by Alexander Kauffman, Integrative Biology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2000
In the Fall of 1999, I taught an upper division course in Animal Behavior in which one of my students was a blind woman. Up until this point I had never taught a student with disabilities before, specifically one who was visually impaired. Most courses in biology are visually extensive, relying on numerous charts, figures, and diagrams to illustrate important concepts, and the course on Animal Behavior was no exception. Much of the information presented in lecture was in the form of pictures and graphs and almost every assigned reading included additional figures and charts that either contained data or diagrammed processes. Such emphasis on visual learning presented an obvious hurdle for my student. It was clear early on that she was having a difficult time understanding the course information, as her lecture notes were based only on what the professor or I had said, and completely lacked anything that was presented on the chalkboard or overheads. Furthermore, most of the reading and homework assignments required analysis of figures and graphs from various articles and without being able to view the diagrams, she was clearly unable to perform this task sufficiently. When the issue first arose a few weeks into the semester, she was understandably frustrated with the course and her performance in it was low.
In order to overcome this learning obstacle, we decided that I would meet with her privately, outside of my regular office hours, approximately once a week to go over lecture material. Additionally, I agreed to verbally review the reading and homework assignments with her, guiding her in completing the assignments without giving the answers away. Admittedly, without the use of diagrams or figures, I initially struggled in our weekly meetings to explain clearly the important information and concepts that were being presented in the lectures. I was personally amazed at how much emphasis was (and still is) placed on visual aids in learning about biology, and it was obvious that she was surprised as well — she admitted that she had taken few courses which had depended so heavily on diagrams and pictures. This course posed a challenge for both of us, for me on the teaching end and for her on the learning end. Even so, we stuck to it, and what transpired over the next few weeks was a rigorous effort on my part to mold my teaching of biology into a form that she was easily able to access. This consisted primarily of explaining in words not only what a figure looked like but what important information it was trying to convey. Oftentimes, this was best achieved by first explaining what the figure looked like in concrete terms, and then discussing the same information in a new way that did not rely on the figure. This follow-up aspect required me to be creative, using metaphors or real examples from her own life that could be compared to the biological concept at hand. On more than one occasion, I even attempted to use a physical learning technique by having her touch or feel things in the room in a particular way or pattern in order to relay a general idea or theory that was implicit in the biology being taught. We had to work at it, but by the end of the third week our personal meetings had evolved to be stimulating, creative, and most importantly, effective in her learning biology. This was evidenced by a steady increase in her overall performance on course assignments and exams, and just as importantly, an increase in her enthusiasm and interest in the course itself. Indeed, in our first weekly meeting she had discussed the possibility of dropping the course, but as the weeks passed this idea disappeared, and she eventually went on to finish the entire course.
This is one example of how I was able to help a student with a specific learning need. More importantly, however, my teaching as a whole benefited from this process. As the semester progressed, a larger and more general issue became clear to me: different students learn in different ways. This idea applies not just to students with learning disabilities, but to all students. Some students are visual learners, requiring pictures and diagrams to process and understand information. Other students are auditory learners, learning best through listening, word-for-word note-taking, and a focus on memorizing definitions and categorizing facts. Additionally, there are many students who learn best through example and active participation. Indeed, just as there are many things that are best learned through practice or through direct observation, there are many students who learn processes and concepts most effectively by observing them in real life or, if possible, by actively participating in them. Realizing that different people learn in different ways, I believe, vastly improved my teaching, not only for my blind student but for all my students. Throughout the remainder of the semester, I attempted to always explain things in more than one way, constantly accessing multiple modes of learning. Thus, every time I drew a diagram, I also verbally explained what I was drawing and why I was drawing it in that way. Furthermore, I would then follow this up by creating a scenario or metaphor outside of science that students could personally relate to which illustrated the same underlying principles of the course material. Presenting the same information in different ways, I believe, allows for better teaching in that it allows students with diverse learning abilities to access and understand what you are trying to teach. Based on the performance of my students in the classroom and on graded assignments, I believe that my teaching has continued to improve and become more effective, whether it be in one-on-one situations, as with my blind student, or in a large classroom setting. I hope to apply the valuable information I gained from this experience to my future teaching.