Ask a friend who their favorite teacher is and you will likely hear something like: “Oh, Dr. Smith. I really enjoyed her English course – and I didn’t think that I would like Shakespeare.” Somehow, your friend has developed both a connection with the course material and a bond with the teacher. I believe that teaching and learning require building relationships. These relationships are made both inside and outside the classroom setting, and include three different partners: the students (you), the instructor (me), and the course content. Many of the new trends in the literature of pedagogy (e.g. massive online open courses, artificially intelligent adaptive instruction) focus primarily upon the scalability of content delivery. Automating and scaling-up instruction can be both powerful and effective (in fact, I utilize this in this class!). However, I think that effective teaching and learning entail more than the presentation, memorization, and regurgitation of facts. They demand intentional interactions of several different types. I will be trying to foster six different types of relationships in this course. Each of these highlights a different aspect of teaching and learning and is illustrated below in Figure 1.
1) Prioritized learning. Being a successful teacher involves more than merely being a content expert and possessing an excellent textbook. Important decisions must be made with regard to the scope, sequence, pedagogy, and assessment of each course. Each semester, I reevaluate and reorganize this course to ensure these elements are clearly and explicitly aligned. I communicate those associations to you using things like an assessment map and the instructions to every course.
2) Guided learning. The purpose of in-class activities is not just to deliver factual content. Telling you what to think is indoctrination; showing you how to think is education. The face-to-face time that I have with you is a scarce and valuable commodity. I consider group discussion and active learning to be the most effective use of this time. As a consequence, I have relegated our lectures (still an efficient means of sharing factual information) to the online component of the course using Tegrity. In their place, I will now use a variety of activities and case-based problems to probe your comprehension. A student response system (Pulse clickers) will facilitate my interactions with you since our class size is fairly large – 120 students. This will create a dynamic learning environment, hopefully with you being more physically and mentally engaged, and give me the flexibility to find and correct any misconceptions while still in class. I hope that this participatory model not only captures your attention and makes the class more enjoyable, but will allow you to take more ownership of your own learning.
3) Independent learning. I want you to be empowered and encouraged to explore the course content on your own. The students in this class come from many different backgrounds and vary widely in their preparation for college science courses. Therefore, I have developed a wide variety of course materials and exercises to ensure that all of you have an excellent chance of succeeding in my classes. Examples of these are handouts on how to get the most out of their textbooks, how to keep a laboratory notebook, and how to read and write a scientific paper. I will attempt to slowly develop these skills with successively more complex assignments thoughout the semester. We will be using case studies, data analysis sets, and even current events to stimulate class discussions both face-to-face and online.
4) Constructive learning. As a scientist, I have a very strong objectivist bent. I believe that we live in a real and knowable world and that our conceptions of it may be either correct or incorrect. Each of you, however, must painstakingly construct your own understanding of how our course materials fit together. I tell all of my classes that microbiology is more than a mere assemblage of arcane facts with Latinized names. It is both a method for exploring the interactions within and between living systems and a way of understanding the material world in which we reside. As I see it, the only way to truly teach microbiology (and the only way that it can really be learned) is to emphasize and understand these interactions. My goal is to present the essential content for a course in such a way as to engage you in the process of building associations rather than merely rote memorization. To accomplish this, I use a layered approach to teaching. Whenever I introduce new material or concepts in this course, they will be openly associated to the prior materials. However, I usually resist making these associations myself. If I am entertaining enough, you may remember an association that I make in class. However, when you discover the linkage yourself, you will be hard-pressed to ever forget it. My goal is to carefully lead the class to a point where you can make logical and correct conclusions and inferences on your own based upon what you have learned in class.
5) Collaborative learning. When you leave the university, you will undoubtedly need to work in group settings. To support this valuable skill, I provide many opportunities for collaborative work both in lecture and the laboratory. Small-group discussions and problem sets will be essential components of our active learning lecture sessions. You must come prepared to participate and contribute to these activities each day. The laboratory exercises and reports tend to be completed in groups as well. These activities, however, represent a very small component of our course assessments. Although both important and valuable, I have found assigning individual scores on collaborative assignments to be somewhat problematic. As a consequence, your contributions may be evaluated using a modest participation score.
6) Extracurricular learning. Many important educational interactions occur outside of academic courses. I am always eager to meet with you at Ferris. I provide a variety of means for communication, and encourage you to use them whenever you have questions about class, life, or anything that interests you. These include our online discussion forums, email, Twitter, office hours, and more. I am happy to discuss anything you like with you – any time, any place.Most of all, I want you to recognize that learning is a process and that you all may not all proceed in the same way or at the same rate through this process. I will be emphasing these six relationships in order to compel you to engage with the course materials in an iterative way. Our grading system is set up to allow for different learning rates and provides opportunities for students to continue to demonstrate learning of essential concepts over the span of the semester. I will also provide feedback to help you become more aware of the strengths and weaknesses in your learning strategies. By getting you to think not only about what you are learning, but how you are learning it, I am putting you in position to alter and optimize your learning. I believe that, in the long run, getting you to actively and intentionally engage in your own learning is far more important that any particular piece of content knowledge that we may help you to learn.
"Learning can and often does take place without the benefit of teaching – and sometimes even in spite of it – but there is no such thing as effective teaching in the absence of learning. Teaching without learning is just talking."
Angelo and Cross
Classroom Assessment Techniques