As an educator, I want to help my students discover a passion for learning; I want to help my students identify and implement effective, individualized strategies for life-long learning.
In my view, these endeavors are as important as teaching the exam-worthy details of course material, and as such, underlie much of my approach to teaching. Two guiding principles in my approach to developing life-long learners are: (i) establish a connection and (ii) achieve clarity. Establishing a connection with my students based on mutual respect and trust is critical to creating an environment conducive to engagement in the classroom and, thus, mastery of material. Achieving clarity in defining learning objectives and presenting information is fundamental to advancing students’ passion for and understanding of a subject.
Establishing a connection with students is critical to creating an environment conducive to engagement.
Since early on in my career as an educator, I learned that mutual respect between students and the instructor is critical in creating an effective learning environment. As a Teaching Assistant in my first few teaching assignments in graduate school, I thought the relative closeness in age between me and my students is what fostered a mutual respect that I found conducive to engaging my students and improving learning. Today, having been the Instructor of Record of my own course and more than a decade (and indeed a generation) removed from my students, I realize that the connection I establish with my students in the classroom occurs because I make a deliberate effort to relate to, respect, and trust my students and I utilize specific techniques to do so.
I integrate a focus on the learning experience along with the actual coursework. For most graded assignments (e.g. homeworks, discussions, papers, projects, exams), I include a ‘reflection’ component. For instance, my students were required to write one individual and one group paper during a semester. However, I offered one-third or more of the points on the rubric for these assignments for ‘personal reflection’, through which students could reflect on their approach to the assignments and to learning. These reflections were highly individualized, as my students reflected on: their time management with work due for other classes, their enthusiasm for the assignment, their experience in sourcing information, the physical environment or mental state-of-mind in which they would be productive or distracted, unanticipated obstacles or moments of learning, etc. I found these reflections mutually rewarding, for them as students and me as an educator. By offering points for reflection, I aim to demonstrate that I value my students learning experience and that I believe it is important that they think deeply about refining their individual approach to learning.
I understand that not all students engage in learning the same way. This is particularly important in establishing an inclusive environment among a diverse classroom. I have found that requiring students to participate in class or with classmates in a pre-defined way (e.g., group discussion) can restrict authentic engagement of those students who would prefer to participate in another way. Indeed, I certainly relate to the student who tends to be more outwardly reserved in group discussions or activities, but who is inwardly deeply engaged in thinking critically about the topic at hand. For this reason, I assume the responsibility to foster constructive group discussion, rather than requiring student participation to provoke discussion. For my students, I offer multiple opportunities for graded student engagement, such as take-home written reflections or smaller discussions during my office hours. During class activities, I have found that offering student options with different levels of ‘involvement’ is useful in achieving engagement active learning. As educators, we are aware that students’ reluctance to participate can often be a quagmire in a class based on participation, as participation is not the goal, learning is. I found that offering choice to my students, rather than requiring a single option or level of participation, underscores that I respect my students’ individuality and independence in approaching learning.
“I am best utilized not as a disseminator of knowledge but as a facilitator of learning“
I trust my students to develop independence in learning. I have found that allowing students to exercise more freedom in using their mobile devices in the classroom setting can many advantages: (i) it underscores that I trust my students to use their devices for learning and not distraction, thus helping establish mutual respect and promoting an environment focused on learning; (ii) it provides students with an opportunity to develop the skill of obtaining reliable information and to evaluate and discuss with me the quality of sources of information; (iii) it reinforces the critical notions that students on their own can ask and find answers to questions they are curious about, and that I (the instructor) am best utilized not as a disseminator of knowledge but as a facilitator of learning. This approach tends to have an effect of ‘evening the playing field’ between me and my students about a question and often leads to a more layered discussion on a topic rather than me just serving them an answer to a question.
Applying the principles and tools described above combine to help me establish a more meaningful connection with my students in which it is clear I value their individuality. I have found that this approach improves engagement in my classroom and, ultimately, improves learning.
Achieving clarity in defining learning objectives and in presenting information is fundamental to advancing students’ understanding of a subject.
I make clear the learning objectives and expectations and I reiterate them often. Clearly defined learning objectives are the first thing I present in any course I teach. In addition to mastering material, it is often the case that the learning objectives for a biology course I teach include the development of learning techniques and approach. I feel that achievement in both areas (material and learning approach) are important pre-requisites for succeeding in more advanced courses and settings. Entangled in learning objectives are expectations. I expect my students to be, at times, challenged by and uncomfortable with course material and I make these expectations clear. It is my experience that confidence and mastery of a subject occurs by overcoming challenging material. I prefer to challenge my students when the stakes are relatively low (e.g., discussions, homeworks, quizzes), so that they are confident and prepared to display mastery on exams or final projects.
“I feel that mastery of material and development of individualized learning strategies are both important prerequisites for succeeding in more advanced courses and settings”
I aim to never surprise my students with course material or scheduling. My syllabus is a trustworthy reference for my students; I consider it a ‘living document’ and I update it anytime a change in the course schedule occurs. I believe that students can attend class mentally prepared for learning a particular topic and that a trustworthy syllabus allows for such preparation. In my experience, students who are unclear about or surprised by changes to a course schedule can feel frustrated and less receptive to learning. Thus, I aim to help my students maintain a sense of control over their schedule and consistency in a course. I encourage students to review an electronic version of the syllabus often and refer to it in nearly every class. By doing so, I aim to establish the importance of using the syllabus as a blueprint from which they can organize themselves and their study time for the term.
I want students to understand my approach to teaching. I believe there are many ways to learn topics in biology, and the way a student approaches learning a topic in biology might not be the same way I do. Therefore, I think it is important to make my approach to teaching as clear as possible to help students understand how I view a topic and where I think they should focus their studying. In my view, most topics in biology are best learned as processes with stimulatory events and biological outcomes, rather than an assemblage of terms to memorize. I want my students to also understand the organismal, ecological, and/or evolutionary context for the material being presented. When the material allows for it, I want my students to be exposed to the primary research methods used in the discoveries of biological phenomena, and to appreciate that human effort can produce scientific discoveries. I find that by making my approach to teaching a particular topic clear to my students before any material is presented can help contextualize the material and, ultimately, promote appreciation, learning, and retention of the material.
“I want my students to appreciate that human effort can produce scientific discoveries“
I provide criteria and grading rubrics for graded assignments. Achieving clarity in how assignments are graded, especially for assignments aimed more at ‘critical thinking’, such as lab reports, papers, and presentations, is useful in achieving learning objectives. In my experience, providing criteria for such assignments helps focus students’ thought and effort to material or learning processes that align with the learning objectives. I find that structure in the form of criteria for these assignments is appreciated by students and more often leads to students feeling challenged and gratified without feeling ‘lost’ during working on the assignment. Indeed, clearly understanding the objectives of the assignment at hand to think critically about a topic in biology and still feeling challenged by it and gratified upon completing it are experiences that align closely with learning objectives for courses I teach.
By following the above principles, I aim to achieve clarity to foster a more approachable environment for students of all backgrounds and to support my own efforts to support students’ achievement of the learning objectives