Fresh Perspectives Interview with Dr. Barbara Hughey

Alternative Assignments & Assessments

Barbara Hughey, Senior Lecturer 

Class: Measurement and Instrumentation, 2.671 
Semesters: Spring 2020, Fall 2020, Spring 2021
MIT Department: Mechanical Engineering

Key Takeaways

  • Instructors can help students get more out of their limited, hands-on lab time by providing demonstration and explanation videos ahead of time. 
  • By connecting scaffolded in-class work to students’ independent projects, instructors can better engage students during lecture and better prepare students to complete independent work outside of class. 
  • Scaffolding the process of peer review by walking through example critiques during class prepares students to give their peers useful formative feedback on draft projects. 

Interview Transcript

0:00 How is the class structured?

2.671 is complicated. It has three parts which is lecture, lab, and the Go Forth project, which is an independent research project that all the students do. In terms of how it appeared to the students that. Go Forth project has been pretty robust and works quite well in the pandemic. The lecture and lab are a bit different, especially the lab. So the first thing I did last March was they still hadn’t done a group of labs. So I recorded myself doing them.

And we’ve kept that up in the fall. And this term they each do two labs with kits that we send home to them. But the other four labs that they do are video labs where they watch me doing the experiment. And then they do some post lab work and some answer some questions about it. What we’re having the students do in this class really breaks down into two types of activities.

And this especially applied to the lecture but really to everything else, which is the type of thing where they come and do a lab, and they’re following instructions, or they’re doing some data analysis. And I’m telling them exactly how to do it. Those are really guided learning exercises. So it’s exercises where we’re telling them what to do when they do it. And they learn by doing it so that in future, if they have to do it on their own data, they know how to do it because they’ve been led through it once.

And that’s what most of the lab exercises are. And that’s sort of why going to video labs wasn’t really a huge loss in learning because we could still guide them through the experiment. And some of what had been actually lab exercises turned into lecture exercises, which were also guided where they would be going through a worksheet and doing some usually analysis tasks.

And then the other class, which is what really their entire Go Forth project is, and we are a CI-M. And so much of the class is communication. And that is really independent thinking exercises. So it’s ways to get them actually developing their judgment. Our primary learning objective is to develop their judgment. So the way this worked in the virtual environment for the lecture has been awesome. Because we have activities, which are often group activities.

So we can put them in breakout rooms of between three to five people. And then there’s a prompt. There’s some activity they’re supposed to do. It could be sketching some data from their project and then describing it to their peers. It could be figuring out what material needs to be included in the background section of a paper. And they do that in breakout rooms. And so they’re really learning from each other.

I found that the peer review is in some ways, the best way for them to learn because they’re each at the same place. They’re each struggling with the same questions. And they can help each other through it. 

2:41 How did video labs compare to in-person labs?

The video labs are interesting because I feel that in some ways, they got a better understanding of the lab watching me do it because I could call out what was important. Whereas when we were in person, they have a three hour lab session. And they’re worried about getting through the lab. And they often don’t have time to stop and think about what they’re doing. They’re just trying to read the instructions and figure it all out. 

And that’s a piece of it that I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate when we get back in person, something like incorporating little video clips in with the printed instructions so that it’s just a lot easier for them to understand how to connect things, what they should be looking for when they take data what various things mean.

3:24 How did you assess students when teaching remotely?

So the assessments haven’t really changed a lot because of the pandemic. But they have changed because the pandemic induced sort of a shift in our thinking of a clarification of what exactly the various assessments are and how they should fulfill them. For guided learning, which is most of the labs, the post-labs, the pre-labs, we’re giving them instructions and expecting them to do it. And we really expect all students to do well on that. I mean, that is not really to test their knowledge. It’s really to help to teach them something by going through a guided learning exercise.

And one thing that I think hopefully we’ll see when we get to the end of this term, but this is the first term we’re very explicit about that. And so we’re labeling various activities as guided learning or independent thinking. And we have told them up front that we really expect everyone to do extremely well on the guided learning activities because they’re set up that way that that’s where we’re teaching them things by telling them how to do it.

So if they just do it, and there are obviously independent thinking questions mixed in with the guided learning because we want them to think about what they’re doing so they have some ability to personalize their responses on that. But the guided learning part of it, really everyone should get a really good grade. And the independent thinking exercises are where they really distinguish themselves.

The ones that they do in the lecture, those aren’t really graded in the sense of those are more graded by completion and level of effort because that’s the chance where we want them to try things out, to discuss things with their peers, to not be afraid to make mistakes. We want them to start making choices. Because really the whole thing about experimentation, so designing your experiment, taking your data, analyzing it, and then especially communicating it is it’s really all about choices and using your judgment to decide how best to proceed. And that’s the main skill we’re trying to teach them.

In their Go Forth project of course, that’s the major place where they have to exercise their independent thinking. And that has always had, gosh, let me add them up. It’s six or seven assignments throughout the term. So there’s a proposal. There’s an introduction and background paper. There’s a progress report, which is their first data. What we’re doing right now, which is actually my favorite part of the term is there is a draft poster session.

So one of the final two assignments deliverables is a poster, which is sort of working online. But the draft poster sessions are now, and it’s a chance where they make a poster. And then the lab professor and I talk to them about it and also their peers give them review on it. And we really, it’s a chance to help them learn how better to display their data, how better to communicate their findings, how better to talk about their conclusions.

6:17 Did you advise students on how to review their peers’ work?

They actually get an experience of how to do this. We model this behavior for them in lecture before the draft poster session. So we have a lecture on how to make a poster. And as part of it, we split them into breakout rooms larger, more like 12 or 13 per group where they rotate around and look at posters mentored, facilitated by staff. So either communication staff or technical staff are at a poster. And then we guide a discussion.

So we’ve sort of modeled how you should look at a poster, how you should give feedback, and the really fun thing about that we started about a year ago due to a suggestion from one of the communications instructors was that we actually in the lecture, give them the draft poster and then the corresponding final poster. So we first look at the draft poster and we say, “OK, what do you see? What do you think? What could be done better? What are the problems? What are the good things?”

And then we show them the final poster and say, “OK, is it better? Did they improve these things? Are there things they took out that you liked?” And so that gives them, I think, a much better framework to then look at their peers’ posters and evaluate them and discuss in a respectful and helpful way how they could better display their material.

I do find that peer review is really good because they’ve had mostly the same background classes. And so they know the material that their peers know. And they can pretty quickly spot the holes in the logic or things that the person might not have thought of. And I think the students take the peer review comments quite seriously. We actually, when they do these peer reviews on the introduction and background, the communication instructor and the lab professor have already marked up the introduction and background.

But we deliberately don’t release that to the students until after the peer review. Because we want them to feel that what their peers say has merit and importance, which it does. And if they had already seen what the instructors thought, they might not pay attention to it. So I do feel the peer review and also that they’re getting this week now on the posters is incredibly valuable. And I think they might be more receptive to it.

When we as instructors make comments, in part, they’re taking our comments because they’re like, OK so I have to do this to improve my grade, and you know. And you know, I should do this anyway. But when their peers do it, I feel like they probably understand the motivation is different that even though it’s the same as our motivation but I don’t know that they always accept that. But the motivation is really just to help them see how to best present their work, to how to really convey what they’re doing, how to communicate it, how to interpret it, how to discuss their conclusions.

And I think they might be more open to getting that from their peers, which is why it’s really in the last three or four years. And a lot of this was instigated by suggestions from our communication instructors, who are an awesome resource for 2.671, is we’ve really been including much more peer review, and I think it’s incredibly helpful.