As Nobel Prize winner William Butler Yeats stated “education is not the filing of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” I want to coach and guide students through the discovery process to spark their own passion and curiosity for the subject. The most effective education occurs when students are actively involved and invested in the construction of knowledge in the classroom (Carr et al., 2015). Since students arrive at college having a broad variety of life experiences and preconceived notions that will affect their learning ability (Lazarowitz and Lieb, 2006), it is important to create an inclusive and engaging learning environment in which students not only gain important foundational concepts but also develop critical thinking, scientific writing, and collaborative skills which will be invaluable to their future endeavors. To accomplish this, I use a variety of pedagogical techniques to engage and motivate my students, including connecting concepts with practical and relevant examples (Chamany, et al., 2008), frequent formative review and assessment (Kay and LeSage, 2009), and direct, personal instruction (Middleton, 1995).
When I started teaching microbiology in 2010, my students had little biology background, yet the course material was written for upper level biology majors. During the first quarter that I taught this class, I suffered from instructor blindness, completely unaware of the knowledge gap between myself and my students. I was blowing through concepts and assuming my students had the same background as I did. After the first exam scores, I realized I was not teaching effectively and began reflecting on how to improve. I learned that understanding and leveraging the diversity in the classroom must be a purposeful, proactive, and adaptive activity for each semester. By the midterm, I had adapted my approach from tossing information out like a firehose to connecting the concepts with relevant human health examples to engage my nursing students. Additionally, I added review checkpoints throughout the day using brightly colored index cards, in lieu of clickers, to ensure students were understanding the material as we progressed. My students not only improved their test scores but also were able to connect material from microbiology to their clinical courses.
I am always seeking to learn from and revise my courses to enhance student engagement and learning opportunities. It has been shown that adding active learning activities increases student engagement and performance (Ruiz-Primo et al, 2011). My colleagues have described me as leaving “a wake of improvement across every course she touches.” I started teaching at March 2010 based on a provided instructor’s guide which was practically devoid of active learning outside of short laboratory sessions. In the September of 2010, I started adding in active learning to engage my students, including creating an “immune system flannelgraph” where students were put into groups and assigned an immune system reaction which after working in their groups would present to the class using felt T-cells, B-cells, antibodies, etc. on the flannel board at the front of the class. This variation of a think-pair-share worked well for my nursing students, as they were more accustomed to hands-on clinical/case study type learning. At the end of each quarter I would write a summary review for the course and use that to improve the course the next quarter, while still staying within the confines of the assigned instructor’s guide. When ITT Technical Institute announced they would be revising the national microbiology curriculum and were seeking feedback from the instructors, my feedback was so extensive and clearly delineated that I was offered the course writer position for the new curriculum.
This drive to improve did not stop at ITT but continued during my career at IUPUI where I created a standardized lab curriculum for K103 Concepts of Biology II Laboratory to ensure consistency of focus, content, and message to all sections. I also revamped three modules for K325 Cellular Biology laboratory to provide more accessible background information with visuals and video to enhance student understanding of the principles of photosynthesis and gel electrophoresis required for laboratory sessions. In addition to improving curricula, I actively engage in my own professional development through attendance and participation in education and pedagogical workshops and programs. I obtained the Certificate in College Teaching from the Center for Teaching and Learning’s (CTL) in November of 2017. During this 3-semester program I enhanced my pedagogical knowledge and skills through reflection exercises and peer observations. Observing how my peers teach and giving directed feedback was an eye opening experience as I saw different techniques modeled that I could utilize in my own teaching. To serve my fellow TAs at IUPUI, I have been honored to present a time management in grad school workshop during the CTL’s TA orientation from 2014 – 2017 and Active Learning Strategies for Teaching STEM Labs in September of 2017. My efforts and skills were acknowledged when I won the IUPUI School of Science TA of the year award in 2017.
Encouraging students to step beyond “cook book” guided labs of introductory biology courses and into investigating unknown questions is vital as it encourages transfer of knowledge from conceptual to practical (Brownell, et al., 2012). During my PhD, I had the pleasure of mentoring eight undergraduate students in their independent research projects under Dr. Stephen Randall’s guidance. One of my favorite outcomes from this has been one student working with our transgenic reporter soybean, commented that measuring reporter activity made him finally make the mental connections between gene expression and physiology. In the future, I intend to continue running a laboratory that offers student-led research opportunities as well as adding inquiry based labs into my curriculum.
For many students scientific writing is quite different from the essays and reports completed before. During laboratory courses I give special focus to helping students improve their scientific writing skills in the form of rubrics combined with specific, direct comments on each individual’s lab report. Overall I see my students increase their proficiency at presenting data in table and figure forms, using correct scientific terminology, writing precise methods, and formulating a critical interpretation of their results complete with self-reflection when something may have gone wrong. Over the course of the semester, lab report grades go from an average of 72% to an average of 90% suggesting students are understanding how to analyze and present data as scientists.
I have consistently demonstrated my commitment to using active learning based pedagogy to transfer content knowledge, enhancing student’s technical writing skills by providing detailed feedback, and increasing student’s awareness of how diversity plays a role in both their studies and lives through thoughtful interventions. I firmly believe instructors should never stop being students, which I have shown by my continued participation in professional development programs and certifications. Using published pedagogy and what I learn from my professional development activities, I will continue to direct my efforts to improve curriculum and use research based techniques to enhance my scholarly teaching. In keeping with my philosophy, I will use stimulating and engaging activities, provide feedback and support to my students, and leverage diversity in all of my future classrooms.
Literature Cited Brownwell, S.E., M.J. Kloser, T. Fukami, and R. Shavelson (2012). Undergraduate Biology Lab Courses: Comparing the Impact of Traditionally Based “Cookbook” and Authentic Research-Based Courses on Student Lab Experiences. Journal of College Science Teaching 41, 36-45. Carr, R., S. Palmer, and P. Hagel (2015). Active learning: the importance of developing a comprehensive measure. Active Learning in Higher Education 16, 173-186. Chamany, K., D Allen, and K. Tanner (2008). Making Biology Learning Relevant to Students: Integrating People, History, and Context into College Biology Teaching. CBE Life Sciences Education 7, 367-278. Dabbagh, N., and A. Kitsantas (2012). Personal Learning Environments, social media, and self-regulated learning: A natural formula for connecting formal and informal learning. The Internet and Higher Education 15, 3-8. Kay, R.H., and A. LeSage (2009). Examining the benefits and challenges of using audience response systems: A review of the literature. Computers 7 Education 53, 819-827. Lazarowitz, R., and C. Lieb (2006). Formative Assessment Pre-Test to Identify College Students’ Prior Knowledge, Misconceptions and Learning Difficulties in Biology. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education4, 741-762. Middleton, J.A. (1995). A Study of Intrinsic Motivation in the Mathematics Classroom: A Personal Constructs Approach. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 26, 255-257. Ruiz-Primo, M.A., D. Briggs, H. Iverson, R. Talbot, L.A. Shepard (2011). Impact of undergraduate science course innovations on learning. Science 331, 1269–1270