Chances are good that at some point in your career, you will need to teach people something in a formal environment like a classroom or lecture hall.
You might get assigned the entire first year of intro bio (with labs), or you might just give a guest lecture in some graduate seminar where you are visiting, but it is a common responsibility for scientists.
It is also something very few of us get training on. Perhaps someone has prepared slides and exam questions for you, and you will just go through the motions. But at some point, I’d like all scientists who teach to spend a few minutes thinking about how to build a course. This will help your teaching evaluations, give you confidence as an instructor and speaker, and improve the learning experience for your students.
There are a lot of resources out there for those of you who teach. Your campus might have a faculty development center that you should certainly take advantage of, even though you think they won’t understand your material. Chances are, they don’t need to in order to help you see how you can teach it better.
I would summarize a basic overview of designing a course like this:
• Decide what your students ought to know at the end of the course.
• Decide how your students will get that knowledge.
• Decide how students will prove that they have learned what you wanted.
One thing I will point out is, this is a very student focused way to think about teaching. Faculty often get bogged down in their own performance, worrying about ‘how will I teach this?’
The student centered approach can relieve a lot of pressure on the faculty. You can’t make your students know things; you have to provide them chances to learn.
Another way to think of these three big items are:
• Learning objectives
• Learning materials and activities
• Formative and summative assessment.
If you find yourself interested in this topic, these are some good terms for your Google searches. These topics have been the focus of decades of scholarly work that you can fairly quickly bring yourself up to speed on, and benefit from.
In my current job, I work with faculty who are developing new courses. I often see faculty jump into the lectures they want to give, which is veering away from a student centered approach, maybe some demos or labs they think will be fun, packing in the other stuff that is “supposed” to go in there. Then they write a test about what students were supposed to learn. The result is often a HUGE disconnect between what was taught, and what is tested.
When I review a course, I insist on seeing learning objectives. What do you want your students to know? Next, I look at how those learning objectives are assessed. Finally, I go back and look at how the information is presented. A common problem is exam questions that test material that was never presented in the course.
This happens much more often than anyone wants to admit, even though it defies logic, and infuriates students. If you want students to know something, or to be able to analyze certain types of information, or to perform particular behaviors, you should expose them to that information at some point before the exam.
Another problem I see is that the learning objectives are difficult to assess, or are not assessed. For example, “Students will be knowledgeable biochemists” is a lofty goal, but an unassessable learning objective.
Learning objectives to should be specific and measurable. The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence has some quick and easy resources to explore, as do many other teaching centers.
But even good learning objectives can be measured wrong. “Students will be able to titrate reagents to within 0.05% accuracy ” cannot be assessed by a multiple choice question. Where possible, consider using projects, papers, discussions or other creative ways to assess these learning objectives.
On the flip side, if you are in a giant lecture hall, and can’t imagine reading 500 essays on the technologies that have made modern deep sequencing possible, scale back your objective that “students will predict how key technological advances will impact the further development of modern genomics.”
During the course development stage, you still have time to adjust your learning objectives into something you’ll be able to assess. I highly recommend a look at Bloom’s taxonomy of cognition, which is a scholarly approach to describing the depth of student learning. Figuring out how to assess learning objectives is something that your faculty development center is probably very good at helping with.
Here is a pro tip for those who only occasionally embark into teaching as guest lecturers. Before you prepare your lecture, ask if the instructor would like you to cover anything specific, and whether they would like you to provide assessment/exam questions for the lecture. You, too, can tailor your lecture to a specific learning objective, and since you likely are more familiar with what will be presented, are in a better position to write a couple exam questions. Ask any overworked adjunct, this would make you a welcome guest any time.
The worst classes I have ever seen, both in my current role and in my long tenure as a student, were those where the instructor had no idea what students were supposed to learn, and as a result provided instruction, usually dry lectures that were only loosely related to what students were graded on.
This causes a lot of frustration for everyone: students don’t know what or how to study, and the instructor thinks students don’t get it. This doesn’t mean that lectures are inherently bad, sometimes this is the logical way to share information with students.
This also doesn’t mean that students should not be assessed by multiple choice questions. I have seen some very challenging multiple choice questions, and in a large lecture hall, the scantron may be the most objective way to hear from all your students. The key to bringing the whole experience together is writing specific, measurable learning objectives, providing the students the information and experience to meet those learning objectives, and assessing whether students are able to meet the objectives.
Sandlin Seguin, Ph.D. earned her doctorate in molecular biology in 2011 from the University of Pittsburgh. She is a Curriculum and Faculty Development Specialist at the Life Science Informatics Center at Bellevue College.