12 tips for talking to science faculty about new teaching strategies

Attention education researchers: Here are some tips about interacting with science faculty. I’ve noticed that this genre uses a lot of lists. So, here’s a list:

  1. Lose the acronyms.
  2. Lose the jargon. You can use Bloom’s Taxonomy without actually calling it that. You can ask us to use formative assessments without calling them that.
  3. We’re not going to spend more time on new approaches to teaching, unless this new thing will save us more time down the road.
  4. Our fundamental attitudes towards students and the educational system are unlikely to change.
  5. Some scientists just don’t place their students first. Those are the ones you really need to reach. Don’t judge us as a group because that judgment can’t fix the problem.
  6. Don’t prescribe changes in curriculum.
  7. If you say it works, then show us data. Anecdotes are subject to suspicion.
  8. Data are also subject to scrutiny, too. You win skeptical people over with data and letting them draw their own conclusions. Among scientists, skepticism is a virtue.
  9. Don’t push technology as a solution to a pedagogical challenge. We’d like to see what works, but not to have it marketed to us. (For example, tell us about clickers. But don’t claim that they make students learn better, because they don’t. They promote active learning, problem-solving and reflection, which causes learning. Scientists dislike false claims that often accompany technological promises.)
  10. Go easy on the Venn diagrams. One or two are okay, as long as they’re not insipid.
  11. Tread carefully when claiming that current practices are downright unethical. It’s hard to win people over to your cause when you start with the premise that they are making unethical choices.
  12. Accept that this list is chock full of hypocrisy. Scientists love their own jargon, and love their technology, and are not education experts. But get over it if you want us to get on board and teach better by listening to your advice. That’s what it’ll take to get most of us to listen.

This list makes it sounds like I’m speaking for all scientists, but for all I know I’m off base on most of these items. I’m not in much of a position to speak for the motivations of others. I don’t have a broad understanding about how education researchers typically interact with science faculty, either. However, people are more apt to pay attention to dumb lists than well-composed longer pieces of writing, so I thought I’d give a shot at this, snappy, oversimplified and condescending form of communication. If you’d like nuance, feel free to drop me a line. And of course, feel free to add new ones in the comments, starting with 13.

Revision 22 Sep 2014: Does this represent my views? No. Does this represent most scientists? I don’t really know. It does represent a bunch of feedback I’ve heard and overheard from faculty after being involved in pedagogical training session. A lot of scientists just flat out tune-out, and if someone managed to follow these tips, I would guess, it’d be more likely that more scientists would listen. I’m all down with the ed-jargon and acronyms and being student-centered and trying new tech when it works. But, I’m the converted, and we can’t improve teaching in universities by preaching to the converted.

Vocabulary, teaching, and being understood


English is a crazy language, with an exceptional number of grammatical conventions, and required exceptions to the conventions. And that doesn’t even explain the senselessness of pronunciation.

There are many ways of saying the same thing, with different shades of meaning. By choosing words carefully, we can increase accuracy and precision of meaning.

This can present a dilemma while teaching, and interacting with students. Continue reading

Recommended reads #35

  • Papers that triumphed over their rejections. How world-changing papers by Fermi, Krebs, Higgs, Margulis, Brockman, Mullis and more were rejected by Science or Nature. It’s fascinating to see the rationales for rejecting these manuscripts that, in hindsight, are so huge and important. By Nikolai Slavov.

  • The new What if?” book by Randall Munroe of xkcd is spectacular. I think it’s the best science education book of the decade, because it’s so fun and so chock full of applied science. This would be an amazing book for a physics class. Or for yourself. Or your kid, tween and up. Continue reading

Active learning is flexible and designed to reach the reticent


I’ve gotten positive feedback about a post in which I explain how it’s not that much work for me to do active learning in the classroom. However, a couple entirely reasonable misgiving seem to crop up, and I’d like to give my take on those causes for reluctance to start up with active learning approaches. Continue reading

Where do you eat lunch? And does it matter?


Lunch culture seems to vary a lot from place to place.

I will admit to sometimes eating lunch at my desk, even though it is seems a highly unusual thing at European universities. But these days it is rare for me to do that, partly because most people aren’t and partly because it is just nicer to take a moment and eat properly. Continue reading

This device can improve your quality of life


It’s easier to get work done if we use time efficiently and work to stay healthy. If I had to give a recommendation for something that can help out with those two things, near the top of the list would be: use a pressure cooker.

Don’t have time to cook a real dinner? With a pressure cooker, you do. If I sound like an infomercial, it’s only because I really am that enthusiastic about spreading the Good Word of pressure cooking.

photo of me and my pressure cooker

Me and my buddy, the pressure cooker

Continue reading

Efficient teaching: Doing active learning an easy way


Here are a few difficult facts about education in college classrooms:

  1. Lectures don’t work well. People just don’t really learn much from hour-long lectures.
  2. People learn when they discover ideas on their own.
  3. People learn best when working with peers.
  4. It’s a hell of a lot easier to just explain something to someone than to set up a situation in which this person can figure it out for themselves
  5. It takes a lot longer for a person to figure something out than it takes for you to just explain it to them.

