I should have written this really long ago, but finally I get to do this.
Although teaching evaluations where students get to grade teachers are a norm at most places in the world and also in India (like IITs), here at IISc there is no formal evaluation of our teaching. So many of us informally collect anonymous feedback from students. For the half-a-semester module on Theoretical Ecology that I taught in Jan 2012 semester, one of the students (Karpagam Chelliah) helped me set up a survey online and got responses to questions I had set up. With my full semester course on Theoretical and Mathematical Ecology set to start next week, I thought this is a good time to see those feedback again. Here is what I found:
1) First of all, should the half-semester module on theoretical ecology be converted to a full semester course?
Overwhelming feeling among many of my colleagues was that, yes, it should be. I was not so sure, until I saw results of the survey.
All the students who took the survey (total 13) said we should have a full semester course!
2) Now to some details, as to how students self-rate their understanding and how well were the topics covered.
I was able to cover two basic topics, (a) single species population dynamics and (b) random walks and its application to animal movement. In this survey I subdivided these two broad topics to overall 6 components: (i) Discrete population models (ii) Continuous population models (iii) Stability analysis (iv) Random walks and animal movement (v) Programming and (vi) Overall course. Student had to rate their understanding for each of the above components, and how well/detailed each of the topics were covered.
This first chart below shows how students self-evaluated their understanding of various components of the course. Y-axis represents percentage of students who gave that rating.
Here, bars on the left side means I should be concerned, and work harder to improve those aspects. Two components that I did no teach well are stability analysis and programming, the math and the computing parts of the course!
This next chart on the right (where a central peak is the ideal response I would like to see) supports the same view with quite a few students suggesting that I covered less than adequate on both stability analysis and programming.
As a corrective measure, I plan to have one week exclusively dedicated to programming. I should also have more discussion, worked examples and assignment questions on stability analysis which is an extremely fundamental and useful tool for ecologists.
3) I had asked for general critical comments on the course. As you can imagine they are very helpful and here is a summary:
What was good:
It seems students liked discussions we used to have in the class. One student said “The course encapsulated modelling really well and helped banish some fears of the same.” That was precisely the goal of this course, so it was glad to see that the course achieved that goal to some extent (although its only one data point!).
Some particularly liked how I used to recap ideas from previous classes before going onto what next (I learnt this from some of my teachers because those were the only classes I could understand well). Some thought there was enough scope for thinking independently in the course and that assignments were “thought provoking“. But as you see below, there is lot to improve as well.
What needs improvement:
Assignments and Workload: Four students (that’s 25% of the class) commented that workload was too much for half-a-sem course. On the other hand, one student thought many calculations done in class could be moved to assignments so that we can discuss more in the class. One student said “please give adequate reading material. Even though I understood what was being done in class, I forgot everything upon coming back home”!
Clearly, balancing these contrasting needs of reducing workload while increasing reading/assignments is not going to be easy! One student had a suggestion that short and frequent assignments could be more useful – I think this may satisfy both sort of students and this is what I am planning in the coming semester.
Other suggestions were to include empirical data with models, how to validate models and how models can be helpful with conservation. This is not easy given time constraints, but I can try with one or two examples from my own research work. One student said course should be better structured, and I entirely agree with that because I know how haphazard my preparation was especially with respect to assignment and reading materials.
One other important point was that some math and programming background can enormously help this course. Our biological sciences division does offer a basic course on Math and Stat but it is offered in the same semester as this course. It would be ideal if students come prepared with math and programming in Aug semester for two quantitative ecology courses in Jan (the other one being highly sought course taught by my colleague Kavita Isvaran on Quantitative Ecology: Research Design and Statistical Inference).
4) What other topics should be covered if its a full semester course?
Almost all respondents said “Evolution” (more specifically, evolutionary dynamics, ESS and Game theory, population genetics, etc). There were also suggestions on predator-prey dynamics, host-pathogen dynamics, more on chaos and animal movement, etc. Clearly, evolution is the winner and I plan to teach this for 4-5 weeks. I also plan to teach structured models and spatially explicit models in ecology. This may come at the cost of studying more classic models like competition and predation, but I feel that with the kind of background that this course offers, students should be able to pick up a text book and read it on their own.
What do you think? What topics should a basic theoretical ecology course cover given that students basically come with no math/programming background?