Throwing Out the Textbook (Part II)

(Part I gives the background.)

Since the date to order a textbook has long since passed, I’m pretty committed to not going with one for “Space Science & Astrophysics”. I’ve taken the plunge. The problem is, I don’t know exactly what the course should look like now. Most especially, I don’t know of a good way to evaluate the students. I do not want long papers to grade every week! Also, although Scientific American articles are written for “the intelligent layperson” and so should be within the reach of 12th graders, there won’t be the same organized, coherent narrative that a textbook can give. In other words, when you know that you’re going to cover tides in detail in Chapter 5, you can arrange Chapter 3 more intelligently.

I won’t have that luxury. It would seem that that would lead to more lecturing, a proven-bad way of teaching. I will have to lecture somewhat but I want to minimize how much. One thing I’ve considered is throwing it back onto the students. There are tons of sites dedicated to popular astronomy and astrophysics. Perhaps I can give them weekly worksheets with terms and ideas they need to research. Certainly class participation is going to carry a lot more weight than usual in my class, because a lot of what we handle is going to have to be tailored to what they bring to discussion. There will almost certainly be papers of some sort. I am also considering weekly quizzes just to ensure that people have read somewhat. Finally, each quarter will conclude with some sort of group project/presentation. What’s worked well in the past have been things like The Pluto Prosecution as well as a detailed project on Exobiogenesis.

An intriguing possibility is that I will have functioning laptops for each student. This opens up the chance to do actual web-based instruction — but what would that look like? How can it be used to enhance the course? Most especially, web-kits often take a lot of time to develop, and I’ll be doing this largely seat-of-my-pants.

What has me concerned most is tests. How much objective stuff can I put, when their sources are likely to be wildly divergent? And what would be the most effective way to assess the objective content? For the past two years, I’ve used a mixture of multiple-choice and fill-in questions, and (I have to admit) I’ve been immensely dissatisfied with both.

So… anyone have any thoughts on how to assess this class? All suggestions will be deeply appreciated.

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1 Response to Throwing Out the Textbook (Part II)

  1. mongrelpuppy says:

    I do not know whether this is practical or desirable, but perhaps students could be given a list of astronomical observations in which each individual observation is ambiguous, and try to guess what combination of the phenomena they have learned about could have caused it? I do not know whether it would make sense to have the observations be qualitative or quantitative, and whether it would make sense for some of the provided data to be partially processed.