Thursday, September 30, 2010

Office hours vs. review sessions: the power of a name and a little prep

My campus requires all faculty members to hold four office hours a week.  During these office hours I'm required to be in my office (or some other location), available to any student who wants to come by.

The idea is a great one: there are many reasons why students might want to come and see instructors outside of class, and office hours give all students an opportunity to do just that.  So, in my dream world, I would sit in my cozy office chair sipping tea while student after student came into my office asking thoughtful questions about biology and my advice on transfer possibilities (and bringing me artisan cheese to sample).

But in reality, office hours quickly turn into just another hour to get work done.  Students almost never came by, and when they did it was usually for a few questions that were quickly answered before the student went on their way.  Oh, sure, anytime there was a major assignment due a handful of students would come by to ask about it, but that was at most four or five students every few weeks (I tend to have about 70 to 100 students a semester in my courses).

The lack of student attendance was frustrating, because I knew they could use help (shockingly, they don't all score 100% on my exams, despite my amazing in-class instructing), and I also knew that they wanted help, as there was always a constant chant of "Can you hold a review session?" whenever an exam came up.  I often would hold a specially scheduled review session, while in the back of my mind thinking, "Wasn't that what office hours should have been for?".

And then last year it clicked.  Students desperately want to go to review sessions, but most couldn't care less about office hours.  A quick e-mail to my dean confirmed that there is no requirement to actually call office hours "office hours", and an idea was born: I no longer hold four office hours a week; instead I hold four hours worth of review sessions each week.

I hold the review sessions in the lab I teach my courses in, scatter the hours through the week (to minimize scheduling conflicts), and publish the hours on my syllabus.  I also don't just sit there and wait for student questions; each week I come with prepared slides that list what I can go over that day (e.g., what I think are tough topics), a few new things to talk about (e.g., a preview of material to come, or another example of something we've talked about), and a set of test-like questions from the prior weeks' content aimed at promoting discussion of core topics.  I then ask the students what they want to do, and we go from there.

The weekly review sessions have been a huge hit.  For the primary class I teach (majors' biology), I had four students attend during the first week of the semester (I've never had students come to office hours during the first week to ask about anything other than enrollment issues), in the third week I had seven students attend (even though I had cancelled both review sessions due to being off campus, and only announced that I would be holding one an hour before it was scheduled to start), and last week I had 14 students show up.  This week I haven't even held all the review sessions yet, and I've already had 13 students show up.

In the first four weeks of the semester I had more students come to my review sessions than I typically have come to my office hours in an entire semester.  The students are active and engaged; most stay for the entire time asking me questions and working on my sample questions.  I'm also getting lots of positive feedback ("These are really helping, Prof. Radagast").  And, as an added bonus, since I hold the review sessions in the lab room, students know that they can use the review sessions to give themselves extra time to look at lab specimens, if they need it.

One challenge to this concept is that the review sessions must be specialized for each class.  So, I had to split up my office hours to target each class I teach (luckily I only teach two separate courses), and I've made it clear that I'm happy to schedule office appointments for anyone who can't make the review sessions for their class.  It's not ideal, but the extra attendance and engagement by the students make it worth it.

I think there are three interacting factors that contribute to the success of the review sessions:
  • The name - Students think about "office hours" in a completely different light than they do "review sessions".
  • The location - Instead of walking into my office and interrupting me while I'm doing some probably meaningless, but important-looking task, students instead walk into a room designed for teaching, and see me sitting at the front doing nothing but waiting for them to arrive1.  
  • The preparation - While students end up asking me lots of questions, at the start of each session I usually just get blank stares. Having a few slides prepared with sample test questions, extra content, and a list of what I think is tough helps break the ice and get the session going.  The sample exam questions are especially liked, and much of our time has been spent going over them.

As an added bonus, I'm enjoying the time much more.  Instead of guiltily doing administrivia during office hours, I'm now interacting with my students and helping them learn the content.  Which is, after all, why I'm here.

1 Or, more likely, they're waiting at the lab door and see me rushing from my office to the lab 15 seconds before the review session is scheduled to start.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Plum frozen yogurt

It's hot here in southern California this weekend1, and thus on Friday I broke out our ice cream maker and made some plum frozen yogurt.  Friends have told me that they haven't had much luck making frozen yogurt at home, as they find it tough to get the yogurt strongly flavored enough with the bits of fruit they add.  I've never had that problem with this recipe: by adding more plum than yogurt, this frozen yogurt ends up filled with plummy goodness, peppered with blended bits of purple skin and small chunks of plum.

This is my favorite homemade frozen yogurt recipe, and it makes an excellent refreshing snack or dessert.

This recipe requires an ice cream maker; for more background on home ice cream makers, see this post.

6 plums (3 to 3 1/2 cups coarsely chopped)
1 3/4 cups whole-milk, plain yogurt (unsweetened)
3/4 - 1 cup sugar

1) Remove the pits from all 6 plums, leaving the skin on.

2) Peel the skin off one of the plums, saving the skin for step 3.  Finely chop the rest of the plum (you should have about 1/2 cup), and set aside.  These plum pieces will be added to the frozen yogurt as it freezes in step 5.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Who knew Paperboy was based on real life?

