Sunday, July 1, 2012

Physical Anthropology: Total Overhaul

I've decided to completely re-prep my introduction to physical anthropology class. I plan to blog the whole process, hoping that I can get comments from readers to improve my plans. In this post, I lay out the reasons for re-doing the class. More brainstorming and planning posts will follow.

Physical Anthropology has always been one of my favorite classes. Although it's not my field, I love it, and I'm very enthusiastic about the subject matter. Plus, my zoology/paleontology background makes this a natural fit for my interests. My enthusiasm used to be enough to turn a large lecture course into a class that many students enjoyed. But two years ago, we switched the class meeting time from early afternoon to eight freaking o'clock in the morning. This has a deadening effect on the entire classroom. At times, I feel like I'm lecturing to zombies (which I am, given the hour!), and the average grade on the exams fell by ten percent. Clearly, changes need to be made.

That's not the only reason I want to overhaul the class. There are certain concepts that I think are critical for students to understand, and I'm not getting through to as many of them as I want. For example, I spend two weeks talking about race, but a significant number of students still don't understand what I mean when I say race is a cultural, and not biological, category. I've tried different types of lectures and activities, I've tried different analogies and explanations, but I still feel that I'm failing.

My goal is to create a more experiential, hands-on learning experience, where students participate in the scientific process, and are able to explore concepts in more depth. The class already has lab sessions, but I plan to shift the regular classroom focus away from lectures to a discussion- and activity-based classroom experience. This necessarily involves trade-offs. I won't be able to throw as much information into my lectures and expect students to memorize it. On the other hand, those topics I do cover will be covered in greater depth, and hopefully the average students will learn more, the struggling students will struggle less, and the top students will gain the skills and context they need to truly excel.

Next post: What are the core topics that any good introduction to physical anthropology course must cover? 

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