I want to share a quick story about something slightly stupid that I did some years ago, while teaching.
If your teaching is at least modestly informed by the scholarship of teaching and learning (and, I dare suggest, it should be), then you are probably aware that frequent assessments are a good thing. Students learn better when they have more opportunities to find out if they’re learning what is being taught.
But — as Meg Duffy pointed out last week — some teaching practices are effective but may not be sustainable because they might just require so much work from professors. This resonated with a lot of people. A lot of us apparently feel a genuine tradeoff between our capacity to teach effectively and the amount of time that we are expected to invest into teaching each of our courses.
Do you love it when students waste office hours with questions that don’t help them learn? Do you want to cultivate anxious emails from students sent at 3 in the morning? Do you want your students to wager their grades by guessing what you think is the most important material?
Then don’t tell your students what is going to be on the exam.
People often ask me what they might to read to get started with teaching science at the college level — or they ask for concrete suggestions about how to do active learning efficiently.
So, here are some book suggestions.
I admit it, I don’t like using the LMS. (The LMS is “learning management system” — the software that universities use for the online component of courses.) My campus is a Blackboard campus. I’m not a fan. Maybe that’s because I haven’t used it a lot.
I’m writing this entire blog post to share one cool tip:
“I like teaching, and I didn’t want the same stress-packed life as the professors in my PhD program, so a faculty position at a teaching-focused university is a good fit for me.”
I’ve heard something like this more times than I can possibly count from grad students, postdocs, and professors. It’s something that I used to say myself. But now I think this statement is built on two big fallacies.
Some folks want to ban laptops from their classrooms, and others are okay with laptops.
This is a perennially annoying discussion in higher ed today. But I think it’s an important issue because it has the potential to really affect learning.
What do I do? Here’s the language in my syllabus for this semester:
I read an interesting piece from a computer science professor at Bucknell, who documented his path to discovering universities “in the middle” — where both research and teaching are valued.
The times have changed, and our curriculum is not keeping up.
In the various majors offered by our Department of Biology, I’m convinced we’re not providing our students the most useful set of quantitative skills. After browsing the catalogs of a variety of other universities, I think we’re not alone.
Over the holidays, I taught my niece how to throw a frisbee with a forehand. It took five minutes, and she totally picked it up. It was awesome. And then we just played catch for a good long while. There may not be a more pleasant thing than throwing a frisbee on warm afternoon in the park with good company*.
When I was a senior in college, I was in a seminar dedicated to a new book, written by a US senator who had just been elected Vice President. The book was Earth in the Balance. It explained the science of carbon pollution, the greenhouse effect, and global climate change. To me, it was a revelation. I was aware of the greenhouse effect, but I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the problem and the massive global effort it would require, until Gore explained it.
Students learn better when their professors are demanding and have high standards.
People learn even better when these professors are supportive, encouraging, and have confidence in their students.
If you don’t ask hard questions about yourself, then you probably aren’t going to hear what you need to hear.
That’s what I learned* from the best fake turkey sandwich** in the world.
Sometimes when I talk about teaching — and interactions with students in general — folks don’t really get where I’m coming from. Faculty experiences vary a lot from campus to campus.
I was talking with some folks in recent months about the different kinds of faculty jobs, and how to figure out what you want in a faculty position at a teaching institution. One person was arguing that the selectivity of undergraduate admissions was an important factor. At first, I disagreed, but on reflection, I see that selectivity of admissions is associated with a number of things that affect your day-to-day experience as a professor.
There are two basic models for teaching courses and the norm varies a lot depending on the type of ecology course. A single professor was responsible for the majority of classes I took as an undergraduate. However, these days the courses I’m involved with are done by a series of professors for particular subtopics. The contrast has me thinking about the pluses and minuses of these approaches.
Scientists regularly contend with irrational denialism of simple facts. In our classrooms, communities and the media, we hear patently absurd things like:
- The world isn’t getting hotter, or even if it is, it’s not from carbon emissions.
- Humans didn’t evolve from nonhuman ancestors.
- Transgenic foods are unsafe.
- Vaccines cause autism.
Any scientist who operates on the basis of evidence will regard those ideas as total bunk*.
But, as I’ve mentioned before, people aren’t rational beings. Especially when their emotions are involved (and they usually are), they’re not prone to think an expert is correct if their intuition tells them otherwise.
So I am not entirely surprised, but I am disheartened, when scientists are guilty of their own flavor of denialism: Education Research Denialism.
