Sep 092011
 

I just read through the course evaluation forms that students filled out for the courses I taught last winter.  There is always a delay before instructors are allowed to see them, both to prevent any rash retribution on the part of a disgruntled professor, but also so they can first be read by the student union (the results are summarized and posted online in an “anti-calendar” for prospective students to read) and by our front office staff (summaries are added to our file as part of our annual performance review).  I am still amazed that some faculty never bother to even read them.  Over my past 10 years of teaching, the evaluations, and particularly the “comments” section where students can augment the “bubble numbers” with their own thoughtful observations, have been by far the most useful and influential feedback I receive.  I am usually the first one to pick them up when they become available, as I almost always modify my courses in some way over the summer based on that feedback.  I can only speculate as to why someone would not want to read them: either they are so confident in their teaching abilities that they think feedback is unnecessary, or they are worried about what they will read because they are not at all confident in their abilities.  Yes, reading them can sometimes come with a serving of humble pie, but ignoring negative feedback isn’t going to fix anything.

When I hand out the course evaluation forms near the end of each term, I make sure to tell students that I have read every single form that I have ever received (now approaching 2,000) and that every year I make changes to my courses based on their feedback.  Making this clear to students is crucial to the whole exercise; if they know that their comments will not only be read, but taken seriously, they are much more inclined to put more thought into their responses.  I then encourage them to add comments, and prompt them with some questions they might consider answering, such as:

  • What did you think of the textbook? assignments? use of technology?
  • What is something you liked about the course, and one thing that could be improved?
  • What advice would you give students considering taking this course?

So what did I learn from my latest round of evaluations?  There are usually a range of opinions, so I have to try not to overreact to one or two comments, but there are some things I think are generally true:

  • Students like that I am enthusiastic, organized, and try to make class fun. I am fortunate that I have a job that doesn’t seem like work to me (at least most of the time).  I enjoy what I do, I do have genuine enthusiasm for the material, and I have found that I have enough experience now that I can relax more in class, and try to keep things fun and interesting.  I work hard at keeping the material organized, both for my own sake and theirs, and I’m glad students appreciate that.
  • Students like how I make use of technology.  I spend a lot of time on my PowerPoint slides, and I’m glad that students notice, and appreciate my efforts.  Last year I experimented with online office hours with Adobe Connect, and created some video demonstrations of software using Adobe Captivate.  I got a lot of positive comments about these, and plan to do more in the future.
  • Students don’t like the textbook, which many complain is too expensive, and does not provide enough explanation of certain topics.  I have written about textbooks I have taught with, and my search for the perfect textbook, so I sympathize with my students.  I am now considering abandoning the textbook altogether and using online material instead, but I have to think this through, as it means they would not have as structured an introduction to the material, and it would certainly be more work for me.  I am tempted though, as I curate a lot of web content already, and they would have access to the latest available content.  I will likely write more on this in the future.
  • I get mixed reviews on my assignments.  Some say they like the fact that they are interesting, relevant, and help them learn how to use the software, but others find them very time-consuming.  I tell students that the concepts and software are complex, and that the only way to actually gain a new skill is to sit down and do it themselves, and that this takes time.  However, my current approach to assignments is to have fewer of them (I have four over a 12 week term) and incorporate more than one topic.  Some students like this, as I usually give them two or three weeks to work on it, and they like the flexibility this gives them in terms of time management.  Other students have requested I try using more assignments that are shorter and confined to one topic.  I have often debated this, and am currently considering trying a bit of both; shorter assignments for fairly self-contained topics (e.g., projections, geocoding) but longer assignments that would allow for more problem solving (e.g., raster and vector overlay)

I could certainly add more, but the above are the main highlights from this past term.  I always enjoy the opportunity to reflect on student feedback and how it relates to various teaching methods.  The next challenge is to assess what I can realistically change in the time available, caution myself against change for its own sake, and be grateful that students care enough to provide me with thoughtful, useful, and unvarnished comments.

Feb 232011
 

In my last post, I wrote about my search for the perfect GIS textbook and the fact that I have not yet found one (and likely never will).  Today I thought I would mention some books that I particularly like – I am not pretending to give any of them a full, rigorous review, but did want to discuss some elements that I think work well.  To go along with this continuing discussion of GIS textbooks, I have added a list of GIS textbooks to this site.  For now, I will mainly limit my comments to books I have used as required reading in one or more courses, but will also mention some that I just admire.

There are two introductory books I have used in the past, Fundamentals of Geographic Information Systems by Michael N. DeMers, and An Introduction to Geographical Information Systems by Heywood, Cornelius, and Carver (see my book list for full references).  I would put both of these books in the “lighter” category, meaning that they don’t have an abundance of technical information in them.  They are clearly geared towards the absolute beginner, and both are very well written for that audience, including great figures that help illustrate concepts in an accessible way.  Over the years, I have tried using both in my introductory course, but eventually abandoned them for the same reason – namely, that I felt they were a little too light and that I often had to fill in additional information to cover the content I felt was necessary.  This is not to take anything away from either book though, as I think they both accomplish their intended purpose, but I just didn’t feel they meshed with my own course objectives.

