Giving Repetitive Courses A Fresh Look

blackboard photoI never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” ― Attributed to Albert Einstein

When I started my career in teaching six years ago I knew I was finally living my God-given purpose in life. During the years as an undergraduate and half the time as a graduate student I was constantly changing my career choice after being exposed to each of these options in some way: pediatrician, child psychiatrist, forensic scientist, research scientist. But finally one day after teaching a discussion section as a teaching assistant during grad school an old passion was re-ignited again! I began to remember that as a child I would line up my stuffed animals against the wall as they watched me “teach” them with my cup of chocolate milk (instead of coffee). Halfway through graduate school I knew that teaching is what I wanted to pursue.

Teaching is probably one of the most rewarding professions—it’s satisfying knowing that at least one student appreciates you, may look up to you, and most importantly learn something that they’ve never known before, whether it’s about academic material or about life experiences. But these rewarding moments come after all the hard work and stress leading up to the new semester/quarter. When I first started teaching I was overwhelmed and bombarded with preparing new material for each course: general biology for non-majors & developmental biology. I had no experience preparing courses from scratch so it was rather stressful and I had no idea what to expect. But by the grace of God, the support from the faculty within our department, support from family, and with my own determination, my first year was a success along with a ton of room for improvement.

I continue to teach these courses twice a year and find myself preparing for them each semester. Every time I start the new academic year I think about how I can improve in teaching the material. What do I want the students to get out of this class? What skills do I want them to develop? I do my best each year to refresh the material in my mind by re-writing my notes or adding to my old ones. I go through my lectures and think about what new material or current events I could add. Most importantly I think about how to make the content relatable. How/why does all this matter? Why is important to learn this information?

A few years into teaching I found that the most effective way for the students to learn and retain the information is to actually be engaged in the classroom and be involved in some way as they learn. I have incorporated in-class discussions revolved around questions or case studies presented after lecture. Once they have the general information and foundation under their belts I give them questions/problems and/or case studies related to the content that was taught to help them apply and critically think about what they learned. This is most often done in the classroom, usually after 25-30 minutes of lecture, where I can see them discussing their thoughts and ideas with their peers and assess how well they understand the content and how well they can apply the information. It is also a less stressful situation where they are not under the pressure of time or thinking solo as they are when taking an exam.

These kinds of engaging activities in the classroom also help them build confidence, improve communication skills, and enhance their critical thinking skills, all of which are important skills to have when they graduate. It’s tempting to think, “Well that takes away from lecture time; I must get in as much information as possible before the next exam,” etc. But the truth of the matter is it shouldn’t be about the quantity of material they take in but the quality. We should strive to help students learn the material effectively rather than passively sitting in the classroom tuning out every word we are saying or, in some cases, reading off the slides. Research has shown that after 10-20 minutes of non-stop lecturing, incorporation of the information falls off rapidly. I have also begun to refer to resources online to obtain ideas for how to keep the students engaged; one great article in particular: “A Brief Summary of the Best Practices in College Teaching: Intended to Challenge the Professional Development of All Teachers.”

Incorporating active learning in the classroom and avoiding a 50-minute lecture is one of the best ways I can continue to keep the class “fresh.” Each semester, of course, I get a new group of students. When I see the variety of students and the variety of responses from these active learning exercises it’s a whole new class and doesn’t seem as repetitive and boring as it used to when I first taught these courses several times in a row. In addition, course evaluations have improved significantly, which demonstrates that the students appreciate the different teaching strategy in return. As instructors we shouldn’t get comfortable with teaching the same material every single time, but instead spice it up a little with various class exercises that will promote active learning in the classroom.

Whether it was Einstein or some other writer, that person couldn’t have said it better: “I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn,” and this is my goal every time a semester begins.

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Melissa Antonio

Melissa Antonio is an Assistant Professor of Biology at California Baptist University in Riverside, California. She received her Bachelor’s of Science in Biological Sciences in 2005 and Ph.D. in Cellular, Molecular, and Developmental Biology in 2010 at University of California, Riverside. When Melissa is not teaching she enjoys the precious time she has with her husband and son. She also loves dancing, walking, and strengthening her relationship with the Lord, as she and her family are new converts and were baptized in Christ between 2007-2009.

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