Faculty Spotlight: Laura Guertin

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Associate Professor of Earth Sciences Laura Guertin has developed a reputation for being innovative in the classroom. Dr. Guertin's innovations stem from necessity. She teaches at Penn State Brandywine, a commuter campus with approximately 1600 students. Many of her students use public transportation to commute within Pennsylvania and from Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland; it is not unusual for them to have a 2-3 hour trip to campus. In addition to attending college, many students work and care for family members. The result: little or no time for homework. 

Faculty members teaching at residential campuses notice the same lack of student attention to work outside of class. "Students are changing," said Dr. Guertin. The demands on out-of-class time are numerous: for example, close to one fourth of all full-time students at public four-year institutions work 20 or more hours per week (Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac of Higher Education 2011). 

Laura, preparing for a presentation
Dr. Guertin faces another challenge familiar to faculty who teach courses that satisfy general education requirements: the sense that your course is one students simply want to get out of the way. "I'm at the bottom of their list of things to do," she said. Dr. Guertin noticed a lack of engagement by students in her lecture courses. Readings and homework were simply tasks her students wanted to get done, not ways to think and explore. 

Her response to this situation was to use the Just-In-Time Teaching Technique (JiTT). The term describes strategies used to connect in- and out-of-class work. A common approach is to design a small set of questions students respond to outside of class. Students submit their answers a few hours prior to class. The instructor uses the students' answers to create in-class activities that address student misconceptions, gaps in knowledge, or incomplete/faulty reasoning. With the help of a small grant from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, Dr. Guertin adapted this technique in her Dinosaur Extinctions and Other Controversies course by posting three open-ended questions each week for students to answer via ANGEL. A couple of hours before class, she read students' submissions, looking for misconceptions. She then planned an all-class discussion based on student responses and an interactive follow-up activity. She did this once a week. The new approach seemed to be working, but she wanted to know how well students were actually learning. 

Schreyer Institute consultants worked with her to develop and phrase her question sets for students, as well as devise ways of measuring gains in student learning and engagement. She developed a survey that measured students' perceptions of their learning and engagement. What she found was a marked increase in students' learning, engagement, and comprehension of course material. Students also reported a greater sense of responsibility for their own success. She published her findings with former Schreyer consultants Sarah Zappe and Heeyoung Kim in the Journal of Science and Educational Technology. 

Laura Presenting at a recent brown bag Lunch.
Dr. Guertin said the approach is not without its challenges. Instructors using JiTT have found students are more likely to buy into the technique if they get credit for it. Typically instructors make JiTT activities worth about 10 percent of the overall course grade, but this can vary by instructor. With her students, 30 percent is the "sweet spot" that induces them to participate regularly. She says instructors also need to devote time to making sure that follow-up activities are aligned with the teaching goals for their course. With meaningful pre-class questions, and the ability to submit responses to questions online, the daily commute has become homework time for many of her students. 

Dr. Guertin's main suggestion for faculty members considering trying JiTT in their courses is to take the time to construct good questions. Whether they are multiple-choice or open-ended, questions need to be clearly phrased and include a variety of levels of thought. For example, all questions need not be recall-oriented; some might ask for an application or example. Dr. Guertin scales her questions using a model of cognitive levels (Bloom's Taxonomy). See here for examples of questions at different levels of thinking that can be applied in any course. Dr. Guertin said that JiTT questions are a way for non-science majors to connect course material with life outside of class, such as current events and local connections. 

In addition to JiTT, Dr. Guertin continues to develop other teaching tools to help students meet course goals such as scientific literacy. This is a particularly important goal for non-majors, who will need to understand geologic/geographic information in order to be effective teachers and decision-makers. She has developed a capstone Google Earth ePortfolio assignment in which students use technology to apply their geological knowledge to real life situations. For example, students use the Google Earth program to locate and plot geographic features. The program has a tool that students can use to insert annotations, photos, and video, which provides them with a means of making connections between what they are learning in class and how that information applies to real-world phenomena. 

While Dr. Guertin, a 2010 Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology Faculty Fellow, continues to incorporate technology in her courses in new and creative ways, she stresses that incorporating technology into one's classes need not be complicated. "Don't hesitate to use technology. Don't go overboard. Just think about your goals and how technology can get you there." That's sound advice for any teaching technique, technological or not.

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