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You gotta change your evil ways, baby, before I stop loving you!
–Santana

I have been pondering lately about education. Reason being that I have been asked to teach a second year course in the undergrad biology program (genetics). This means teaching a large group of students. Now, I am not afraid at all of the number of students. I am just worried about how hard it might be to reach them. You know the fantasy about the “millennial,” “multitasking,” student. I deny categorically that there is such a thing. “Multidistracted” is a much better word. In any event. I don’t want to just be a stubborn and antiquated guy who does not want to adapt to new technologies. I would embrace whatever you show me that would authentically improve student’s learning. But I don’t think technology is the answer. Technology can help, but what we need is for students to be aware that there is no such thing as passive learning. If you are passive you are definitely not learning. Thus, I try to have students doing something in class. Solving something, answering something, all to have their minds working and, most importantly, to have their minds anticipating. Anyway, I don’t know how to do that in a large group setting. Any suggestions?

(I will elaborate a bit on what I have done in upper level courses, but if there is anybody out there reading … even questions can help, let’s brainstorm!)

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3 thoughts on “Changing teaching ways

  1. Multidistracted! Love it… and very true.

    As an educator – with a longish career of no fixed address – I have found technology tends to get in the way of building a relationship between the student and the subject no matter how stimulating it may be for the student.

    If I can personalize the subject, I can make it meaningful, and if it is meaningful then I have involved learners. I lay out out the learning goal and ask how we can get there. To do this I use a lot of enthusiasm and humour… especially in examples. But much of my presentation is an ongoing conversation I am having with myself: asking questions, honing in on important details the students need, building an explanation by means of interchanges with the students but using the details and language we need (so important in the maths), getting them thinking along the same lines as those used by people who work with this stuff in ‘real life’, inviting all kinds of questions, and so on. It’s like going on an adventure and who doesn’t love going on an adventure? (Okay, for lectures of 75+ students, I tend to get very animated, walk around a lot, and ask almost all of the questions I think anyone would have. I also use pauses a lot after asking questions.) I keep a outline of my lecture available for my reference only but I don’t use anything that will get between me and the students. What I will use is stuff that draws students in… like models, and charts, and black- whiteboards for mapping ideas to other ideas. If I use powerpoint it is only to highlight some important element of my lecture.

    I have been told repeatedly no matter what subject I am teaching that my classes are interesting, that they are fun, that they make the students think and engage with angles of the subject they may had never considered, that they help students get to know one another by the quality of their questions, the tone of their interchanges, the personalities they bring to this grand table of a classroom and lecture hall. I’ll never forget the day I walked into a computer class (one I had substituted twice before) and was greeted by applause. If that doesn’t charge your batteries to teach, I don’t what will.

    From gifted children to the retirement age illiterate, from ADOS (attention deficit… oh!… shiny!) to far too serious to be a teenage student, the participatory audiences respond really well to this kind of teaching method. It’s honest, personal, entertaining, and highly meaningful… for everyone. Best of all, it seems to be highly effective (students absorb important details and terminology without apparent work and assume that the course itself must be ‘easy’) as well as very popular (never a bad thing).

    And genetics is so cool! You know how cool it is. If you let your natural enthusiasm show, you won’t have to worry about reaching your students; they’ll come to you. After all, they’re the ones paying tuition!

    • Thanks tildeb,

      I was thinking that this blog was pretty much an empty room with no echo.

      I like your description. This is similar to my upper level courses. Though I also get them to answer questions in paper before and after some explanations, where the “explanations” start by looking at some “before” answers by asking further questions to lead them into the proper answer. So, I pick up the pieces of paper to make sure they did follow up. Not every lecture, but about a third of them. But your description about going all around the place. That really got into my mind as one of the “that’s it!” My class is predicted to have 200+ students. So walking distances will be abundant.

      Oh, as weird as it might sound. I have not used powerpoint in my classes, ever. I have refused to do so and refused. I refused to use clickers, and I keep refusing stuff. What I think is that technology is good for preparing for the class (for they to prepare for the class). But we will see. I am trying several web sites for the main textbooks. They can feedback to me how long has a student being working in their systems. Not just connected, but click by click. I know there is always a way to cheat, but I like the idea that I can tell whether they prepared for class or not.

      Anyway. Just random thoughts for now. But your input certainly is valuable and reinforces my own values.

      Best!

  2. I’ve never taught so many at once so I can’t really add much; however, I suspect the principles of effective teaching remain the same. My teaching has almost always had to do with classroom management expertise to begin with (if you teach at a prison, a rambunctious class or special ed is a piece of cake) and later producing rather startling results of high levels of academic achievement from the most unlikely of students (when I was allowed to do my thing given some time). And rarely was this enhanced in any meaningful way by technology; rather, the personal relationship was always central.

    That said, I would turn to technology in a heartbeat if it reduced my work load or made student participation more likely. I love online student forums and you might consider implementing one with weekly open-ended questions or topical discussions related to why genetics is such a fascinating and relevant subject. If an exam question is known to be related to the forum, students will monitor it and some get a lot out of it.

    Just a thought from my own limited experience.

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