Reflective Change Sustains Me
Teaching is my journey. My teaching journey is filled with wondrous sites, puzzling anomalies, and interesting side trips. This journey is my life challenge – and it sustains me. The daily process of teaching is filled with creating assignments, drafting exams, posting readings, answering questions, preparing lectures, and grading. Although I take pride in accomplishing these tasks with an eye to perfection; these things do not sustain me. And although I really enjoy being in the spotlight, lecturing only provides temporary sustenance and like a good jolt of caffeinated coffee, lecturing feels really good for the moment but has no real staying power. Staying power is important. The staying power – what sustains me – in my career comes from moments when I meaningfully reflect on the impact my career has on my courses, my students, and myself. This reflection is exhilarating – because it stimulates me to change – and when I change something to improve student learning, I do it. I mean I really take it to heart, gather my thoughts, scholarly reflect and then bam! I step outside of the box. Actually, I purposefully and gleefully dive off a cliff into the ocean, anxious to reach the expected and unexpected challenges of the water below. Wheeeee…..
My discipline sustains me. I think that everything about Biology is fascinating. Yet, I don’t imagine that I know all of the wondrous details about biology, nor do I feel obliged to cover all of these details for my students. The first time I was compelled to dive off a pedagogical cliff was when I realized that less content is more. I began critically analyzed the content I “covered” for students. Biology is a growing sea of facts that are often presented out of context and in overwhelming amounts. I constantly asked myself whether students needed to know a particular biological fact or concept to grasp the major emphasis of the topics we were covering in class. Consequently, I created courses that bore little resemblance to the content organization of the courses I had taken as an undergraduate. For the non-majors, this meant that we explored real world topics such as the impact of the human genome project, the biology of cancer, emerging infectious diseases and other tantalizing topics. For the biology majors, reflecting on the role of content resulted in me giving the students more responsibility to “cover” content on their own, pushing them to prepare for lectures and lab classes in a more meaningful way by holding them accountable for content using on-line quizzes, Socratic lectures, and other cooperative learning techniques. I recall many moments when I would be lecturing while having the realization that I didn’t need to cover some aspect of the topic. I would make notes of these experiences and still do because although all the details are fascinating, they don’t always need a spot in the prime-time agenda. My first pedagogical dive into the academic ocean was hard, but worth it. Now I constantly celebrate my discipline by thoughtfully delivering content and empowering students to embrace content that relates to the course, even if I didn’t “cover” it in class. My discipline still sustains me.
Implementing active learning environments sustains me. Before making a grand pedagogical dive away from the lectern, I was fairly content with myself as a teacher, lecturer, and biologist. I felt I had a firm grasp on the content I was delivering and felt that my students were happy and learning. But were they learning what I wanted them to learn? When the answer to this question came crashing down upon me – NO – they were not learning what I wanted them to learn. I was devastated. I didn’t really care if they knew the different kinds of blood types, I wanted them to apply that knowledge to real problems, I wanted them to use biology, to think differently about biology, and to stay excited about biology. My neatly organized, instructor-centered course was comfortable for them and me – but was completely missing the point. Ok, next pedagogical dive. I started, slowly at first, to implement a variety of strategies and technologies to engage students in learning such as cooperative learning, personal response systems (clickers), and pre-class warm-ups (Just-in-Time Teaching). Almost instantaneously the waters from this pedagogical shift welcomed me and I felt the impact and more importantly I could tell my students felt this shift in the waters and their interest and excitement about class piqued. To my surprise, I found companions during this dive and continue to swim regularly in the scholarly waters of evidence-based pedagogies, sampling and implementing techniques that will hopefully enhance the staying power of my course, not just on me, but for my students. Now my courses are designed to foster the kind of learning I want students to experience, the kind of learning that helps them realize the process-oriented goals of the General Education Program and the Biology curriculum. Now I continue to design and deliver an environment that contains dynamic readings that include on-line articles, podcasts, and video clips, warm-ups based on readings that students complete on-line prior to each class, cooperative learning class assignments that challenge student understanding of course objectives, interactive clicker questions designed to hold individual students accountable for learning, projects that increase skills in process-oriented learning objectives, such as finding reliable scientific resources, and non-multiple choice exams with questions representing multiple levels of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning. Implementing active learning environments still sustains me.
