How does learning occur?
First and foremost, students need to feel like an expert in science and feel a sense of belonging in the scientific community. These feelings are often referred to as scientific identity, which has been shown to be the key factor in student persistence in the science pipeline (more recently referred to as a ‘watershed’ by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute). Even more than early efficacy with the course material, students succeed when they feel like “part of the team.”
It has been shown through several pedagogical studies that no matter what strategy an instructor takes (flipped instruction, etc.), students learn through meaningful repetition of the material. All students have approximately the same number of neurons, and all students are therefore capable of learning the content of a lesson. By ensuring students encounter the material several times throughout the course and lab, neural connections are strengthened, so that concepts stored in the short term memory are transferred to long term memory. Engaging students in content using a variety of contextual methods (case studies/vignettes with practice problems and/or data analysis, etc.) allows the students to experience the material several times in several different contexts. By differentiated repetition of content, a student is less likely to forget what they have learned after walking out of the classroom, and instead own the knowledge and take it with them as a scaffold for their future endeavors.
In addition, I attempt to classify my students with regards to four different types of learning styles: mastery, understanding, interpersonal, and self-expressive learners. Mastery students are matter of fact, practical, and structured learners, while understanding students excel at learning through problem solving. Interpersonal students are social learners in that they learn best during group exercises. Self-expressive learners are imaginative and nonconforming. A particular student usually falls into more than one of the classifications. I came to appreciate these styles during my education coursework, and I have observed through my teaching experiences that certain students learn more efficiently when exposed to a specific best practice that focuses on a certain learning type. As a teacher in a classroom where each of these learning styles may be present, I differentiate my teaching to address each of these learners throughout a lesson, ensuring that they all have access to the material in a way compatible to them.
I have also found that students learn by validating their knowledge by associating concepts to practical applications. Students, who understand the larger picture, tend not to memorize the small details, but instead learn them by applying them to the big picture. Constructivism plays a major role in learning, in that students learn by building on what they already know. Therefore, acknowledging the background of each student helps me to understand the foundations they already have and allows me to differentiate my instruction to aid students in applying new knowledge to their past experiences and understanding. Through differentiation and the constructivist approach, I enable students to establish the crucial, firm foundation of knowledge at the undergraduate level to ensure their success in later years.
How do I facilitate the learning process?
I integrate many methods in my lessons to facilitate the learning process. First, I incorporate as much repetition into my courses as possible, repeating the material in a variety of ways to engage, motivate, and meet the specific needs of students with the previously mentioned learning styles. I construct lessons that include a variety of engaging activities to reinforce the material I want them to master, supplementing my presentations with problem based learning workshops, case studies, group work, term papers, guest lecturers, student presentations, and debates, among other activities. Through my informal teaching style, I expect student participation by encouraging questions and input from the students in order to hold their interest and promote critical thinking. This strategy also increases students’ scientific identity. In short, I like to think of my lectures as more of discussion sessions than lectures. I am not a “plug and chug” teacher. In other words, I would rather cover much less material if it means that the student is engaged and will retain more of the material long-term.
When designing lessons, I differentiate instruction to address the learning styles of my students. In the past, Mastery students, who could easily memorize material, and Understanding learners, who tend to be talented analytical thinkers, were thought to make the best scientists. However, a student who is self-expressive is also an asset to science as they tend to be highly creative and think outside the box. I believe that any type of learner can be a successful biologist, as long as they are taught in a way that corresponds to their learning style. Therefore, my top priority as a teacher is to get to know my students on an individual level so that I can assess their learning style and become a guide in their academic pursuits, not a barrier to their success. I have found that drawing on a student’s inherent learning style is the best way to connect them to the scientific material I want to convey. That is why it is important that I create lessons and activities that are accessible to multiple learning styles and abilities.
In addition to in-class learning, a great place for students to study science is in a laboratory setting. Students are then able to take abstract classroom concepts and apply them to hands-on situations. Because of the integration between concepts and practice, students learn more completely and efficiently. The laboratory setting also enables additional practice of material and application of content that enhances learning. I am moving more towards inquiry-based lab activities, which allow students to explore the question at hand and practice forming their own hypotheses. This discovery of science and the method by which science is conducted allows students ownership of their learning and practice in the method of scientific investigation. By devising lessons that incorporate a variety of activities and by considering what I want the students to learn before designing the lesson, students will gain a well-rounded, fulfilling educational experience that will help take them to the next level.
