How-to: Learning Relies on Soft Skills


By Stacy Palen

David Brooks recently collated several different studies of teaching and learning into an Op-Ed for the New York Times titled “Students Learn From People They Love.” Two paragraphs of this article particularly caught my attention, one about in-person vs video teaching, and one about brain activity in a group. I’ll talk about each one separately, in this and the next post.

In the article, Brooks writes, “Suzanne Dikker of New York University has shown that when classes are going well, the student brain activity synchronizes with the teacher’s brain activity. In good times and bad, good teachers and good students co-regulate each other.”

This one caught my attention because I’m not at all sure what “synchronized brain activity” means. It sounds a little…unscientific.

But when I think about it more, I’m pretty sure I have a guess about what it feels like. I bet you do too.

We’ve all been in a classroom where the professor and the students were all working toward a common purpose, and we felt like the professor knew our questions before we could articulate them. Even hard things seemed approachable, because the professor was keyed in to our confusions. We would work extra-hard to please those teachers, and it paid off with faster and deeper learning.

On the other side of the desk, we’ve all had those students who helped clarify for us the confusion in the classroom. For better or worse, there’s sometimes that one kid who seems to respond to what we are saying just a little bit quicker. And when her eyebrows furrow, we pause and back up and try to explain again.

This sometimes extends to an entire classroom of students. I’ve had back-to-back classes in which the classroom vibe was completely different. In one hour, the group was chatty and involved and asked questions and was prepared each day. And the next hour, it felt like pulling teeth just to get them to actually push a button to answer clicker questions.

But all of this is very “fuzzy,” and that makes us uncomfortable. We would love to have a concrete set of steps to take so that if we want to improve student outcomes by 7.3%, we can simply invoke 20% more clicker questions in the classroom, and the student outcomes would improve accordingly. But if that were true, we would all be teaching perfectly already. It cannot possibly be so formulaic or teaching astronomy would be done by reading the cookbook.

Be reassured by the burgeoning research that learning is a social experience. It’s an interaction and therefore, each teacher-student pair does it differently. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you. And what works for you with student X won’t necessarily work with student Y. And even what works with student X for topic A won’t necessarily work for topic B!

This can be frustrating, but it also makes teaching fun and exciting. Teaching is a giant research experiment, where you are always trying something new, to see how it works. Not because there is one right answer, but because there are a hundred right answers, and matching up the method to the topic and the interaction is a subtle art.

The elephant in the room, of course, is evaluation. Brooks points out:

The bottom line is this, a defining question for any school or company is: What is the quality of the emotional relationships here?

And yet think about your own school or organization. Do you have a metric for measuring relationship quality? Do you have teams reviewing relationship quality? Do you know where relationships are good and where they are bad? How many recent ed reform trends have been about relationship-building?

In my experience, the answer to all of these questions is no because it’s really hard to measure these “soft skills,” like relationship building and communication. It’s much easier to measure changes in learning that are made by a change of specific instructional techniques than those that rely on interpersonal relationships between a teacher and their students.

So then the very best answer is to try things, all the time, to find the set of techniques that work best for you in your classroom with your students. And then sit down at the end of term and write down your thoughts for your evaluation file.

Explain what you tried, and why you think it worked or didn’t work, whether you’d try it again, and what you’d change. Your teaching will only benefit from the moment of reflection, and I suspect the committee that evaluates your work will too.

Classroom Resources: Astronomy in Action- Angular Momentum

Stacy Palen has created 23 videos on key topics to accompany her textbooks, Understanding Our Universe and 21st Century Astronomy, that instructors can assign as pre-class activities or show in class. A mixture of live demos and mini lectures, these videos explain key concepts in an understandable and compelling way. In the angular momentum video, Stacy stands on the “rotating platform of doom” and is given a small shove with outstretched arms, and then brings those arms in close to her body to demonstrate the conservation of angular momentum. Watch the video below and let us know what types of live demos you do in class!

How-To: Confronting Gender Bias in the Sciences

Girl Stars1

By Stacy Palen

The article from Nature Ecology & Evolution, How the Entire Scientific Community Can Confront Gender Bias in the Workplace, came across my screen recently, and it occurred to me that many astronomy professors might not see it…

I find that while evidence of gender bias is well-documented, approaches to changing that bias are harder to come by. Near the end, this article provides some scientifically-minded suggestions for tackling the gender bias problem that we may all find helpful. It’s important to note that this article is coming from the biological sciences, which statistically have a smaller gender bias problem than the physical sciences.