I suppose you can take issue with some of these facts and argue that they’re not true facts. But just as climate scientists are mighty darn sure about anthropogenic warming trends, education researchers seem to be just as sure about this these facts. I let them take my word for it about ecology and evolution, and I’ll take their word for it about education.

And this is a problem, because it means that what a lot of us have been doing appears to not just suboptimal but downright inadvisable. Continue reading

Academic self care


The semester has begun and everyone is returning back to campus. It means my commuter bus is full and I rarely get a preferred seat. Bike parking in Uppsala is a lot harder too. For me this means that I’m returning to my office and there are people walking around in the corridors. I spent my summer doing a mix of work travel, fieldwork, housework, vacation and lots of mad writing at home. It was a nice break from the routine and a hopefully productive summer. Mostly it has meant that I’ve only dropped by the lab every once in a while to run samples but otherwise I haven’t spent much time there.

So when I started coming back into the office, I’ve been catching up on all those things I’d ignored during the summer. There is juggling the samples I’ve accumulated, meeting with students, catching up with my PhD student about her work this summer, chatting with colleagues, digging out my desk, and trying to finish up writing on a deadline.*

When I get into a rhythm of working at home/in the field, I often find that I don’t transition well to being back in my office. I’m not sure why really but I tend to get distracted by all the things that need doing. I don’t drink enough water. I eat my lunch late and I generally push myself in ways that are unhealthy. It only takes heading home with a headache to reset my mindset and remind myself that I don’t need to do all the things. And if I ignore my body it comes with a cost.

In the ‘back to school’ season it is good to remind myself to take care of myself and remember to listen to my body. I think that academia can be quite bad at creating healthy work environments. Although there is the issue of taking care of your mental health, and I know they are connected, but in this post I’m going to focus on physical constraints of a job in academia. I think the job can lend itself to all kinds of bad for you behaviours. I’m definitely guilty of a few.

In my experience, one of the problems of research can be that you never do any particular task (accept maybe computer work) for long enough periods of time to ensure they are ergonomic and not damaging. Now before you start thinking about those long days in the field or lab doing some horribly repetitive task for hours on end and disagree, I’m not talking about hours, days or even weeks here. I’ve done some tasks in physically awkward ways (or witnessed them) simply because it isn’t such a long term thing. You just need to get through these 100, 1000, etc samples/computer files/whatever. If it were your job to do that thing and only that, you’d never be able to sustain it if you didn’t have a good work station. But we often only work on short-term assembly line tasks so they are often not set up in the most ergonomic way. Of course some situations are beyond your control. It is difficult to measure flowers on a plant at an awkward height but you can’t change how the plant grows. You can however, varying your position, use a camping stool, sit on the ground and otherwise make accommodations so you don’t strain your body. The same is true in the lab or at the computer. I know many examples of grad students who developed some kind of repetitive stress injury while doing their research. It a real and can be debilitating thing.

Most of us spend a lot of time at our computers so it is a good idea to create a good desk situation. Separate keyboards from your laptop, raised screens, a good chair… all these things can help long hours at the computer. Meg Duffy has also talked about her treadmill desk and its benefits and limitations. I have an adjustable desk for standing, which I try to do much of the day, but haven’t ventured to a treadmill. But it isn’t just posture at your desk that can cause problems, typing and mouse work can lead to repetitive stress injury so setting up your work station can be crucial to successful computing (some ideas for avoiding bad computer setups and injury here).

Similar principles apply to your lab and fieldwork. The more conscious you are about the way you have to do the activity and think about it before hand, the more healthy you can be. I also find that those few moments of thinking about how to do a job in a healthy way also improves efficiency. It is hard to be efficient at a task if it is physically awkward in someway. So whether you are processing 10, 100, 1000 or 10000 samples, making it easy on your body is worth a few moments of contemplation.

I try to be mindful of the tasks I do and set things up in a way that are ergonomic, even if I’m not going to be doing that activity for extended periods. But it is easy to forget about your body, get caught up in a task. For me it is always the rush to the finish line that gets me; it is precisely because I see the end of the task that I tend to push myself too hard.

I’m definitely not writing from some moral high ground. I am currently battling frozen shoulder, which was probably made a lot worse by spending too many hours painting windows this summer. I’m sure the inactivity of desk work doesn’t help me either. But the experience has got me more conscious of what I’m doing with my body and I hope after some physiotherapy I might be able to lift my arm above shoulder level again some day soon. Now I just need to also remember to take breaks, drink water, don’t over-caffeinate and generally take care of myself at the office.**



*Who in their right mind accepts to co-author a review due at the end of the summer? So glad I said yes, and more so now that it is submitted, but it definitely made for a crazy summer.

**Thanks to @CMBuddle and @Julie_B92 who got me thinking more about the topic.