What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
I think about what the students’ goals are, and what materials they consider to be the most relevant to their goals. I find that when I discuss my material from a perspective that interests students, it’s easier for me to connect with them.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
My larger class, which has about 35 students, is very difficult to assess. Over the last five years, we have moved to a computerized exam that enables us to use images to test structure recognition. But we have also been discussing ways to present students with real-life situations that would then require them to think through how they would respond. This would be a more open-ended, open-book exam. In real life, who gives you the choices a, b, c or d?
I also try to get a sense of my students’ understanding during class by asking questions. In addition, I make my lectures shorter, and I make myself available for questions as long as possible after the lecture.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
I believe that the most important thing students can learn from me is that there are always more questions than answers.
The classical way to teach practitioners is to say, “Okay, 1, 2, 3, 4, this is what you do.” However, actual professional practice is a creative process, not a technological schema. Therefore, I believe we have to convey to students that although we know a lot, there are still many things that we just guess. This way, even if during training, they still have to follow “1, 2, 3, 4,” they will be ready to adapt when our knowledge evolves.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
When I present information, I try to present it with research examples that show how we came to our current understanding. As much as possible, I teach using primary literature and I try to point out what we do understand, and what we don’t. I will often guide students through an entire study, pointing out the objective, methodology, and findings, as well as its limitations.
It really helps that some studies read like a mystery novel! For example, there is a 1960 paper examining why children in one New Zealand coastal city had no caries, while 20 kilometres to the south, the children did have caries. The researchers eventually found that, years earlier, an earthquake in the region had caused the sea floor to move up, and that people from the city to the north had been using this land to cultivate vegetables. A trace amount of molybdenum in these vegetables was finally found to correlate with fewer caries for these children.
Examples like this one help students to appreciate the spirit of inquiry in research and scholarship, which in turn facilitates their learning of the drier subjects of methodologies and detailed findings.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
Don’t be afraid of challenges. Also, be open to using your teaching to inform your research, and vice versa. When I started teaching about caries, I had to learn everything from scratch. Now I’m very interested in this area, and planning to do a research project on the development of caries.
Also, it really helps if you understand the context of the whole program. If you teach students what they are in the program to learn, you will become much more effective. Look for a program outline that tells you about the context, or, if it’s a lecture within a course, go to the course director. In either case, talk to people. Ask who the students are and what topics you should be building on.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
Ask questions! What’s the main difference between a professor and a student? The professor knows that he doesn’t know everything, is ready to ask questions, and to say “I don’t know,” or “I’m confused.” Students, on the other hand, are hesitant, afraid to appear ignorant, to ask a “stupid question.” But if you don’t know something, you have to find out somehow, otherwise there is no learning. So my key advice is to ask questions.
Why do you teach?
It’s part of the job. But really, I like teaching. It’s hard and very energy-consuming. Even in small lectures, even if you are well prepared, you have to put out a lot. But it’s also very rewarding. I find that I like to make things clear to people. I like to explain things; I like to see when they “get it.” Overall, teaching is such a positive experience.
Photo by Owen Egan
When I present information, I try to present it with examples from research that show how we came to our current understanding. As much as possible, I teach using primary literature and I try to point out what we do and don’t understand.