As I read the piece, I was reminded of a particularly formative interaction I had as a young scientist. When I interviewed at graduate schools, I talked to lots of professors of both physics and astronomy, since I hadn’t yet decided how I would specialize.

As an undergraduate, I had taken one subpar introductory astronomy course which didn’t make the field seem very appealing—the class primarily focused on memorizing which stars were in which constellations that were visible at what times of the year. (There was also a lot of talk about epicycles, which took me nearly two years to eradicate from my brain, in order to make room for ellipses.) So astronomy was on my radar, but only peripherally. At the time, it seemed to me that something closer to industry might be a wiser choice.

During a visit, one professor made an off-hand comment that would alter the trajectory of my life: “Of course,” he said, “there are lots of women heroes in astronomy…” And that was it. In that moment, I decided I wanted to find out more about those women heroes, and the obvious way to do that was to specialize in astronomy and astrophysics.

Go figure. Sometimes the smallest, most insignificant interactions can change a life…

I’m positive that this professor doesn’t remember the interaction. I know this because I later asked if he remembered my visit (for another reason), and he didn’t recall it. I don’t blame him—I too have had former students say to me, “You said this one thing, one time, that changed my life…” and had absolutely no recollection of it. It’s difficult to know how our most off-hand interactions affect other people.

Lately, I’ve been trying an experiment in which I include more women and minority scientists in my classes but do NOT make a big deal of pointing them out; instead, I just mention them casually, as though it happens all the time. I’m interested to see how this affects my students in the future.

I'll have the luxury of interacting with some of these students again in later years, both in other classes in the department and across campus. And I’ll probably devise some sneaky way of asking a question on a homework or exam to find out if they noticed. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Book Recommendation: Glass Universe


By Stacy Palen

A few weeks ago, Colin Inglefield wrote a guest post about his uses of trade books in the classroom. Over break, I finally had a chance to read Glass Universe by Dava Sobel, and I think this would make a great book to use in this context. The book is about the early years of the Harvard Observatory, and the women “computers” who worked there. I am considering using this text for Astro101 next fall.

There are several themes running through the book that might be used to guide discussion throughout the semester.

The first is the science and society angle; there’s a lot to talk about here, of course, about the role of women in science, and how the larger society’s norms decide who gets to play along in the sciences, and in what role. Then there’s the question of who gets the credit. In recent years, it has become increasingly well-known that Rosalind Franklin was robbed of recognition for her critical involvement in the discovery of DNA due to her gender. Sobel tells a parallel story in astronomy about Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin, and her 1925 thesis that began a revolution in astronomy by discovering that stars have fundamentally different compositions than planets. Why is her name not as well-known as Chandrasekhar’s? That’s an opening point for a wide-ranging discussion about not only the role of women in science, but also general fairness (think of the recently renamed Hubble-Lemaitre Law).

The second is about the symbiotic connection between technology and science. (This is covered more directly in another trade book, Starlight Detectives by Alan Hirshfeld.) Hirshfeld convincingly argues that the revolution in photography created a corresponding revolution in science, because scientists were able to store objective data for the first time. This meant that multiple scientists could analyze the same data, and compare data points over time. Hirschfeld follows this thread through Henrietta Leavitt’s work on different types of variable stars, Annie Jump Cannon’s work on spectroscopy, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposhkin’s work on elemental abundances, and reveals why these discoveries could not have been made in Newton’s time, for example, the record-keeping ability that photography provides simply didn’t exist. Similarly, telescope technology was improving by leaps and bounds during this time, and internally consistent observations from both hemispheres became possible.

The third theme is about the role of private and public philanthropy in science. Most students are not aware of how science is funded today, nor how it has been funded in the past. The funding sources dictate, to some extent, what projects are pursued. At the Harvard Observatory during this time, Mary Ann Draper’s interests were decisive to the success of the observatory, and dictated to some extent the avenues of inquiry that were followed. There are benefits and drawbacks associated with privately funded science just as there are with publicly funded science. Deciding on the balance between the two funding sources is a current argument unfolding in the political sphere and in the larger society. This book helps illuminate the extent to which science in the past was dependent on the individual inclinations of wealthy donors. It’s for your students to decide whether they think the system has improved or not!