There are two books that I have also tried that I would describe as much more technical and densely written: Concepts and Techniques of Geographic Information Systems by Lo and Yeung, and Introduction to Geographic Information Systems by Chang.  I used Lo and Yeung for several years in my introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses.  I liked it because it had (among other things) good discussions of coordinate systems, map projections, and levels of model abstraction and basic database design.  Alas, I received a number of complaints from students over the years, particularly in the introductory course, who felt it was hard to understand.  I really like the content in this book, but I do find that their writing at times is a bit too technical, or makes assumptions about the audience, that made me eventually decide to move to Chang.  I am currently using Chang in all three of my undergraduate courses.  If you are thinking that using either Lo and Yeung or Chang in three different courses seems odd, I did this because I had thought that, since no book would cover everything I was looking for, and I would have to fill in other material anyway, why not try it.  Beyond that, the costs of the books were so high that I thought I would try to give students a break if they took two or three of my courses.  I find that Chang is well written and makes a lot of explicit references to ArcGIS, which I use for my courses.  However, the sections for each topic are surprisingly brief, and the overall length of the book is fairly short, especially for the price.  I think students could benefit from more detailed explanations and examples in order to really understand certain concepts.

A third book I used a few years ago that I would also put in the “advanced” and “densely written” category is Principles of Geographic Information Systems by Burrough and McDonnell.  This book has some great content, some of which is still hard to find elsewhere, such as good coverage of errors, fuzzy sets, and a good amount on raster analysis.  For me, the biggest downfall of this book is the writing style.  Granted, I think it is geared towards a more experienced and advanced GIS student, but there were times in lectures where I would literally put quotes from the book on a PowerPoint slide, and then go through it, line by line, deconstructing and translating each passage into plain language.

Regarding writing style, there are some titles I’d like to mention that I have not used in courses before, but that I have always admired.  While it’s quite old now, one of the first GIS textbooks I ever read was Geographic Information Systems: A Management Perspective by Stan Aronoff.  It was a great way to get started, as it was written in a straightforward, easily understandable style.  I also really like Geographic Information Analysis by O’Sullivan and Unwin.  Even though they cover more challenging topics, particularly spatial statistics, I find that their writing makes these topics much easier to understand.

Some other titles that are not only well written, but beautifully illustrated, are The ESRI Guide to Geodatabase Concepts and Modeling Our World, both by Michael Zeiler, and The ESRI Guide to GIS Analysis, Vols. 1 and 2.  I love looking through as well as reading all of these books.  The figures have been painstakingly thought out and the use of full colour is really effective.

These are just some thoughts I wanted to share on some of the books I have used and/or admired.  There are many I haven’t mentioned, but hopefully will discuss in future posts.  If you have any favorite GIS textbooks, I would love to hear about them.

Feb 172011
 

If you’re reading this, chances are you are a fellow geonerd, and may have a shelf of GIS books that you have collected over the years (or maybe that’s just me).  One of the great perks of my job is that, from time to time, I get free GIS textbooks sent to me from publishers for my consideration.  I LOVE getting new textbooks, and immediately start flipping through them and thinking about what topics are included, how they are organized, the writing style, the quality of the figures, what’s been left out, etc.  I have a clear conscience about receiving these books because every spring, after my courses are over for the year, I review my GIS curriculum and take a fresh look at what textbooks I’m using and what else I should consider.  I have used six different textbooks in ten years of teaching, so I am certainly willing to give different titles a try, even though switching is a lot of work, as all my reading lists and references to the text in my lecture notes have to be updated.

As much as I love GIS textbooks, I have never found one that met all of my needs for a course.  I know this is a common complaint from instructors.  I think the reason it’s common is not rooted in arrogance (“no one can possibly capture all of my brilliant teaching material in one book”).  My suspicion is that it is because teaching is so personal.  In order to be able to teach something well, you have to really make it your own.  Inevitably, that means that you will develop ideas about what works, what doesn’t, when to introduce certain ideas, and so on.  It’s just really unlikely that some author out there just happens to think the way you do and has turned that into the perfect textbook.

My main complaint with most GIS textbooks is that they are organized according to the old familiar project-oriented approach: a bit on basic map concepts first, followed by data input, management, analysis, and output.  This is a great way to organize content for a reference book, but I have never been convinced that this is a useful way to organize material for the most effective learning.  When I teach, I tend to refer to several sections of a textbook in one lecture, often across several chapters.  This is because I prefer to introduce concepts within the context of a problem-solving example, or to at least link concepts that I think have a natural connection.  When I first started teaching, I made the mistake of thinking that I had to stick to the sequence of topics in the textbook to make it easier for my students to follow.  While this might be true, I found it was quite limiting and, consequently, a bit boring for me and the students.

Every once in a while a student or textbook sales rep. will ask if I have considered writing my own textbook.  While it’s flattering to be asked that, I always say no.  The short version of my explanation is that I think the traditional textbook model is problematic at best, particularly in a rapidly changing technology-oriented field like GIS.  The longer version is something I plan to address in a future post.