New science courses in the works

More introductory science lectures may soon include small group discussions and electronic quizzes before and during class next year.

Starting next fall, the Center for Scientific Teaching, founded by molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Jo Handelsman in January 2010, will design at least one new introductory science course for the 2012-’13 academic year that will incorporate her “evidence-based” teaching methods. Introductory science courses are normally taught in large lectures where students passively listen to the professor, Handelsman said, but professors should find ways to encourage students to actively engage in material.

“I think Yale will be a national leader in this,” she said.

Handelsman said the center is about to hire a post-doctoral student and a researcher to study how changes in teaching methods affect students’ learning. While she said she hopes to hire three more post-doctoral students next fall to work with affiliated professors on a new introductory biology course, she added that she would like the staff to eventually grow to include 10 or 20 post-doctoral students to work across the science curriculum.

Handelsman has just begun to discuss her ideas with introductory science professors, and so far they have seemed open to thinking about change, she said. In fact, she said one of the reasons she chose to come to Yale last year was because the faculty seemed willing to consider altering the curriculum.

“What makes her convincing is [that] she’s got the science and studies that [show] everyone’s teaching can improve, and the ‘how to’ behind it,” Yale College Dean Mary Miller said. “She literally wrote the book.”

Handelsman wrote the roughly 200-page guide to presenting scientific material, “Scientific Teaching,” in 2006, along with two colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard, who was chair of the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department when Handelsman joined the faculty, said she was recruited in part because of her teaching expertise.

“We hoped that she would bring and expand her nationally recognized efforts in teaching to Yale,” he said, “and she has done so.”

TEACHING PHILOSOPHY

Handelsman will incorporate into new courses the teaching methods she developed at the University of Wisconsin, where she started the Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching.

One of the ways professors could better engage students in large lectures, Handelsman said, is by asking them to work on a problem in small groups during class to break up long lectures.

“Even if all of the members in the group get it wrong, after discussion, most of them will get it right,” she said. “Talking about it is part of what stimulates the process.”

Professors should also evaluate how well students understand concepts as they teach, instead of just relying on periodic exams, so teachers can determine what they need explain more, Handelsman said.

For her “Genes and Environment” course, she asks students to answer questions electronically before they come to class, and spends extra time discussing concepts with which students struggle. She then asks students to answer another problem in class, she said, and when students submit their answers with electronic clickers, she can tell if their understanding has improved.

Handelsman said the modes of assessment most courses already do use, exams and midterms, could also improve to better stimulate “higher order thinking,” which the commonly-used multiple-choice tests fail to accomplish.

A large problem, physics professor John Harris said, is that not enough faculty members discuss their teaching with others at Yale, so a center like Handelsman’s is much needed.

“There needs to be a culture change, at least in the science faculty, in terms of teaching,” he said.

TEACHING VS. RESEARCH

Faculty members across departments expressed mixed views about the emphasis their colleagues place on teaching: five said they are impressed by how often professors discuss ways to improve their teaching, but four said conversations generally center around other topics such as research.

Psychology professor June Gruber, who joined the faculty last fall, said the amount of value professors put on teaching sets Yale apart from other universities.

“Faculty constantly are sharing how teaching is going, soliciting feedback from colleagues, and generally checking in with one another on how a course is received by students,” she said.

But other professors, such as Steven Smith, political science professor and former master of Branford College, said they find that teaching takes a very secondary role to research.

“Departments tend to focus so much on publications,” he said, “and not value teaching as much.”

Since the reputation of departments depends on the quality and originality of the research they produce, it is natural that professors concentrate their efforts on this aspect of their academic lives, said Penelope Laurans, master of Jonathan Edwards College and special assistant to the president of the University. Still, she said, Yale has a long history of excellent teaching.

A tenured English professor, who asked to remain anonymous because of his controversial opinions, said focusing on research improves teaching. Research filters into classrooms and provides insights that go beyond “classroom tricks,” which he said teachers use more often at small liberal arts colleges. He said Yale teachers are effective because they have much knowledge and intelligence.

“At a major research institution, research and teaching are inseparable from each other because they fuel each other,” he said.

The Center for Scientific Teaching has a hosted a series of speakers from other universities who have discussed curricular changes in their programs. Handelsman said between 40 and 60 professors, graduate students and post-doctoral students have attended each of the nine events.

The next installment in the Center’s speaker series will be held on Thursday at 12 p.m. in room 102 of the Kline Biology Laboratory.

Comments

  • concerned

    Kuddos to Mary and Tom as well! What a fabulous method for equitably distributing intro science teaching load among tenured faculty at Yale.

  • Skeptic

    Scientific Teaching or Teaching Science?

  • piersonpiersoncollege

    Teaching absolutely takes the backseat to research here. Intro science classes are nearly across the board godawful. Some of the higher up ones are, too. Having been taught a class by several professors doing “amazing research” in their fields, I can’t buy the English prof’s assertion that research makes for better teaching. Perhaps it does to an extent, but if the profs aren’t forced to make an effort to teach effectively, it just legitimizes their apathetic attitudes towards undergrad classes.