How does one teach? How do you do it most effectively, and how would you know? These were the questions that were scrutinized during an inspiring workshop in Portugal, lead by Diane Ebert-May last week. Ben Chapman and I had been talking about our lack of real formative instruction on teaching, me struggling even with writing a teaching statement for a job application lately. I know a lot about sitting in a classroom, but what I know about teaching came mostly from copying my own teachers. There were a few good ones among them, but mostly, it seemed to me, my own teachers just did something and hoped for the best. What about teaching challenges me, and how do I approach it?
Thus, Ben and I went to Porto, to learn about innovative ways to teach science. Incidentally, we also got a great deal of hands on (or rather in-mouth) experience with Portuguese food, and learned that the Portuguese are possibly more obsessed with good food than the French are. Rightly so, it’s great. Still digesting that. Anyway.
This is where FIRST IV comes in. This cryptic name for the workshop stands for: Faculty Institutes for Reforming Science Teaching; the IV stands for the 4th funding round from NSF. It’s mission is to “reform undergraduate science education through professional development of postdocs who will design an inquiry-based, student-centered undergraduate biology course”.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? What does this mean in practice? In practice it means that lecturers should move away from the full time ppt presentations, where only the lecturer talks. Let students do some of the talking. I remember trying this in some lectures, but all too often, when I posed a question, I had scared and dumbstruck students staring back at me. One or two confident students would sometimes answer, but it would always be the same ones talking. In stead, make it more personal. To challenge students to think for themselves about questions, in the classroom, give them some time and space to discuss and solve questions among themselves, in smaller groups, and have class-wide discussions afterwards. Focus on concepts, and scientific thinking, rather than facts. Facts are interesting, but do not challenge anyone to think.
Another key ingredient is to assess students during the course, not just at the end in a final exam. Maybe have them hand in something at the end of your class, written during about 5 minutes – and give them feedback on it. Make it part of their final grade or not, but if you test them on what they picked up during your lecture, it is more likely they will be motivated to be an active part of your lecture - and thus learn more of it. It’s a little extra work for you, but then again, you will have immediate feedback on your teaching. And who hasn’t wondered, after talking for an hour, if any of the students really got what you were saying? There are lots more tools to teach an inquiry-based, students centered course, and I encourage anyone to visit Diane Ebert-May’s website for inspiration (link to it here).
Does this really yield better results? Diane has ditched her plant research and is now focusing on measuring the results of teaching styles on student performance. Not just within a course, but also in the long term during the university-career of a student. Did students that were taught in such a course to think for them selves early on in their studying (i.e. during their first year) learn tools to study that improved their studying throughout? There is some evidence. Check it out here, and think about it for yourself ;).