I’ll use this book for an experiment with book discussion groups in fall semester. I’ll let you know how it goes! Let me know if you decide to try something similar.

Reading Astronomy News: Updated Graphic of LIGO/Virgo Compact Binaries

By Stacy Palen

LIGO has been busy, and a newly released graphic summarizes many of the exciting discoveries the detector has made in concert with Virgo, its European counterpart.

Summary: Since 2015, the LIGO/Virgo collaboration has detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime caused by rapidly accelerating massive objects—from 10 stellar mass binary black hole mergers and one binary neutron star merger. Black holes and neutron stars are both forms of stellar remnants—the final stage of stellar evolution that a star enters when it has burned through its entire fuel supply. This graphic provides a great jumping off point for discussions about masses in the stellar graveyard.


1. Consider the final masses of the black hole mergers (larger blue circles). What is the smallest merged mass?

Answer: About 19 solar masses.


2. Consider the masses of black holes that have been detected in X-rays (EM Black Holes, in purple). What is the largest black hole mass that has been detected this way?

Answer: About 23 solar masses.


3. Estimate the average mass of the black holes that have been detected in X-rays.

Answer: About 10 solar masses.


4. Estimate the average mass of the black holes that have been detected in gravitational waves.

Answer: This average looks to be about 25 solar masses.


5. Astronomers make the claim that they are detecting a “new population of black holes” with gravitational waves---—that is, that the type of black holes they are detecting now are different than the ones they were detecting before. Based on your answers to questions one through four, explain why they would say this.

Answer: Even though the two groups of black holes overlap in mass, gravitational waves are detecting more massive black holes, on average, than were detected with X-rays in the past.


6. Compare the number of EM black holes to the number of black holes (before merging) discovered with LIGO/Virgo. How much has LIGO/Virgo contributed to the total sample of known black holes?

Answer: LIGO/Virgo has nearly doubled the number of black holes that have been observed.


7. Is it reasonable, then, to compare the two populations (the pre-merger black holes from the LIGO/Virgo data and the X-ray black holes)?

Answer: Yes, statistically speaking, we know of about the same number of objects in each case.


8. Consider the masses of Neutron stars (yellow). What is the largest neutron star mass that has been detected with light (EM)?

Answer: About 2.1 solar masses.


9. Consider the masses of Neutron stars (yellow). What is the average neutron star mass that has been detected with light (EM)?

Answer: About 1.5 solar masses


10. Theorists predict that we would not expect to observe neutron stars with masses above about 2.14 solar masses. Are these observations consistent with that prediction? What do you think astronomers are wondering about the post-merger object resulting from the merger of two neutron stars?

Answer: The neutron stars observed with light are consistent, but the outcome of the neutron star merger is a little bit too massive. As of this writing, astronomers are still trying to figure out the form of that post-merger object. It could be a black hole, a neutron star collapsing to form a black hole, or a stable neutron star. More data are needed!

How-to: Making Them Read

Using Trade Books in an Introductory Physics Course

By Colin Inglefield

I regularly teach PHYS 1010: Elementary Physics, at Weber State University. I didn’t choose the course name; at your school, it might also be called Conceptual Physics or Descriptive Physics. Regardless, it is a physics course with no math prerequisite (and therefore very little math content), primarily taken by students to fulfill a General Education breadth requirement.

There are challenges for the instructor. Some students have profound difficulty with proportional reasoning. Others sign up for the course after taking an Advanced Placement calculus-based physics course in high school, specifically because they are looking for an easy course.

The standard texts are approachable and conversational but might also seem patronizing—at least they do to me. Typically, there are between 90 and 100 students in my course. What to do?

I want the course to provide a meaningful experience for all students, while being faithful to the catalog description and General Education mission by presenting a survey of topics in physics and physical science.

I’ve made my course reading-intensive, because I believe in the transformative power of reading in any discipline. To get an A in my course, students have to, among other requirements, read two trade books.

The first trade book is something I choose for the whole class to read together. Most commonly, I’ve used American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherman. It’s an excellent book, a Pulitzer Prize winner that I recommend to anyone. It’s also a 600-page (not counting notes and references) serious work, arguably the most scholarly biography of Oppenheimer to date.

It’s not a book a lot of my students would choose on their own. It includes many physics topics we talk about in the class and is a great springboard for discussing issues of science-and-society in the 20th century.

