Touching Tomorrow The goal of a good science education is to build a scientifically literate populace and to ensure that the skills and knowledge gained in the classroom are useful in the real world. My objective therefore, is to ensure that my students have the skills to find relevant information, objectively evaluate it, use scientific skills to analyse and synthesise it into a form that answers their question and use that product to inform their actions. Through my teaching I aim to build skills that will last beyond the semesters that the students are in my class. I aim to touch and affect tomorrow.
To achieve my aim, I use research to inform my teaching and use my teaching to address research questions, prioritise scientific skills and practices, and continuously and consciously work to assess and improve my teaching.
Evidence-based practice and practice-based evidence My research focusses on undergraduate biology education. I am therefore, well acquainted with the peer-reviewed literature on teaching and learning and use it to guide my class design. For example, there has been strong evidence provided relating to the benefits of using active learning strategies and therefore I design my classes to include a lot of small group work both during instruction and assessment.
However, evidence-based practices cannot be replicated directly from literature. The context in which the evidence for published studies was collected, is probably different from the context of my classroom. There will be variation in the demographics of my students, and I have to consider what their needs are while designing my classes. Therefore, in addition to using evidence-based practices, I also collect practice-based evidence.
My research relates to the influence of context on student reasoning. So I would design my assessments to address how various contexts elicit different ideas in students. For example, I have designed a pair of assessments that asked the same conceptual question about natural selection, but varied the taxon that was referenced. I noticed that the scientific accuracy varied with respect to taxa. This practice-based evidence will then influence the next iteration of instruction (I will explicitly use the taxon that elicited lower levels of accuracy as an example) and assessment (assess evolutionary reasoning with respect to other taxa, or other types of traits).
Practice-based evidence gives me information about the effect of various peer-reviewed teaching techniques in my particular classes. I can then focus on what the data tells me about what my students are actually doing and not what they should be doing in an ideal scenario. This gives me the opportunity to modify ‘best-practices’ to suit the needs of the population I am teaching.
Aligning teaching with authentic scientific practices As a scientist, I construct and use models, analyse and interpret data and build arguments from evidence. In my class, in see value in having students engage in activities that reflect these practices. E.g., I designed a group assessment for an introductory plant biology class that used a recent publication on the relationship between pitcher plant morphology and the probability of being used as a ‘toilet’ by the tree shrew as the context. Students had to use provided data to formulate a hypothesis that would explain the effect of variation of a plat trait on the probability of attracting shrews, construct a graph that would predict the effect of this variation, and build a model to illustrate potential evolutionary trade-offs.
Scientific progress is seldom made by a lone wolf. To inculcate and foster healthy collaborative behaviour, I use a lot of collaborative learning strategies. In their groups, students are encouraged to use ‘rally robin’ and ‘rally table’ (during which students say/write ideas in turn). I have used a lot of variations of the think-pair-share strategy in my class. During this exercise, students have to share-out ideas that were proposed by the other person/people in their group. This encourages them to listen carefully, ask questions to clarify meaning and synthesise what they hear from everyone.
Except for the polymaths of this world, most individual research has a unifying theme. In my courses I use biological core concepts as the unifying theme. In the intro-plant-bio course that I designed, I used evolution as the unifying theme to talk about and connect the concepts throughout the semester. E.g., students discussed the evolution and selection of physiological traits in plants when discussing the emergence of land plants, and when discussing the relationship between plants and society.
Self-assessment and continued development While I learn a lot about my teaching by assessing students’ learning, I also learn a lot by assessing my teaching. I have done so in the following ways: (1) Peer feedback – asking a peer instructor to give me feedback after observing my class or reviewing an assessment that I designed. (2) Video-taping a class – this allows me to examine and reflect on what actually happened in class as compared to what I thought was happening when I was teaching. (3) Using student feedback – with prudence.
To me, being a good teacher is not a destination, but is an ongoing process. I have a bachelor’s degree in high-school math and science education. I am currently working towards a certification in teaching college science and this is the second year in which I have been accepted as a Future Academic Scholars in Teaching (FAST) fellow. In my teaching, just like in research, I understand that I have to keep developing skills and attempting to answer new and different questions. I plan to continuously learn through my teaching and seek out opportunities for professional development.
Beyond the classroom To affect the future, I cannot be stuck in a simple paradigm. If I am going to touch tomorrow, my teaching has to be contemporary, innovative and perhaps even experimental. I aim therefore, not just to provide my students with the knowledge they need to get a good grade in my class, but to inculcate scientific skills that are important in building a scientifically conscious society that can handle the problems that tomorrow brings.