to achieve your teaching goals?

How have your students responded to your use of technology?

What new goals do you have for using technology in teaching?

How could the university better facilitate the use of technology in instruction?


Immediate feedback
Student participation
Student motivation
Different learning styles


Class web site (Blackboard)
Online testing
Automatic grading

Improving Conceptual Understanding

I want my students to come out with a better conceptual understanding of all the material that we cover, and that really doesn’t matter what class I’m teaching. It’s more about being able to approach problems--novel problems--because they have a good conceptual understanding than whether or not they can memorize something and regurgitate it.

One technology that I use in teaching is “clickers,” or personal response systems. I go over a small amount of material that includes a concept, and then I ask a multiple choice question that is based on a different but similar problem. If the students understood the concept during the lecture, then I would expect a certain percentage of them to get the answer right. After I ask the question, a histogram comes up with the percentage of students that chose each one of the different answer choices. From that histogram I can tell immediately whether or not there’s a misconception about the concept, I can see whether or not students understood it well, I can see whether or not the example I chose for that part of the lecture was a good one, or if I need to pick another one. And using the response system actually keeps lectures a little more lively, because we’re not just going through this concept, then another, then another, but the students are participating. I’ve actually had a couple students say that they feel like they help me write my lectures by participating with the questions. So I think that’s another advantage of this technology--everybody has buy-in to what lectures become.

Students have also said that they feel like they need to pay attention more often, and that they feel like paying attention pays off, because they’re being asked questions. And they also feel like the clicker questions break class up. They feel like that one-minute to one-and-a-half-minute break lets their minds relax for a little bit while they’re waiting for everybody else to login on their answers, so that they feel like they can really pay attention again for 10 or 15 minutes. I usually use from 2-7 questions per lecture, it depends.

I also use the testing option in Blackboard (the course management system we use in Life Sciences). The students take reading quizzes ahead of class, and based on the answers for those questions I can setup my lectures for that week. I usually have a minimum of two clicker questions about the new material, but I’ll ask one or two again that many of the students missed on the reading quizzes, so I can see what emphasis I need to put on my lecture for that material.

In Blackboard you can generate a pool of questions and then create a test, for example telling the test to pull 15 random questions from the 50 that you’ve written based on two chapters of reading. And the students are assigned to do those before they come to class once a week. I can look and see how they’re doing. They’re just basic factual questions because I want them to go and read. And it’s open book. If they want to “cheat” that’s fine: if they took the time to go through and find the information and answer the questions, then I’ve achieved exactly what I was aiming for. I want to make sure that they’ve looked at the stuff. From the conceptual questions that aren’t exactly in the text (there’s usually about 3), I get an idea about what part or figure or principle they don’t understand. And then I know that when I get to that slide in my lecture or that point, I should reiterate it in two different ways, hopefully to reach more than one type of learner in the class. So it keeps the students current.

Some of them tell me that they LOVE the reading quizzes, because they’re inherently lazy, and they would never do the reading, but since it’s worth 10 points, and they’re not hard points to get, they feel like they’re being rewarded for spending time on a class. Even if they get a C on the midterm, that’s fine, they still feel like their effort is being rewarded along the way. Some people don’t like them because I only make them available for a certain amount of time. And that’s because if somebody encounters a problem, and all of a sudden their internet goes out or something like that, I can restart the quiz, and that’s difficult to do if you’re going to let it run for 24 hours straight, so I do it for 12 hours and I’m available for 8 of those 12 hours where they can email me and I can restart it if they have a problem.

Another advantage to the online testing is that the computer grades it. I download a spreadsheet at the end of the quarter, I upload it to MyUCLA, it comes out in my final spreadsheet, and it’s the easiest thing. Writing the questions takes time, but now after three years I have this pool of questions. I edit them if the textbook changes or something like that, but it’s the easiest way to make sure the students are doing something on Monday night before they have lecture on Tuesday. And I don’t know why department chairs don’t sell it more. I’d like to see more people using course management systems as something more than someplace to post their PDFs or their Powerpoints.

My new goal for teaching with technology is to take advantage of what a lot of community colleges are doing with distance education and web-based education. I want to have a set of tutorials for one or two of the major concepts from each lecture, almost like a Powerpoint show, but these tutorials would be a series of 10 slides with figures, and then I will be writing and marking them with a tablet PC, and recording my voice as I’m writing. So students can go back to those tutorials, but they will be different than my lectures. I’ll use figures that I’ve drawn myself in Illustrator, or that I’ve found on the internet, or borrowed from friends that teach elsewhere, to give them another visual representation, besides the book and besides what I show them in class. So if they’re really having a hard time with something, they have a tutorial that they can go through, and then there will be five questions at the end, getting successively harder. I can see who are the students that use those, and whether they do better on an exam if they’ve done the tutorial versus if they haven’t. There’s lots of data that we collect, especially with the clicker questions. If I put a clicker question, then I put a similar question on the exam, I can ask if those students who were present in class are more likely to get it correct than those who were not. There’s lot of easy ways to show that this stuff actually does help students learn. It’s very funny because we’re a research institution, but there’s not a lot of people that collect data about what they teach.

OID does a bang-up job of putting on all these classes like how to use Moodle course sites (which would teach you how to use computer-based exams), or clicker classes, or other workshops about using technology. They try to make webcasts and podcasts available. I think one problem that we see is that we don’t get buy-in from the chairs of the departments, and those are the people that really have an influence. They are the ones that tell their faculty, “Here’s what you’re teaching.” Nobody wants to tell faculty what to teach, how to teach, or what textbook to use, because academic freedom is very important. The classes need to be individual. But I think it takes buy-in at that middle level, not deans, but at chair level, where the larger classes are planned. Some intro classes use a lot of innovative technology, but there are others that every student has to take for a major, big classes, and it would be nice if chairs would tell those faculty, “We’d like you to try to incorporate some more of this technology,” or “Just try it out and see what happens.” I think if enough people try it, then exciting things would happen and instruction would be improved.

Oral interview, April 2008