We read it in sections and take one day every other week from class as “book club day” to discuss a section of the book. Before we discuss the book, students take a short-answer reading quiz. If they don’t pass the reading quiz, they can come meet with me and, by discussing the book with me, convince me that they’ve done the reading.

The only real requirement is that they read the book.

In the in-class discussions, a different group of students participates enthusiastically as compared to a “regular” day of class. The discussions have been some of my most memorable days in the classroom in my 20-year career.

Once the students get over the “Yes, we are going to read this whole thing” on the first day of class, a surprising number enjoy it and I get more positive than negative comments on my evaluations about the reading.

I had one student tell me that she started reading again because of my class.

Beyond the book we read together, in order to get an A, students need to read another trade book from a list of ~10 that I provide.

Here is the list of books that my students currently have to choose from:

  • Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith
  • Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World by Eugenie Samuel Reich
  • Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
  • The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom by Graham Farmelo
  • The Sky is not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist by Neil DeGrasse Tyson
  • Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson
  • The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars by Christopher Cokinos
  • The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan

Selections cover a variety of the people and issues from science in the last century and include a diverse group of authors and subjects. I break the class up into smaller groups for a separate book club discussion for each book in the last week of class.

Grades in my class are based on reaching benchmarks in various categories.

To get an A, a student needs to average 75% or better on my (physics) quizzes and tests and read both of the trade books. They get a B, but no better, if they don’t read the second book. They can’t do better than a C without doing the reading.

This all makes for a reasonable balance between making every student do something significant and giving every student a reasonable chance for a good grade.

The reading-intensive General Education science course has been as successful as anything I’ve tried in the classroom, in my obviously biased opinion. I love to talk about it with my colleagues.

Have you tried something similar with your students? Let us know in the comments!

How-to: Using Collective Marks

By Stacy Palen

In the last two posts, I explained what a rubric is and why they are useful. In the prior blog post, I explained how I use the first part of the rubric to guide me as I assess content knowledge in each question. In this post, I will explain how I use “collective marks” that apply to the whole assignment.

I first heard of collective marks in the sport of dressage. In this sport, the horse and rider complete a test consisting of 25-40 movements, which are each scored individually against a rigid standard of perfection. At the end of the test, the horse/rider pair are scored on four different and more subjective standards, such as “effectiveness of the rider” and “harmony.”

These collective marks might be loosely summarized as “sure, it was technically perfect, but did they make it look easy?”

I use collective marks for all the things that I care about that are not technically astronomy, such as spelling and grammar. But I also include here other features of the assignment that may appear in question after question, like units or neatness or labels on graphs.

It is tedious and time-consuming to keep writing “units” or “complete sentences” after every question. Grading these items collectively allows me to focus on the content in my first pass through the assignment. Then, I leaf through the pages again to recall my general impression of the “beauty” of their performance. I scale the collective marks to be worth about 10% of the student’s grade on the assignment.

For example, if the assignments are all worth 100 points:

For each assignment, 10 of the points will come from the “collective marks,” determined by the neatness, clarity, and other aspects of the work that are taken as a whole.

10: Excellent: You remembered to use units on every measurement or calculation. The assignment is neat and easy to read, with correct spelling and grammar and complete sentences! All mathematical steps are included, and all the graphs and tables have labels, with units! You are a rock star!

9: Very good: There are one or two minor flaws of spelling or grammar. However, all of the numbers have units.

8: Good: There are three or four minor flaws. I could find all of your work, but it was disorganized and a bit sloppy.

7: Fairly good: There is a major flaw (forgetting units or a label) or a combination of 5 or 6 minor flaws.

6: Satisfactory: There is a major flaw and several minor flaws.

5: Marginal: There are two major flaws and several minor flaws; I could barely read your writing.

4: Insufficient: There are several major flaws; I could not read your writing on many of the answers or had to hunt through your papers for the answers.

3: Fairly Bad: I could not find some of the answers, and the work is very sloppy. There are major and minor flaws. Please visit the writing center for a reminder on spelling, grammar, and sentence construction.

2: Bad: I couldn’t read your writing, and the spelling and grammar were poor. The work is sloppy, but it appears that you attempted every question in the assignment.

1: Very bad: You have made no effort to show respect for your own work, or for the time your professor will require to grade it.

0: Not performed

Giving collective marks takes very little time, once I’ve graded the content.

Depending on how many students I have (and how far behind I am in my grading!), I may circle the flaws (such as spelling errors) on their assignment. But I don’t stress about making sure to catch every flaw or giving a correction. I just make a circle and move on.

