Thursday, July 31, 2008

What they learned in kindergarden

I had breakfast with a kindergarden teacher, and we discovered some similarities in our jobs.

In both kindergarden and first-year university, students are learning to function in a new environment. They must discover what's expected of them before they can do what we expect.

In both kindergarden and first-year university, some students are very reluctant to speak up, because they don't feel intellectually safe (they're afraid of saying the wrong thing). We need to find ways to build their confidence, not in being right but in the value of not (yet) understanding. This problem is much worse in university than in kindergarden. That's probably because learning how to do new things is what young children do (they're used to succeeding), whereas high school somehow shifts their focus to being concerned about failing to learn at the expected rate or under the given circumstances.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Teaching Philosophy, Take Two

(Yes, this is a completely different organization that I tried in Take One)

Why I chose to teach first-year students:
 Most faculty prefer to avoid teaching introductory courses, but in many ways this is the most important teaching of all.  First, it fills a more urgent need - the inability of the general public to approach the world scientifically is much more critical than the supply of new professional scientists.  Second, it has more impact - first-year students are more open to new ideas.  Third, it's more interesting - first-year courses deal with the big questions in biology, and teaching them pushes me way out of my area of expertise.  Below I describe some specific issues that arise, and my approaches to them.

Learning how to teach:  Like most academics, I initially planned to teach the way I wished I had been taught, but soon realized that what would have worked for future faculty didn't work for the great majority of students.  I then sought out pedagogical expertise, especially from a colleague in the Faculty of Education with whom I still meet regularly.  This exposed me to many innovative ideas, a number of which I've implemented.  But I also realized that, although most of these ideas sounded good on paper, few had ever been critically tested.  The example of the physics Force Concept Inventory convinced me that chances to teaching strategies need to be grounded in rigorous evaluation: science faculty should apply to their teaching methods the same requirements for evidence that they apply to their science.  My involvement with the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative is now enabling me to begin contributing to this evidence,in the form of a very well controlled experiment testing the effect of written homework on both students' writing skills and understanding of biological concepts.

Teaching how to learn:   Most first-year students' biggest problem is that they don't yet know how to learn.  Despite much excellent teaching in high school, they expect university biology to consist largely of applying their demonstrated memorization skills to more advanced facts.  Because these skills have served them well in the past, students are very reluctant to replace them with what they see as more risky approaches.  To help them experience "not understanding" as a necessary stage in learning rather than as failure, I award marks for posing questions about each week's reading material.  To help them see the value of cooperative learning, I encourage students to consult their neighbours before answering in-class questions.  To help them learn about how they learn,I also explicitly explain the pedagogical issues underlying different class activities and assignments.  To help them learn that understanding is more valuable than rote memorization, all my tests and exams are open-book.

Teaching science as a process:  Initially, first-year students think of science as a body of facts generated by specialists, an attitude that can't be changed by simply telling them "Science is a way of knowing".  To demystify science, and to help them begin to see themselves as beginning scientists, I incorporate new research results into course work, and have students use the same tools for their homework assignments that researchers use for their research (e.g. HapMap, News & Views articles, and text and figures from recently published papers).  Many students also earn 15% of their course grade by reading and reviewing a research paper of their own choice.

Reinforcing relevance:  Students view course work as unrelated to their real lives, needed only for the test and perhaps for more advanced courses.  To help change this, the homework activities have been carefully designed to focus on issues the students care about: cancer risk, the environment, human diversity.  Many students earn 15% of their course mark for community-service learning projects in inner-city schools.  By receiving course marks for what they consistently describe as a "life-changing experience", students learn that the university values their ability to help their communities.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Teaching philosophy

It's time to write a new 'Teaching Philosophy' section for my CV, so I though I'd work on it here.
I think there should be four headings:
  1. Why I've chosen to teach first-year classes
  2. Problems ("Challenges"? "Goals"?)
  3. Solutions - principles
  4. Solutions - what I'm doing.
1. Why I've chosen to teach first-year classes: The inability of the general public to approach the world scientifically is much more important than the supply of new professional scientists.

2. Goals: A. Increase students' confidence in their ability to learn at the university level (to learn as scientists). B. Help them see the broad relevance of their learning. Not just the relevance of the material I'm teaching them, but that their having learned it makes a difference to more than their grade in the course (in their lives and what they can do for the rest of the world). C. Get them comfortable with not-understanding, as not a failure but a necessary prelude to understanding. D. Get them comfortable with working collaboratively. E. Convince them that rote memorization has little or no role in university learning. Help them transition from rote memorization to real understanding.

3. Solutions (principles): A. Scientists have been very slow to apply to their teaching methods the same requirements for evidence that they apply to their research. Where possible, make changes supported by evidence (preferably from peer-reviewed sources. Work to generate evidence. B. We can't blame high-school science teachers for the misconceptions our first-year students arrive with - we're the ones who taught those teachers.

4. Solutions (what I'm actually doing): C.
Giving only open-book midterms, exams, quizzes. Giving students choices - letting them modify what they take on and how they are assessed. Talking about the learning process - explaining why topics are presented in certain ways. Using clickers (I pioneered this in Biology 121). Providing opportunities for students to consult with each other in every class. Running a research project on the effect of written homework. Asking that they learn to pose their questions in writing. Incorporating the latest research into the course - exposing students to appropriate research papers from the start. Regularly consulting with a colleague in the Faculty of Education whose expertise is in biology education. Providing a community service learning option - this is the most popular component of the course. Giving homework assignments that are relevant to issues in health and ecology. Explicitly incorporating material that will prepare them to deal with creationism. Giving marks for asking questions, not just for providing answers.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

I should be doing more of this

An article by Martha Kinney in today's Inside Higher Education explains how the military's training methods can be applied in the college classroom.  The basic points are: make expectations explicit, have students crawl, then walk, then run, and be thick-skinned enough to seek out informed criticism of your teaching methods.

She points out that college instructors may apply this conscientiously to the content of what they teach, and yet completely fail to use it in teaching the skills they want students to build.  For me, the big difficulty is that I need to clarify for myself exactly what skills my class will develop (not just "I want them to be able to think like scientists.").  Perhaps focusing on understanding how scientists write would be best (following on my recent conversation with a colleague in the English Department) - this would let us build both writing skills and interpretation skills.