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How I teach science

What is science?

The word "science" means a lot of things to a lot of people; there is a diversity of viewpoints even among professional scientists! To me, science is, above all, a process of developing and refining ideas about how the world works by seeking, collecting, analyzing, and reporting evidence. (Physicist Chad Orzel encapsulates this process as look-think-test-tell.) My students learn the facts and vocabulary of science, of course, but they also practice scientific reasoning and scientific methods. I give them many opportunities to hone these skills, from performing somewhat open-ended laboratory experiments to analyzing clinically relevant data. Likewise, my tests include many open-ended short-answer questions where students demonstrate their development of these skills.

Who can and should learn science?

Everyone! Irrespective of their professional and personal trajectories, ALL of my students will benefit from an appreciation of science and an ability to apply its tools, whether that means checking the source of a controversial claim or organizing data into a clear graph. Moreover, ALL of them are capable of scientific thinking (as Orzel points out). Thus, I strive to help ALL students on their respective journeys. I foster an inclusive, supportive environment with strategies like the following: I express and explain my own enthusiasm for the material while also cultivating students' personal connections to it; I sensitively address biological differences among individuals (e.g., skin color or male/female pelvis structure); I solicit input from quiet students to ensure their voices are heard; I make reasonable accommodations for students with scheduling challenges beyond their control; and I strive to recognize and address microaggressions when they occur.

How should instructors like me facilitate the learning of science?

Clearly, the "sage on a stage" model of teaching -- in which a wise professor dispenses knowledge to a rapt audience of students who remain silent except to chuckle appreciatively at the professor's jokes -- is an outdated one. These days, I think of myself as part coach, part cheerleader, and part referee. The students are the athletes; they are the ones who have to play the game. My job is to give them the ball, show them how to practice, encourage them to accept formidable challenges, and ultimately judge the success of their performance. Furthermore, the most fruitful practices generally involve teamwork, in which players combine their complementary strengths. I therefore promote teamwork via simple "think-pair-share" exercises as well as more involved "jigsaw" exercises in which each team member possesses unique information needed by the rest of the team. And, like any good coach, I ask my students to think metacognitively about why they're doing what they're doing and what their current weaknesses are.

How do I differ from most other instructors?

If you ask past students what set me apart from other instructors, many will cite my tendency to burst into song. This is true, but constitutes only a small portion of class time. More fundamentally, I run my classes in a way that emphasizes careful note-taking. I use PowerPoint as a high-tech overhead projector; my slides are full of empty space for annotating figures and answering questions, and I write right along with the students to keep the pacing reasonable. This focus on note-taking is not the most glamorous or attention-getting strategy, but it works.

Somewhat related to the above, I also spend, relative to my peers, huge amounts of time writing and grading original study questions and test questions. Too often, questions from textbooks and test banks are poorly written, obsessed with obscure details, previously leaked to the Internet, etc. -- so I craft highly structured questions that reflect my pedagogical priorities. To make sure students can use old tests for practice, I prepare new tests each term. Many of these questions are in a short-answer format (rather than multiple-choice format) to stress the importance of scientific reasoning (rather than merely getting the "right" answer).

A final possibly unusual aspect of my teaching is that I am rarely content to rest on my laurels. Once a course is taught two or three times, it is tempting to declare it "good enough," but I cannot help seeking a better textbook, a more elegant experiment, a more intriguing analogy. For example, my article Which way do the ions go? traces the evolution of my mediocre treatment of electrochemical gradients into a better one, and my article Integration of Math Jingles into Physiology Courses explains how I have adjusted my use of content-rich biology music in response to student feedback. Just as my students learn from iterative cycles of testing, feedback, and revision, so too do I.