Before I started using collective marks, I felt conflicted about grading for things like spelling. It seemed wrong to just ignore bad spelling or messy papers, but at the same time, I didn’t feel I had adequate time to correct every student’s grammar.

Collective marks let me do that in a way that lets students know I care, and I notice, but then puts the student back in the position of learning how they should have spelled “gallactic.”

I also find that collective marks reward the students who take the time to carefully write out their assignments, check their spelling, or make careful drawings. I have been known, on rare occasions, to give 11/10 for collective marks, because a student shows such diligent care.

Using collective marks saves me time, makes my grading more consistent, and rewards students who are careful and thoughtful in their work.

Give them a try and let me know how it goes!

How-to: Using Rubrics to Grade Content Knowledge

By Stacy Palen

In the last post, I explained that a rubric is a written explanation of your expectations and intentions, and why they are useful in clarifying expectations and simplifying grading.  I divide my grading rubrics into two parts: a part that is applied separately to each question, and “collective marks” that apply to the whole assignment.  In this blog post, I explain how I use the first part of the rubric to guide me as I assess content knowledge.

I assign short-answer homework problems, which sometimes include math, each week.  I also assign one in-class hands-on exercise each week.  Students in my class take two exams each semester, each of which involves a variety of problem types.  It’s useful for me to separate the content knowledge from the over-arching skills, like writing complete sentences, including all the details of a graph, and so on.

For example, I often grade short-answer homework questions out of 3 points, using this very basic rubric:

The answer to each question will be graded out of three points:

3: Excellent: Exactly right! Well done!

2: Satisfactory: Well, you kind of had the right idea...

1: Fairly Bad: You wrote something down.

0: Not attempted

This rubric is tightly focused on the content of the answer to this question.  There is nothing here about complete sentences, units, handwriting, or even clarity of thought.  This is very fast to do, and by the time I get to the bottom of a stack of 120 assignments, I’ve seen all the answers and recognize on sight whether this particular answer should get a 2 or a 3. I will use this rubric for short-answer and mathematical answers, and sometimes for sketches.

I need a more detailed rubric for some pictures, and all graphs. It is appropriate to have more points available for these types of answers than for the answers to short-answer questions because it takes a lot of time to produce a high quality sketch or graph. Personally, I care deeply about graphs because I place graph-reading near the top of all the life skills a student might learn in an introductory science class. An educated person needs to know how to read a graph, if only so they can plan for retirement!  I have a separate rubric for graphs.  This rubric helps to remind students about the parts of a graph that matter:

For each graph, you will be graded out of 5 points: 

5: Excellent: The graph is clear an dwell-presented. Axes are labeled with units, and there is a legend if more than one thing is plotted.

4: Good: The line fits are slightly in error and don't fit the data as well as they could. Constraints have not been applied correctly; some graphs must have lines that pass through 0,0, for example. 

3: Satisfactory: The data are plotted correctly but the line fit is inappropriate or missing. Alternatively, there is a line with no data to constrain it. 

2: Insufficient: Major or many components are missing, such as an axis or axis label. 

1: Very Bad: Seriously? You wasted my time turning this in? 

0: Missing

By using these rubrics to grade for content, I free myself from having to agonize over how many points to give for an answer that is mostly correct but poorly worded. I can give the benefit of the doubt for answers that seem right but leave me not entirely certain that I know what they meant.  I can give students a little bit of credit, even if I can’t completely read what they have written.  And I don’t have to worry here about spelling, units, or grammar.  I have collective marks for all those issues, which I’ll talk about in the next post.

How-to: Using Grading Rubrics

By Stacy Palen

There is a tension for every professor between giving detailed feedback and keeping up with the workload. I suppose it’s possible that there is a “unicorn” professor out there somewhere who never struggles with this, but I haven’t met them!

Using a rubric can be helpful, because a rubric can add clarity to your expectations and cut down on the grading workload.

A rubric is a written explanation of your expectations for an assignment. Rubrics are most commonly applied to large projects or presentations, but they can be just as useful for the weekly homework assignment or in-class activity.

Using a rubric means that both you and the student are on the same page about what’s required. In science, we often consider our assignments to be quantitative and objective, so that the grading is likewise quantitative and objective.

But students may not see it that way; even if the assignment is quantitative, students may not know what makes a proper quantitative answer. Are you a professor who cares about complete sentences and units and showing all the work? Or do you only care about the answer?