Perhaps the most engaging teaching strategy is to get the students to leave their comfort zones and teach others. To this end, the students in my classes visit K-12 classrooms to teach and provide a role model for these students. Almost all scientists include synergistic activities to share science in this especially heated time, when there is a vast polarity between what science tells us and what the general public believes to be true. We as scientists have the responsibility to demystify scientific discovery. As I thought about this divide, I considered one of the most impactful experiences during my own training as a scientist, which was when I had to teach a small group of high school students about molecular biology. I decided that the students needed to understand that synergistic activities are integral to their citizenship, so I assigned them a service project in which they had to design and teach a lesson on epigenetics to high school biology students. As I described the project, the faces of the students lit up with excitement. These are the type of formative experiences that our students will remember many years after they leave Augustana.
What goals do I set for the student?
I have three main goals for my students inside the classroom: think critically, communicate effectively, and ask questions. Thinking critically is of obvious importance in science, but in addition, students need to know how to translate their thoughts into concise written documents and speech, as sharing knowledge is at the heart of science and learning. I like to see my students to engaging in discussion with me and each other, as discussing their ideas solidifies their learning. Inquiry and communication are founding principles of any scientific pursuit, but they are also important skills in any career.
Outside of the classroom, I want my students to become good citizens and to put what they have learned into practice. Ethics are vital to becoming a good citizen, as well as a successful biologist. I want them to understand the consequences of their ideas and future developments in order to become responsible scientists. I want them to gain the knowledge about the world around them in order to respect the world around them.
What goals do I set for myself?
The main goal that I set for myself is to develop creative methods of training students to think critically and logically so that they become more than receptacles of facts, my ultimate goal being to recognize a student’s potential and guide them towards success. I also constantly seek new tools to instill curiosity and enthusiasm about learning, a sense of adventure that motivates them to explore unfamiliar territory. I have encountered quite a few students who are taking my class only to fulfill their degree requirements, not because they think the subject will be applicable to them. Seeking to change their perception and instilling a desire to learn the material is part of my goal set. The best way to bolster their excitement for science is to relate lessons to what they might encounter as a nurse, physical therapist, etc. to connect the content to their past and future personal experiences. I give students the freedom to ask “why should I care?” to identify the purpose for their learning a particular subject matter. Once they acquire the desire to learn science, I insist on teaching them how to approach a problem scientifically through hypothesis formation and problem solving. These are skills that are valuable regardless of the career-path they decide to pursue.
How do I evaluate the student?
I continually ask my students questions and expect the same in return. Asking questions before a lesson tells me how much instruction the students need, and allows me to identify what they already know. Asking questions during the lesson tells me if I am relaying the information in a way they can understand, as well as keeping them involved in the lesson. Asking questions after a lesson allows students to review the information, fill in gaps in the information, and allows me to evaluate the effectiveness of my approach. I rephrase questions and ask them in several different ways to be more inclusive of the four different learning styles. I also find that I can assess the success of my students and my lessons by evaluating the questions they pose during a lecture, activity, or discussion. In addition to formal quizzes and exams, I evaluate students on group work, presentations, and problem based learning assignments. These formative assessments give me more information on student learning than summative assessments, and also allow me to evaluate their critical thinking and problem solving skills in application of course content.
How do I implement my philosophy?
Science and its jargon can be intimidating for a student; removing self-doubt and building their self-confidence is crucial for learning. I carry out several simple practices to instill confidence and build relationships to implement my philosophy. First, I establish a good rapport during class and I maintain an unintimidating and confidential environment during office hours. I want my students to feel comfortable discussing the topics in lectures, but also sharing about their lives. Second, I respect the student. I am understanding, patient, and encouraging. In turn, I am given respect. This mutual respect fosters an optimal environment for their learning. I believe in giving a student a second chance, yet I insist they be accountable. I demand rigor from the student by expecting a high level of work. Third, I try to maintain enthusiasm by continuing to learn about new, exciting discoveries in biology. Nothing is more motivating to a student than a teacher who is excited about what they are teaching. As a professor, I consider it my job to be both a teacher and mentor to the students at Augustana.