While I teach my favorite course on Friday, I'm basically in the classroom prepping, teaching, or cleaning up all day long.  So, come 5:00 I was exceptionally happy to be able to head home (and also exceptionally wiped out).  Unfortunately, though, I didn't know that a video game was awaiting me on my street:
  • As soon as I turned onto my street, I had to slam on the brakes thanks to two dog owners who were chatting while wrangling their large dogs into the open door of their SUV.  Said dogs were on leashes, but extended into the center of the road.
  • After realizing that said dog owners weren't going to get their dogs into the SUV anytime soon, I moved into the opposite lane to drive past the dogs.
  • Immediately after passing the dogs, a young teen on a bike rode out from between two cars in front of me, and slowly crossed the road.  
  • Shortly thereafter a woman closed her car trunk while carrying a large bag of groceries.  Without looking, she crossed the street right in front of me.  (Sadly, there wasn't a baguette or bundle of celery sticking out of the grocery bag)
  • After avoiding the woman (and now going extremely slowly), I noticed a squirrel a few yards ahead of me on the side of the road.  The squirrel darted out into the road as I approached.  Luckily the squirrel thought better of it and darted back.
  • As I neared home, I saw a teenager on a skateboard riding down the sidewalk next to a child on a bike.  Said child was clearly just learning how to ride a bicycle.  The pair slowly wobbled forward, reaching our driveway just as I was ready to turn into it.
Amazingly, nothing happened when I parked.  

Monday, September 20, 2010


In the past few years my SO and I have been bitten by the artisan cheese bug.  We started out sampling the cheeses at Trader Joe's; buying Basque Shepherd's cheese at Trader Joe's was probably the seminal event in our cheese-eating lives. Our friends have learned of our addiction to cheeses, and so for my birthday a few friends went to a cheese store and bought me a selection of cheeses that I'd never tried before. 

Four delicious cheeses
Clockwise from upper left: Beemster extra old (Holland, cow), Lagrein (Italy, cow), Humbolt Fog (California, goat), and Cashel Blue (Ireland, cow)

We broke out the cheeses the day before yesterday, serving them with good bread, almonds, and honey.  Since I know my friends are dying to know how these tasted, here's a quick summary. Note that I'm no cheese expert, so if you're looking for good descriptions I'd suggest you try another source :)

Beemster extra old: This is an aged cow's milk Gouda from Holland.  It's hard to see in the picture, but the cheese is studded with crystals, and thus is fairly showy.  We've had some aged Goudas in the past that were so strong that they were best used for cooking; eating them raw, even with bread and/or honey, proved unsatisfactory.  This Gouda, however, is a perfect eating cheese.  It's filled with good aged flavor, it's caramelly yet savory, but is mild enough that it's great all by itself or with a piece of bread.

Lagrein: This is a cow's milk cheese from Italy, made by the Mila co-op.  The cheese is bathed in red wine and spices, and has a very distinctive purplish rind.  And, oddly enough, it tastes just like a good salami.  I found this cheese to be perfect all by itself; eating it with bread or other sides overwhelmed the moderate flavor, which I wanted to savor all by itself.

 Humbolt Fog (front) and Lagrein (back).

Humbolt Fog: This is a classic California aged goat milk cheese, which I'm embarrassed to say that I hadn't tried before this tasting.  I'm a sucker for ash layers (I've loved the Morbier I've tried), but the ash seems like it's just for show (I didn't notice much of a flavor difference around the ash).  The cheese itself is a delicious melding of two distinct flavors.  The gooey outer region has a savory,  pungent taste with an almost blue flavor from the rind, while the center has a milder, tangy goat cheese flavor.  And since the two flavors are spatially separated, you can decide for yourself which flavor(s) you'll get in any given bite.  We both loved this cheese, and we ate the entire chunk in just one sitting.  The cheese reminded us of Le Chevrot, though the outer gooey portion of Le Chevrot we've eaten has been stronger in flavor.

Cashel Blue: This is a cow's milk blue cheese from Ireland.  Until a few years ago I disliked blue cheese; the classic "blue" flavor just turned me off.  But, I kept trying them, and my first favorite was Roaring Forties, which I had at The Cube in Los Angeles (my favorite cheese restaurant).  Cashel Blue reminds me a lot of Roaring Forties: it's a creamy blue, and was just delicious on bread either by itself or with a dab of honey.  I don't have a lot of experience eating blues, so can't say much more than "I liked it!"

The cheeses made for an absolutely delicious meal; thanks for the present!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Follow a chemical oceanographer!

A good friend of mine just started a post-doc at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and for his first week at work they decided to throw him on a month-long cruise aboard the RV Atlantis.  He's blogging about his adventures over at The Daily Bucket.

If you've ever wondered what it's like to live and work aboard a research ship sampling water from the depths to analyze for carbon isotope composition, now's your chance!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Homemade chicken pot pie

My SO and I almost never roast meat, but recently we ended up getting two chickens for free.  So, we roasted them and served them with a delicious gravy.  By the time a week had gone by, we'd already made a number of delicious chicken sandwiches, so were excitedly looking for another way to use the leftovers.  Enter chicken pot pie.

Before we made this, I was never a fan of pot pies.  In fact, I'll admit to having to be dragged kicking and screaming into cooking this.  But then I went back for thirds.  In my defense, most of the pot pies I've had were either frozen vegetables and bland chicken in a sauce that tasted like unseasoned flour topped with cardboard, or were salt-fests with mushy tops. 

Crust: (this is essentially a three-quarters batch of my standard pie crust recipe, made without sugar)
1 7/8 cups white flour (1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons)
3/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon cold water

3 cups cooked chicken, coarsely chopped (we used a mix of dark and light meat)
1/2 pound frozen corn, defrosted
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter (reduce salt added if using salted butter)
4 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
2 medium onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 medium cloves garlic, peeled and minced or pressed with a garlic press
1/2 cup flour
2 cups chicken stock (we used homemade)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup milk
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt (plus more to taste; we added probably ~1/4 teaspoon more)
pinch cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

To cook this recipe, you'll need to sautee the vegetables, make the white sauce, make the pie crust, and then bake the dish.  Try to time everything so that the pie crust has been chilled for at least a few minutes and the vegetables are finished sauteeing by the time the white sauce is finished.