It is my aim as a teacher to use the classroom to facilitate the development of students as scientists, in terms of their science process skills, ability to deal with broad questions and dialoguing with other scientists., These skills can be incredibly valuable whatever career path students take, as well as helping them make informed opinions as world citizens.
I focus on teaching scientific process skills, as well as content, in my courses. When I think of the best classes that I took, I describe them as, “The class where I really learned how to…” rather than a class where I learned about something. I try to achieve this by thinking of students as scientists and assessing what skills they need help with. In practice, this means that I give students many opportunities in class to do things like generate a hypothesis, plan an experiment, interpret data and draw conclusions. For example, an activity I have used with students and in teaching workshops is having groups plan what the next experiment would be, after reading a paper. I have groups of students formulate a graph with hypothetical data supporting their hypothesis, and groups then exchange graphs only and try to infer what the hypothesis was. Does the graph actually show that? Whether with undergraduates or a group of professional scientists, this activity generates a high level of engagement, discussion and learning. I find that this is time well spent, since it is fascinating seeing students’ scientific abilities improve throughout the course of the semester. Students really respond to this approach; one student commented, “I like the ant bird assignment because we got to design our own experiment. I really felt like a scientist.”
I believe that it is important to challenge students with significant questions, both to capture their interest and teach that science is a process. I find that students are often more interested in difficult, real-world problems that may not have a complete answer than in simplified textbook type problems, and engaging students’ interest is the best way to tap into what they can do. My aim is to help students see that they capable of at least partially answering such difficult questions. My most effective physics professor taught by giving a series of questions, each of which we could already answer, which lead us to the solution of a difficult problem we thought we couldn’t answer. After frequent repetition of this process in my own teaching, I have seen students learn to break down hard questions to help themselves and other group members. For example, I watched one of my students apply the same series of question technique to teach her group members to predict the outcome of competition using graphical models. I have also been very impressed to have students relatively quickly push an idea to its known boundaries and start asking questions that we don’t have answers to, in the process poking gaping holes in existing ideas. This approach of asking significant questions also helps students recognize that science is an ongoing process, rather than a list of things to be memorized.
I use student assessment to teach how science involves responding and incorporating feedback from others. We have students’ close attention when we communicate grades, making it a very teachable moment. Why do we so seldom ask them to revise their answers, to see whether they understand and can incorporate our feedback about what was lacking? As scientists, we are always changing and improving scientific methods, analysis and manuscripts based on feedback and new information from others. I have seen students also benefit tremendously from this process. For example, I emphasize meeting with students to discuss their results on major written assignments. Through these discussions, I have been amazed to learn how often they actually understood the concepts and had simply not communicated their ideas well. In these student meetings, which mimic the feedback scientific collaborators give each other on manuscripts, I am able to discuss with students how their writing did not adequately express their knowledge, and work with them on how to improve. The next assignment is for them to incorporate these changes effectively into the same document. In my experience, it is worthwhile to have fewer writing assignments but more feedback and revisions to facilitate more skill development. This whole process, which is analogous to the process by which scientific papers are reviewed, allows students to achieve a high standard of communication.
Given this approach to teaching, I expect students to improve in three ways from my classes: learning the practical skills of the scientist, breaking down difficult questions into parts they can work with and effective communication and collaboration with others. It is both challenging and exciting to strive to improve my ability to foster student’s development in these critical areas.