What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
Unless I’m in a hurry, I rarely ever simply tell things to students: I prefer to ask them questions, and from the answers I get, I ask them more questions, and so on until they understand the whole picture I’m trying to show them.
I find clickers (hand-held devices that allow instructors to pose questions and gather responses) both fun and useful for breaking the ice, for getting students used to being interactive. This way, when I move on to questions without clickers, students are much more responsive. As the semester progresses, I change from all clicker questions to mixing clicker and non-clicker questions, and they actually are much more responsive than if you just try to start asking questions out of the blue.
I also take students outside or to the greenhouse to actually see and touch the things they’re learning about, and I discuss student papers too. All these tools allow students to feel more invested in what they’re learning about, and because of that, I’m able to hold their attention better.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
For my fall course, I give a midterm, a final, and some quizzes. The tests are a mix of simple facts and plant recognition, and applying these to the relationships among plants. Students also have to learn about different plant families, and they have to write a key to six of these, which requires them both to know their stuff and to be logical.
In my other class, I have one short identification quiz and an assignment. I also have participatory lectures where I grade students on their ability to present information in a logical and well-substantiated way. Also, I ask each student to present and defend definitions of certain words that different people define differently. This way, instead of just straightforward fact-learning, it’s much more reading, finding literature, and understanding what they’ve done from a more theoretical standpoint.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
Probably the most important academic thing they learn is how to identify plants with keys; this is a life skill that is very important if they become biologists. But they also learn how to really observe, to see the world in a different way. People are plant-blind: they may see trees outside, but not that there are ten different types of trees. So I begin the term by saying they can be five years old in this class because that is about the age when people learn plants in other cultures. They have permission to be excited and to touch things—and they love it. And I love being told “I learned how to see in this class.”
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
I approach research with a “learn by doing” attitude, so I don’t really lecture about it—I let students come across research more naturally. They learn about trees and phylogenies by “tree building” themselves, for instance, and when we do talk about research, it’s during field week, when we’re looking at the way the plants are distributed, how we could sample the vegetation, and so on.
I do teach a course specifically about research techniques, like how to take gene sequence data and how to assess the closeness of the evolutionary relationship among certain species. I show this class the three basic methods used in research, and we try them all and evaluate the differences. I do this because it is important for people to be able to evaluate the quality of a paper in order to know whether to trust its conclusions.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
First, to take the course design workshop at Teaching & Learning Services. But more generally, I tell new faculty members to be enthusiastic, not stiff: they have to be natural and not try to emulate anyone else, for grading or otherwise. I tell them to hand assignments and tests back quickly so the students will be grateful instead of irritated. Also, students don’t usually like it when professors are easy, so if profs spend all their time trying to cater to students who don’t want to be there, they hurt the others.
Last, new faculty shouldn’t assume that teaching is quick and easy. I don’t care how natural a teacher a person is, it takes time. An initial investment in the first year can create a solid base that can be carried over to following years. With their courses under control, professors save time in the long run and still have a chance to write their grants.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
I recommend that they keep up with the work every week. I have expectations throughout the semester that progressively build on each other, so it’s harder to catch up if students fall behind. Of course the real benefit of keeping up is that students learn better that way.
Why do you teach?
What I enjoy most is the process of watching students learn, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. It’s kind of like an experiment, and that’s why I keep changing things—because I would probably get bored otherwise. As a student, I loved that feeling when I finally “got it,” and now I love to see that happen—it’s written all over a person’s face.
Photo by Owen Egan
As a student, I loved that feeling when I finally 'got it,' and now I love to see that happen – it’s written all over a person’s face.