What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
For graduate students in the smaller classes, the less I say, the better. Instead of lecturing, I try to tease out their understanding of things by asking them questions and getting them to drive the discussion. I also teach upper-level undergraduates, and while it’s more didactic, I still try to create a similar type of collegiality. I’m more interested in helping students educate themselves rather than issuing a homogenous dump of data to the whole class. In many ways, what I’m trying to do is to get them to think outside of their comfort zone. Then for the medical students, I want them to understand that what they’re learning may be useless in five years, so the real goal is to learn how to sustain their own life-long, self-directed learning. Otherwise, they’ll become poor physicians, subject to the whims of patients and pharma-marketers.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
In the medical school, in a magistral course called the Basis of Medicine, Unit 8, we have a midterm and a final, which together count for about 65% of the grade. The other 35% comes from small group evaluations, divided between several different areas, such as the pharma component for 10%. While it’s a small part of the overall grade, I like the small group format because it allows us to evaluate students on multiple levels, to examine more features of their performance beyond their ability to simply remember facts. So although the small group evaluations count for less, they ultimately mean more to the students in terms of appraising their strengths and weaknesses.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
That knowledge is entirely provisional, that what they are learning now may not hold true in a month. There is a core of knowledge that can be learned in a year, sure, but they should then be turned loose to the edges of what we know, near the frontier between what’s understood well and what is only thought to be understood. Students are afraid of that edge because they know there is no single answer that they can give on an exam that is absolutely right. But it’s also freedom from being wrong, and there is safety in that. So the exams are no longer single-answer based, but I think that’s positive—I think students need to be learning to think on their feet and to challenge convention, especially at the undergraduate level, where this tends to be less emphasized.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
For my graduate students, I get them to interpret the results of their experiments and determine themselves what the next steps should be. For graduate students that I don’t train directly and for upper-level undergraduates, it’s about bringing them to the edge of what’s known, and getting them to think about what the implications of that edge are, and how we should proceed to push the field forward. It’s about getting students to think about possibility, rather than just rock-solid certainties, and to see that professors are actually interested in being challenged, especially given that we’re in a better position to pursue new ideas. With the medical students it can be a bit more difficult, because of the varying levels of maturity and humility. But I just have to say, “well, that’s one perspective, but...” I’ve come to learn that medical students are undone by humility from an instructor because they don’t expect it. So creating a shared complicity in learning by saying something like, “I don’t know the answer, but I’ll find out, and we will discuss it,” or “I don’t know the answer. Why don’t you find out, and we’ll discuss it?” works well in bringing them closer to feeling comfortable with the unknown.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
Get involved in teaching. Don’t buy into the idea that your time is protected. Teaching is something you have to do, so you cannot begin soon enough to learn how to do it properly, across students’ levels and abilities. Also, get involved with Teaching and Learning Services programs. They may not seem necessary at first, but when you run into problems in teaching, you’ll see their utility for making you a better teacher, even just with simple tools like clickers. The learning curve is steep, so I would advise starting right away.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
They should stop thinking of their teachers as having all the answers or of being unapproachable. Even those of us who don’t see teaching as a vocation usually feel responsible for the job they do. So students have to push us to be better teachers, to hold us to account, so we know what we need to improve on. They should take advantage of opportunities to interact with and criticize professors in a fair and honest way.
Why do you teach?
I teach mainly because it’s part of my job but there are aspects of it that I like and find rewarding. Mainly, I learn a lot. I’m an intensely selfish person in that sense because everything I read is for me. Teaching forces me to learn many new things but it’s also a way to dampen that selfish impulse. I figure I’m on this journey to learn things until I die, but there’s also value in imparting what I learn. So though I don’t think I’m very good at teaching, I like to think I do it responsibly, with a view to getting better at it.
Photo by Owen Egan