How One Science Professor Made an Impact

by Stephanie Chasteen on November 22, 2010

I’m trying something different with today’s post:  A meta-commentary on one student’s memories of a favorite teacher.  Jillian Gile wanted to share her experiences with an inspiring teacher.  I saw many important messages in her story about what makes effective education, from a research standpoint.  So, here is Jillian’s story, with my meta-commentary appended.  Enjoy!

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I was a budding biologist, with stars in my eyes, swept up by the new atmosphere of university life.  I hung on every professor’s word and scribbled notes as if they were coming straight from the mouth of my own personal messiah.  It took a grand total of two weeks for this to wear off.  I realized, like most college students, that many of these Intro to _____ classes were blow-off, straight-from-the-book courses — for the students and for the professors.

In fact, students are often quite discouraged by these introductory classes. In physics, we hope that we might inspire students to see physics as meaningful, relevant, and interesting.  Can we, indeed, affect students’ beliefs about physics after a single introductory-level physics class?  The good news is “yes.”  The bad news is that we affect them so that they are more negative. Students come out of introductory courses seeing physics as less interesting, relevant, useful, and do-able.  And a lot of the reason why, we conjecture, is because the classes are taught straight-from-the-book, without authentic interaction with the students.

I admit, I lost interest in classes.  I started dabbling in the liberal arts; science professors would sniff like there was a bad odor when I told them what courses I’d signed up for each semester.  I didn’t give up my biology major — I’d known I was interested in marine biology since I was 12 years old — but classes like Contemporary Literature and Poetry were a siren call.  And the English professors knew what Greek classic I was referring to by “siren call,” and didn’t go into lectures about how the sirens the Greeks wrote about were probably a now-extinct sea bird.

I was still a biology major my sophomore year, but classes like Cell Biology, which would have thrilled me a year earlier, just seemed like something I’d have to get through.  Enter “Dr. N,” the Cell Biology professor.  First off, he didn’t drone on like the Biology 101 professors did, and he actually tried to grab our interest at the beginning of each class period.

One of the most consistent results from education research is the importance of student motivation in learning.  Think about it — it’s adaptive.  Energy takes resources.  If we don’t see a reason to expend energy on something, it’s smart to conserve our resources.  So, many of the strategies for sparking student engagement includes beginning a lesson with an attention-grabber (or even something surprising) at the start of a lesson — one of the hallmarks of a great teacher (“Building a Better Teacher“).

On top of that, Dr. N was engaged.  He would call out students whose minds were obviously wandering with spur-of-the-moment pop quizzes (they never counted against our grades, which made us love him more).  Even better, he vowed that if your cell phone rang during class, he would personally answer it and explain why you were unavailable — and he did it, on multiple occasions.  We were fearful and adoring.

Dr. N obviously had a personal interest in each and every one of his students.  It helped that we were at a small university, and even the largest class was only about 30 people, but he would memorize all our names and repeat them back to us (sometimes with fun facts) the second week of class.  You could tell when you walked into his office that he recognized you, and wasn’t rapidly flicking through a mental rolodex of possible student names like other professors.

Student motivation is important, and one of the important aspects of an instructor that helps students feel motivated is if they feel both (a) respected and (b) challenged.  This combination of traits seems to help students want to rise to the occasion, rather than feeling belittled or overburdened.  In fact, students indicate that they feel very demotivated by an instructor who says, “This class is very hard and many of you will fail so you need to study really hard.”  On the other hand, they feel more inspired by an instructor who tells them “This subject is hard for everyone, but all can master it with some effort, and my goal for the course is for all of you to succeed.”

I’m personally beginning to believe that this issue of respect is one of the key aspects of instructors’ effects on the classroom, in terms of their personality (not their pedagogical methods).

The personal interest extended outside of the classroom and coursework, too.  He would stop you in the hall and ask how your day was going.  A group of students he knew was struggling would get invited to his house for pizza, a movie, and a crash study course.  He was the only professor at a rather conservative institution that you knew would come pick you up from the bar when you were too trashed to drive (true story, though part of the reason for the anonymity of his name!).

Lest this story sound a little too fawning, I’ll be the first to admit, his tests were hard.  He wasn’t one of those teachers who got his students to love him with easy tests and the easy-breezy attitude “well, in the real world you’ll be able to refer to an open book.”  I was a B+/A- kind of student, and I suddenly found myself starting at a big red C at the top of a returned test paper.  These tests were long, had essay questions (in science??? we all squealed, not yet understanding the rigors of journal and grant submissions), and once the test was one question requiring us to tie together everything we’d learned in that unit with one uniting theme.

Now I understand that those tests were the best introduction to science possible.  Memorizing long lists of enzymes, molecules, and scientific names does not help you form the critical thinking skills necessary for a research lab — or any other job. Years removed from that class, I am incredibly grateful for the rigors he required.

The assessments that Dr. N. gave required students to transfer what they’d learned to new situations.  Not being rote, they required students not only to indicate that they could apply their knowledge, but indeed, I would argue that students probably learned something from these tests.  Thus, they would be what Bransford or Schwartz would call Preparation for Future Learning assessments.  Thus, he required students to prepare for the tests in a deep way, and the tests themselves helped students develop the critical reasoning skills necessary for science.

One of the central commandments of Joe Redish is that it’s important to assess students on what we want them to learn, and to provide them detailed feedback so that they can improve.  Sounds like Dr. N. hit the mark!

Dr. N encouraged me, the only non-pre-med major in the class, to pursue my graduate degree.  I feel that his course was part of the reason my interest turned slightly, away from marine biology and towards molecular biology.  He is the only professor I am still regularly in contact with.  I’m sure that being one of the strictest educators in the department wasn’t an easy road for him – but I don’t see any of the other professors in that department having glowing reviews written for them on the internet.

Jillian Gile is a guest blogger for My Dog Ate My Blog and a writer on accredited online universities for the Guide to Online Schools.

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