Some Thoughts about Teaching
Education is one of the most complex of our cultural endeavors. Each student receives and processes information in ways that are subtly, or not so subtly, different from others. Some are linear thinkers, and need to have information presented in a set of logical steps. Others need to see the whole subject at once, and then to place each bit of new information into the framework. Some can learn as material is presented, and others prefer to review after the initial exposure. Some benefit from the give-and take of discussion, but others may feel intimidated. There are those who need to take notes during a presentation, and those who prefer to concentrate on the discussion without the “distraction” of writing. We need to consider these differences as we construct courses.
Furthermore, as students progress through their academic experience, their needs change. Initially, they may be presented with large lecture courses, to develop the background that is necessary for deeper study. They then take smaller courses in which they need to be able to discuss and analyze advanced material. Finally, they move towards independent scholarship, as they take on individual research projects, and some proceed to graduate school, with growing independence.
The task of an educator is to probe each of the pathways and find the ones that are most effective for the students and subject at hand. In the sciences this is particularly challenging, because some courses must, by their very nature, convey large amounts of information, and others may be more concerned with the methods of investigation –the analysis of experimental data, the value of skepticism, critical thinking.
My approach to lecture courses, then, is to use as many of the different ways of presenting information as possible. I offer a detailed syllabus in advance, with topics and recommended readings. In the syllabus, I stress that the readings are a guide, and not specific assignments, so that those students who wish can look further. My lectures are constructed as a mixture of humor, anecdote, and serious data. I generally start with a cartoon that is relevant to the subject under discussion. The cartoon is put up as the class assembles so that they have something to think about while waiting for the lecture to begin. I often use a historical approach to illustrate the progress of science. Experimental rationales are offered, along with the errors that were made along they way. Since science is a philosophy as well as a collection of data, I feel that it is important for students to understand the process as well as the final results. The materials are illustrated with images from the text and other sources, as well as animations and videos when appropriate. As I present the data, I also introduce some information about the people who were responsible for the work. The students seem to appreciate understanding that there is a real world that impinges even on the “pure” scientist. My hope is that each of the different bits I provide as ancillary information serves as a mnemonic to help the students order the complex topics. I have also taken advantage of various technological approaches to enrich the lectures. This approach leads to lectures that are for some students less linear than they would like, and I try to accommodate them by summarizing the main points of the lecture at the end, or at the beginning of the succeeding lecture.
I try to establish a relationship during the lectures in which students feel that they are respected colleagues, and that they have the right to ask questions at any point. This can be difficult in a large class, so I make sure that I spend time after each lecture to talk to the groups that remain afterwards. I also make it clear that my office is open at any time for students to come for discussions. Students can send me messages at any time. At times, they are surprised to receive answers at 1 am.
I carry similar approaches into the smaller advanced courses as well, with an increasing emphasis on student participation.
I believe that at the
advanced level, graduate students need to be exposed to a broad array of
techniques to allow them to conduct their research. For that reason, I have offered a series of
courses that address specific research approaches. When I first arrived at
More recently, I have offered a course in Advanced Techniques of Microscopy, a subject that has complex theoretical as well as practical aspects. This course is divided into lectures and laboratory portions, and the students are given their choice of a project for completion. The course ends with a class presentation by the participants.
I have taken great satisfaction from my work on an individual basis with undergraduate honors students and graduate students. Over the years, I have guided more than 30 undergraduate students through independent research projects. Two of them, Russell Buono and Bashar Hanna continued in my laboratory as graduate students, and now have successful academic careers of their own. For all of these students, my goal is to allow them to find what interests them, and then to help them find the solutions that they need. I try to develop their creativity and investigative skills by initially assigning them to ongoing projects in the laboratory, and then, when they have become familiar with the system, allow them to follow their own questions. This has resulted in a set of Ph.D. theses that have topics that range from cells in culture, to oxygen metabolism, to monoclonal antibodies, and apoptosis. Each one of these is a complex area, and the students have become masters of their fields.
To my mind, the highest goal of education is to provide the stimulus and opportunity for students to extend beyond the material. It is necessary to be sensitive to differences in learning style, and to attempt to reach as many of the students as possible, so that they can become excited by the subject. This includes experimentation with different modes of presentation, developing a balance between the theatrical and the subject content, and using technology when appropriate. Equally important is to establish a rapport with the students based on respect for their efforts.