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Commentary on Neurobiology and Behavior's Syllabus and Structure

Jessica Watkins's picture

Having taken a class where Serendip was used extensively, I see many parallels between it and this course.  My Serendip experience began in a Literature course (much different than this Neurobiology course--or is it?) and consisted of many of the same features as Professor Grobstein's class: extensive discussion on the Serendip forum, online class notes with contributions by students who had commented in said forum, and web papers commented on by the professor himself. Differences in the structure of the course online were very slight; for example, NB & B required students to post a self-introduction on the forum along with three questions they hoped to have answered by the end of the course, and Professor Grobstein commented on each post made on the forum.  After reading through the course evaluations for this course I saw even more similarities between it and my literature experience: students were both skeptical and welcoming of the discussion format online, where all material was public (however, they were slightly uneasy about the fact that their papers, which traditionally are graded and seen only by a professor, were also public); out-of-class assignments were not structured, but "recommended reading" was given; said papers could be centered around any topic of the student's choice.

But wait--isn't this a science course?  Why so many similarities to a Literature class??

It seems that students in the course had the same thoughts, and for many it was a bit unsettling (although whether it was unsettling in a good or bad way varied immensely).  Some were refreshed by the nontraditional setup of the course, the way the conversation flowed out of the computer and into the classroom and seemed to pour forth from nowhere in particular.  Others were intimidated by their sudden freedom: they no longer had required reading or paper topics.  They had the freedom to choose, to investigate what interested them, and to respond to the thoughts of others if they felt like it, but to them this freedom seemed like it was more bewildering than if they had just been given a sheet of paper with explicit instructions.

Of course, looking at the class syllabus explains some of this:

     Students (and visitors) should be aware that this is a "non-traditional" science course in several respects...Neurobiology, like all science, is an ongoing process of trying to make sense of the world and one's relation to best assimilated by a process in which people themselves work through in their own minds and in relation to their own experiences.

Well then, that's certainly different.  A course based on discovery of one's role in the universe, of applications to daily life that may not have been considered before.  The goal of the class was not to reach a certain communal understanding, but rather to insure that each individual walked away with a fuller understanding of their own by bringing their personal experiences to the table (in this case, the forum).  It was based on discovery.

Most complaints found within the course evaluations and the course evaluation supplement created by Professor Grobstein were centered around this fear of unguided learning.  Structure was wanting, they said, and the syllabus was not completed in a timely fashion nor in the order in which the professor originally said it would be.  They wanted a more defined goal when they were writing their web papers, maybe an example of what the professor considered "good" off of which they could base their writing.  Discussion in class was described as "hesitant" at times, something they blamed on the overwhelming amount of philosophy integrated into the material in a room full of people who thought they had signed up for a science class.  And, of course, Serendip sometimes behaved badly--they either loved it or hated it.

At first glance these complaints seem horrible--how could the professor go on teaching a class where so many of his students felt uncomfortable like this?  How could he force them to think so..."loopily?"  However, a second look is very much in order.  A goal of many educators, particularly those who are working with this website, is to inspire free thinking in their students that leads to self-discovery and new ideas that are born solely of the student's mind.  This course was listed among others in the Biology department, but its material was mentally accessible to even those who weren't Biology majors (there were even some students in the class who had never taken a college-level Biology course before).  It was described by many as "easy," but this should not be taken to mean it was not challenging.  It was "easy" because everyone could relate to what was being studied; students could pick up on the spark that was ignited within them when they encountered a topic they particularly enjoyed; they could connect Neurobiology with religion, literature and philosophy.  It was challenging because they had to learn not from a singular source, the professor, but from a growing interest insided themselves.  They had to pull up from the deep recesses of their mind an idea, and run with it.

I am not sure if the reactions from these students (the skepticism, the fear, the uncertainty about forming their own opinions and turning them into class material) should be worrisome or not.  Are students giving themselves up to authority by wishing they had mandated assignments that could preclude the exploration of something they love?  Does this signal an overwhelming trust in authority figures like professors, when there should be a healthy amount of skepticism toward things learned frm and support by only one source?  One tactic that might have helped in the beginning of the course would have been for Professor Grobstein to be a little more clear about his unclearness--if he had explained to the students that there was no paradigm, no brilliant style for which they should strive; if he had told them that the only requirement of the course was to produce well-thought out work that engaged their senses and could be connected to what was discussed in class, he might have made more of a breakthrough.  There's no guarantee that they would be any less uncomfortable, however.  That will only change with an overhaul in teaching and learning.


jpfeiffer's picture

Additional comment

After reviewing the course evaluation sheets many (if not all of the students) did say that they would recommend the course to others. What I did fail to mention was the fact that some students did complain about confusion/not being satisfied with either the amount of guidance that was offered to them or to the fact that the course was focused around using Serendip and therefore included web postings, forums, etc.  Regardless, I feel as though entering the course with the preface of it being a 'non-traditional' sceince course can be used to refute their disatisfaction with certain aspects of the course. I found this article an excellent supplement to that syllabus and trying to understanding what exactly a 'non-traditional' science course may encompass: /sci_edu/less_wrong.html

Paul Grobstein's picture

an open-ended inquiry classroom

Several different issues, each worth some more exploration?

"isn't this a science course?  Why so many similarities to a Literature class??"

Should science and literature classes be different?  Why or why not? 

"how could the professor go on teaching a class where so many of his students felt uncomfortable like this?  How could he force them to think so..."loopily?""

Actually, there were a fair number of positive course evaluations, no? (see jpfeiffer)   Many students who were pleased by the encouragement to "pull up from the deep recesses of their mind an idea, and run with it."  So maybe its not just a question of a teacher preference but also one of a student preference that might not otherwise be noticed?