I think my responsibility is to impart knowledge in ways that accommodate the many different learning styles of the individual student. However, there exist as many different learning styles as there are students. Therefore, it is my responsibility to organize interesting, clear, and concise materials for students. One method for ensuring a fruitful learning experience is to encourage students to come to classes prepared. I spend a portion of each class providing students with focused material to review before the next class. The preparation before classes is designed to help students identify the gaps in their knowledge about the specific subject being covered in class that day. I believe that the judicious use of extensive class participation and quizzes compels students to prepare ahead of time and enables students to derive a greater learning experience from class.
It is also important to link course material with real-world data, so I bring my knowledge of the subject’s literature and current events into the classroom and provide it to students at an appropriate and useful level. For example, I break scientific journal articles down into a few applicable figures for discussion during class rather than distributing an entire paper to first or second year undergraduate students.
While many of the classical assessments (homework and exams) are treated as material for a student to review after it is graded, I find it to be an important tool to use in assessing how well the students have learned a particular subject. This material can be used to guide further lectures for addressing students’ fundamental gaps in knowledge even after the test material is returned.
My teaching practices find their basis in attending classes, reading papers, and talking with other educators. However, I submit the combined format of my courses as a potentially effective method for educating the “millennial” and “non-traditional” learners who are the majority of my current students. My teaching style is heavily influenced by the theories proposed in Bloom’s taxonomy and Constructivism.
Valuing the individual- The majority of my students appreciate my ability to value them as individuals. My genuine concern in their well-being creates a sense of trust and comfort for the student to begin honest and diligent learning. They know that I will do my best to guide them through the course. I start early by learning students’ names and learning something unique about them via a questionnaire. During class discussions, I will often ask a student’s name or request a hint of their unique qualities. Using a student’s name and simply stating, “Oh, you’re the stunt-woman,” often elicits a smile, and the student then relaxes and answers the question in a more thoughtful and conversational tone. This replaces the more common university occurrence of calling on a nameless student who is then more likely to shrug and say, “I don’t know.” I strive to validate each student as an individual and help my students launch their learning from a place of mutual trust and respect.
Class- For each class, I prepare a PowerPoint presentation and extensive class notes. I use PowerPoint in a manner different from most educators. The purpose of my PowerPoint is to highlight key figures to which students have access. I do not use PowerPoint for written details or “facts” that need to be memorized. Since students have access to the figures usually from their own textbooks, I use the slides to highlight key features of the figures that warrant detailed discussion. For each topic, I ask the class a somewhat leading question in order to ascertain the current level of knowledge After I have a few answers, I ask for dissenting or alternative opinions to what people have heard or remembered. This constructivist method allows me to evaluate in real-time exactly what a student “knows.” Students appreciate the opportunity to float ideas and knowledge that they’ve heard from various sources to see how it matches up with what I am supposed to be teaching. From there, I guide the students to the desired knowledge. I use the chalk/dry erase board and highlight what the class “knows.” In the eventuality of erroneous information, I present the desired answer and then facilitate a short discussion about where students heard or learned the material. This provides the students with a chance to evaluate the source of the material in question—an important life skill. I also add details that were not provided by the class and provide them with enough time to transfer this to their notes. During this “chalk talk,” I provide analogies for understanding and suggested applications. On average, I switch between PowerPoint and the chalk board approximately 6 times in a standard 50 minute class. For the last five minutes of class, I present 2 to 4 questions which have appeared on previous exams. These questions are selected for their pertinence to the day’s lecture. By polling the audience, I am able to quickly assess whether I effectively covered the topics I intended to discuss. In the final moments of class, I put up a slide with key vocabulary and reading that should be completed before the final class. Once class is over, I make my own notes on strongly held but potentially misleading “knowledge” or topics students did not understand. I use these notes to supplement the following lecture so that the beginning of the next lecture is a brief review of the previous lecture. This process helps ensure that I can meet a variety of student learning styles which do evolve from year to year.
Homework- I carefully research homework questions from the current scientific literature which encourages students to exercise what they have learned in class and then apply that knowledge rather than simply seek out existing answers. Instead, I ask open ended questions about current scientific controversies that pertain to what was taught in class. These open ended questions often expose significant gaps in knowledge because some students will “dump” their knowledge onto the paper in an effort to write the “correct” answer. I encourage careful analysis of the question so that students can synthesize concise responses. I sometimes review homework problems in class that the majority of the class found difficult. Thus, homework is also extremely important in testing the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.
