by Sophie Dumont, Molecular and Cell Biology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2004
Having never taught before, I decided to teach Advanced Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to gain experience. First, I was shocked by the broad range of student backgrounds in my two sections. Some had mastered the concepts of the required classes and were dying to know more, some had simply studied and passed the exams of the required classes, and some were returning to school after long absences and did not remember taking those required classes. Second, I was shocked to find that, despite the above differences, the large majority of students had a poor idea that what they were learning in class existed in a broader context, that of research. The first few sections were frustrating to teach because I was not able to lead a section at an intellectual level which all students could fairly benefit from, and was not passing on what I really loved about the class material, the fact that it has been, or will soon be, part of a breakthrough experiment teaching us a little bit more about nature.
Perhaps naively, I decided to try and introduce my students to the research world. I hoped that research would appeal to students of all academic backgrounds: the better prepared students would have the additional challenge of relating class concepts to research, the students who were too interested in exams might find in research something even more exciting to be interested in, and the students with a weaker background might realize that the effort ahead is worth it given all the science that can be done and understood with the class material. If I were lucky, I could perhaps even motivate some of the students to try research themselves. After all, the research questions are what brought me to biology from a physics coursework background, and from there the class concepts were easier to learn. Throughout the semester, I used one of four strategies. 1) I described a key historical experiment and finding based on the concept under study. 2) I told the students about famous researchers currently using class concepts to address once intractable problems. For example, I told the students how Roderick MacKinnon had managed to crystallize membrane proteins, and immensely large task, and brought in some copies of that week’s Nature with his articles. 3) I told the students how I apply some class concepts in my own research, including some funny mistakes I made. This showed the students that real people use these class concepts and make mistakes when applying them — putting the students more at ease with asking questions they think silly, and given them a glimpse of the life of a researcher. 4) I asked the students how they would address a hypothetical research problem given what they had learned in class so far and a set of constraints such as time or equipment available.
I found my efforts well rewarded. Presenting the class concepts in the context of research put a personal touch to learning and got students more involved: it showed that research was done by people just like them, and not too much ahead of them, and was not a trivial process for anyone. I started seeing broader class participation (and attendance!) for students of all backgrounds, and broader appreciation and excitement for the class material. I was especially pleased with the participation of students of weaker backgrounds, and was often surprised with their reasoning in terms of research questions: they got the general idea right, although not the details, and this would give them the motivation and confidence to go and learn the details. In addition to improvements during section, I received numerous questions after sections and during office hours, more often about research I had presented than upcoming exams; it was a treat for me to reemphasize the class material in its research context rather than in an exam context. I discussed research possibilities with several students and was invited to research poster sessions of a few others a year later. As it turned out, Roderick MacKinnon won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry that year and it was great to talk to some students and realize that they remembered, and actually understood, his contribution and were proud of it.