Academic freedom is glorious. Despite pronouncements to the contrary, university faculty — including most contingent faculty — enjoy tremendous freedom in what we teach and how we teach it. Most professors teach however the hell they choose to teach.
Academic freedom enables change, but resists rapid change. Faculty have the liberty to stand aside as change happens. We can stand by and snark as fads wash by. We also can fossilize as the landscape truly changes. I think it’s hard, in the moment, to distinguish between a fad and a change in the landscape.
Inspired by my own endeavours in science communication and an informal talk I gave to my department, I started to think about offering a course. There isn’t anything like that for PhD students so I went through a few easy hoops and got approval to give a short course on science communication. We finished up the meetings last week and I thought it might be useful to collect and share all the information in one place. Keep on reading if you’re interested in running your own version of such a course or if you are looking for information on topics in science communication.
In my last post I complained that grad students don’t generally get taught how to teach in grad school, despite the fact that they are (arguably) there to be trained for a career that requires them to teach. Thanks very much to everyone who commented! As a result of both the comments and getting more information about TA training at my current university, I’ll now write about how there are in fact a lot of opportunities for grad students to learn how to teach. You just have to put a bit of effort into going out and finding them.
The biology departments at the university I attended for my MSc and the one I just started at for my PhD both have courses for new grad students that are meant to be an introduction to the skills they will need to be successful in grad school and beyond. One is called “Basic skills for a career in science,” which is pretty self-explanatory. The other is called Professional Skills Development
“Philosophy and methods” and is “intended to be a forum for students to enhance their current skills and understanding of how to do ‘good’ science and to discuss some issues that they will encounter as scientists.” One used to be optional and is now mandatory; the other used to be mandatory but is now optional. (updated)
The course I took included writing grants and abstracts, making scientific posters and presentations, effective data presentation, time management and advisor-advisee relations, the publication process, and ethics. The one I haven’t taken appears to cover somewhat similar topics. Neither mentions teaching, which I’m pretty sure is an essential skill for a career in science.
I have been fairly absent from here over the last many months. I’ve wanted to write and even started a few posts but they never got completed. The clashing of personal (husband’s surgery) and work stresses (major grant applications that will allow me to continue my position in Sweden) this spring made for a hectic time. I never really regained my balance before summer started. And well, I’m a field ecologist at heart, so between fieldwork and vacation the weeks have flown by. The end result is that I’m out of the habit of writing regularly and I miss it.
As the fall approaches and regular schedules settle in, my plan is to practice what I’m about to teach.
Last week I had the great pleasure of being a guest “science mentor” for a summer science camp. I got to spend about an hour and a half with a group of 7 and 8 year olds and talk to them about science and spiders. It was super fun, and exhausting.
One of my funnier stories comes from a conversation at a social gathering. I think it was a party involving parents of preschool-aged kids, but the details are fuzzy because I only really remember the funny part.
I’m super-enthusiastic about K-12 science education, and working with K-12 teachers and students*. When a student wants to talk science with me, I’m over the moon. That doesn’t mean I’m as drunk as a cat on catnip whenever a K-12 student emails me a question.
By my counting, we have three kinds of science education crises in the USA.
I could start this post with a back-in-my-day story and bemoan the state of student writing today but I think you can probably fill in the blanks without me hashing out a familiar tale*. Sufficed to say for a ecological methods course I team teach, we’re finding that the quality of writing from the students is poor. The course includes a major project where the students design and execute a survey for insects, birds or plants and culminates in a written report in scientific paper style.
As we start up the new semester, this is an apt time to evaluate, and update or change, our grading schemes.
I don’t like giving grades. I wouldn’t assign grades if I didn’t have to, because grades typically are not a good measure of actual learning.
Over the least year, I’ve heard more about a new approach to assigning grades, that has a lot of appeal: “standards based grading,” in which students get grades based on how well they meet a detailed set of very clearly defined expectations. This is apparently a thing in K-12 education and now some university instructors are following suit.
Let me tell two anecdotes to put the Dead Grandmother Syndrome in perspective.
I remember when I was a student in Evolutionary Biology in my junior year of college. Right before the midterm, I got really sick with the flu. I felt like hell and doing normal things seemed like a physical impossibility. If I took the miderm, I would have gotten a horrible score, only because I was so darn sick.
Oftentimes, professors make sport of sharing humorously incorrect exam answers. I’ve seen a bunch of these during this end-of-semester grading season.
When students don’t know the answer, they sometimes entertain us with witty, technically correct answers that don’t answer the intended question. (There’s a well-selling book about this. And at least one website, too). But that’s not what I’m talking about.