Quizzes and Exams- Quizzes and exams follow a similar pattern. The first ¾ of the test seeks to test basic knowledge, comprehension, and ability to explain concepts. The final section is short answer and includes three questions which require the generation of a hypothesis. They include application of equations and concepts, never before taught pathologies, or a figure from a current manuscript. Since these questions represent the highest level of learning, it is very clear who really understands the material versus who has simply memorized the material.
Here is an example of a more advanced question on one year’s Bioen 3202 exam:
25. Without knowing the cascade by which epinephrine triggers vasodilatation in vascular smooth muscle, explain why it is advantageous that epinephrine is a vasodilator? (6 points)
This question appears relatively straightforward. However, a student must know that epinephrine makes the heart beat faster and stronger. They must reconcile this knowledge with an apparently contradictory statement that epinephrine reduces contraction in the blood vessels (vasodilation). By answering this question, a student learns something new. Mainly, epinephrine in the “fight or flight” response increases blood flow to tissues that need it most, so it increases contraction in one set of tissue (heart) while decreasing contraction in another set of tissue (blood vessels) which work together to deliver larger blood volume to the tissue that needs it.
Laboratories- Many of the classes I teach also have associated laboratories. The laboratory covers topics that I haven’t spoken about yet in class. The students are provided with a fairly rigid protocol and enough vocabulary to understand the laboratory, but I don’t tell them the conclusions. Instead, I encourage them to treat it like a real scientific experiment. They are encouraged to look up ahead of time what the different interventions should do according to whatever source they can find. Then they make the measurements and determine whether they are seeing a desired response or not. It is my intention that this exercise teaches students that the answers to many things in life don’t just come from classes, and instead a lifetime of learning from various sources can be just as rewarding.
I also ask students to plan one small easy to accomplish experiment to put in their own laboratory reports. For example, when we are studying the cardiovascular system, I encourage students to bring to the laboratory some energy drinks, fruit juices, sodas, or any other grocery store available substances. They can then quantify the cardiovascular effects of their intervention, compare these results with the individual effects of caffeine, sugar, and acidity, and offer hypotheses about the observed results.
Office hours- Because students may need extra explanation of the lecture, I am always available after class. I will spend whatever additional time students need to discuss questions about the days lecture or previous lectures. I also use this time to go over advanced concepts that have appeared on previous exams. Mostly the students that struggle the most attend these sessions. In addition to what amounts to almost an hour after every class, I still keep standard office hours for those students who cannot stay after class.
Digital Material- All PowerPoint slides and end of class “exam” questions are posted on WebCT for students to download. However, lecture notes are only available during lecture. I will often provide handouts which are also available on WebCT. Students appreciate the digital material most in terms of the ability for on demand learning. While I never contribute on the discussion panels, I do often review them to stay current on the topics that students are finding difficult. By not posting on the discussion forums, it allows students to carry on a more relaxed conversation with their colleagues. By reading the forums but not explicitly saying so, I am better able to determine when the class is truly having trouble, versus when a student just wants a quick answer.
Syllabi- All my syllabi include the basic contact information and a very clear breakdown of how grades are assigned. They also cover the learning objectives, assessment tools, required resources, suggested additional resources, and what students are expected to learn according to the department and an external accreditation agency.(ABET in the case of bioengineering)
Importantly, I explicitly state my policy on late work, plagiarism, accommodation policy, and how to schedule time with me if they cannot attend any of my listed office hours.
The lecture syllabus tells them the day, topics covered in class, as well as the readings the students should complete before attending lecture.
Everything taken together, the syllabus is not a contract of how the course will work. I explain this to the students. Instead, it is a best faith estimate of how the course worked in the past and should work in the current semester. There is some flexibility, but it is designed to set clear expectations for the students so that they and I can plan our current semester.
Grading- I think the choice of grading scheme very important to my effectiveness. First, I make it clear that grades are earned, not negotiated. Therefore, if a student detects a grading error on an exam, I will re-grade the entire exam. As discussed above, exams are written so that scores fall within the provided grade ranges. In my opinion, returning an exam with a 50% on it and leaving the students in limbo until the end of the semester creates undue anxiety and interferes with my teaching. Students worrying about their scores are not learning the material very well. By following Bloom’s taxonomy, grades are naturally distributed so that students who memorize material earn an average score, and those who truly learn earn the top scores.
Summary- Together, I think that my positive teaching evaluations are a reflection that my unique combination of Constructivism with Bloom’s taxonomy is effective and appreciated by the students.