It’s a fair point that students have questions about this, especially in an introductory course where they are not “plugged in” to the culture of your specific Department.

I typically post the rubrics for assignments on the LMS or course website, and also in the syllabus. Then when students ask me questions about why they lost points on an assignment, I’ll refer them to the rubric.

In some semesters, I have printed out the rubric for the first assignment, writing directly on it, so that students could see how the rubric was applied. That’s probably a good idea, but I’m not always able to get it done.

The level of detail included in the rubric depends on the assignment. For example, I will have different rubrics for short-answer homework questions than for in-class lab activities.

Exams, which in my class involve drawing pictures, writing paragraphs and solving puzzles, do not fit so neatly into a rubric category. But I find that by the time I reach the midterm, the students already have an idea of my expectations.

I have colleagues who have written holistic rubrics for their entire course. That is, they have written down in clear terms what an “A”, “B,” or “C” in this course means. For example, a “B” may mean that the student has completed 14 of 15 homework assignments with a grade of 80% or better, plus two exams with a grade of 75% or better, plus read and commented on two articles in the course discussion board. An “A” might mean both higher scores AND more articles read.

Some professors have gone so far as to then turn that rubric into a “contract” with the student, where the student can state up front at the beginning of the course that they intend to aim for a “C.” They often do.

I divide my grading rubrics into two parts: a part that is applied separately to each question, and “collective marks” that apply to the whole assignment. In the next two blog posts, I will explain how I use rubrics to grade for content knowledge, and how I use them to grade for “meta” qualities that span multiple parts of the assignment. I will also explain how I use rubrics to cut down on my grading workload.

There are endless other examples of rubrics and how to use them on the internet. Many of them come from K-12 teachers, who frequently use rubrics in their grading. Your students may be more familiar with the concept than you are!

Stay tuned for Part 2, “How-to: Grading Content” next Friday.

Classroom Stories: Thoughts on Missing the First Day of Class

By Stacy Palen

Establishing a classroom culture of intention (including routing attendance, handing things in on time, showing up promptly, and so on) starts on the very first day. Students take their cues from me: is this a professor who cares about these things or not?

Because of this, I have always avoided missing the first day (or two!) of class.

Unfortunately, the winter American Astronomical Society meeting almost always overlaps with the first week of class at Weber State University. I usually don’t go to the meeting. But this year I had obligations that put me in a bind, and I felt I needed to be at AAS during the first full week of January.

This meant missing the first day of class in all three of my spring semester courses. What to do?

Somewhat hesitantly, I put together an assignment for each class that I broadcast on Canvas the week before. I made an announcement so that students would know they were supposed to do it instead of coming to class, and then hoped for the best. I promised that I would grade this assignment before we met in class for the first time.

It worked out better than I expected.

The Introductory Astronomy assignment had two parts. Part A was a basic list of vocabulary words like “planet,” “planetary nebula,” and “universe,” that students were asked to look up and define in one or two sentences. Part B asked students to read the syllabus and then answer a few questions.

Part A gave me insight into what students know, what they don’t know, and, especially, what they think they know but don’t!

Students believe they know what planets, stars, and solar systems are, so they did not look up those answers but instead just wrote down what was in their head. These definitions were generally incomplete. For example, the definition of “planet” could easily have described an asteroid.

More difficult terms like “planetary nebula,” they actually looked up. The students were more likely to be correct about the topics they didn’t know as well.

That’s interesting.

Part B actually allowed me to skip talking about the syllabus during our first in-person class time, except to answer one or two questions about textbooks and the bookstore. This feels like such an improvement that I may institute this assignment every semester!

The mechanics of the assignment were a little bit tricky.

First, I had to convince Canvas to open the course ahead of the official University start date, which I did in “Settings.” I know I was successful because one student turned the assignment in on the Friday before classes started.

Second, in order to keep my promise to have it graded before the second meeting time, I had to have students hand in the assignment on Canvas.

In previous years, this would have been a show-stopper, because I despised typing in comments on assignments handed in via Canvas. But there is new functionality to write on assignments using a tablet, which makes the grading experience much more like giving feedback on paper.

I did get them almost all graded (except for four!) by the time class started on Wednesday. I felt it was really valuable to me to walk into class already knowing something more about their background than I typically do.

And skipping the syllabus discussion? Priceless.