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.

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