Working with my students to make my courses learner-centered sustains me. A few years ago while on vacation, I read Maryellen Weimer’s book on learner-centered teaching. I really thought as I began reading this book that I would be reading about my teaching journey, the essence of my teaching philosophy, the learning environments of my courses, and the strategies I was using to engage my students in learning. I was wrong. Although I was providing a learning environment that engaged students in learning … I was doing everything. I decided the course content. I controlled exams and assignments. I was responsible for student learning. I had ALL of the power. My class was instructor-centered. Learner-centered teaching in its fullest form represents more than creating a course where students are engaged. Rather, it represents a shift in the balance of power, function of content, role of the instructor, responsibility of learning, and role of assessment. In practice, learner-centered teaching gives students choices about content, responsibility for making connections between course content and other topics, opportunities to create framework that contextualizes content, control of methods used to determine course grades, and more. This seemed overwhelming to me. How could I let students do all of those things? Was I really prepared to take this pedagogical dive? I felt lost and wanted to delete all of my teaching files and start over, which felt like I would be jumping off a cliff into an empty pool. Unfortunately, I only had about three weeks to regain composure, reorient my journey, and attempt to make my courses learner-centered. Grounded by my faculty development experiences consulting with instructors about implementing new teaching strategies, I took some of my own advice – view the implementation of a teaching strategy as a continuum rather than an all or nothing approach. And so I made the dive and it was a spectacular experience. The best pedagogical shift I had ever made. The experience was so powerful, I felt like running to the top of cliff and diving off again, and again. Now each semester I reflect on past experiences, explore the literature, and walk into the classroom fully prepared to design learning WITH my students, not for them. Now, the students in the non-majors course select new topics each semester, reflect on the pedagogical value of the active learning strategies, and add value to assignments that ultimately measure whether they have achieved the learning objectives. And now the biology majors realize that I will not tell them everything they need to know to successfully complete each lab and that I will not answer every question they have. I continue to shift the balance of power and the role of the instructor for both of these courses toward the learner-centered end of the pedagogical spectrum. Now for each course, I talk less, they talk more, and they participate more meaningfully in their learning. Swimming in the learner-centered waters is still a challenge for me. It is hard to resist the urge to answer student questions during the course of the lab that they could answer for themselves by reviewing the lab manual. It is also hard to watch the students struggle with a complex, application-based assignment without trying to help them. But if I am patient and resist the urge to “tell” them or “help” them, I begin to see my students swimming along side me in the learner-centered ocean and although it is a struggle, we celebrate the experience and seek out new waters and future dives. Working with my students to make my courses learner-centered still sustains me.
Meaningfully involving students in biology content, active learning and the design and delivery of learner-centered courses sustains me. Working with them gives the mundane teaching tasks – creating assignments, posting readings, preparing lectures, and grading – staying power. Staying power is important. When you finally arrive at your grown-up job destination, staying power gets you out of bed each day. Staying power fuels the passion you bring to your work. Staying power turns the daily tasks of any job into the essential elements that help build a body of work, a career, and ultimately a lifetime. My staying power is change – the dive. More importantly, my staying power is taking students with me as we change and having them guide our journeys through the charted and uncharted waters of lifelong learning.
Carol is the executive director for the Center for Faculty Innovation and associate professor in the Biology Department. She directs a number of campus-wide programs that support the teaching, scholarship, leadership, and service roles of JMU faculty and has been teaching General Education courses for majors and non-majors since 1998. In 2005, Carol was honored as the Distinguished Teacher in General Education. Carol recently discovered the wonders of learner-centered teaching and applies this philosophical approach to her introductory course for non-science majors and the lab course for biology majors. Carol is still a biologist at heart and spends time with her undergraduate research students exploring tail development in the four-toed salamander,Hemidactylium scutatum. In her free time, you will find Carol doing the other things that sustain her – riding her bicycle, teaching a Step class at the Wellness Center, or cooking some fantastic meal with her family and friends in her fabulous kitchen.