Developing Narratives for Aspiring Biologists

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Victor Reyes-Umana, Plant and Microbial Biology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2019

A game of hot potato, borrowing a book from the library, and how a crowd of people enters a room may not sound like relevant topics to bring up during a Biology 1A discussion—but for my students, these examples were essential to their understanding. One of the challenges in teaching an introductory course in biology is that the sheer volume of information provided over the semester quickly overwhelms students. The breadth of the course meant that the discussion topics on any given week could change from cell membranes to enzyme functions in nature. Additionally, students arrived with varying degrees of exposure to the fundamental concepts in biology. Hence, my lessons had to strike a delicate balance between using precise technical descriptions and less complicated, straightforward explanations. As a graduate student instructor, my goal was to ensure that my students absorb the new material and retain it as they progress through their careers in biology. In addition, my challenge was to identify how to weave a patchwork of information into a coherent storyline, intelligible to students from disparate backgrounds.

One approach I applied extensively during my discussion sections was making a topic relatable and continually supplying context for newly introduced topics. Additionally, I followed in the footsteps of my former teachers by incorporating the use of analogy, a tool I used often to develop new mental models for the subject matter. I would begin each lesson by introducing key topics and follow-up by providing an everyday analogy alongside it. We would discuss challenging topics like gastric hormone regulation in more approachable terms like feedback on a telephone or a thermostat in a warm room. After introducing a topic and its analogy, I would encourage students to supply examples of their own, which we would then discuss further. In addition to using analogies, I would also design handouts used during the lesson to build on the material from prior lessons. For instance, we would never discuss topics like gene regulation in isolation; rather, I would make a direct connection to topics from earlier lessons like inheritance, protein expression, and classical genetics. Developing these handouts was imperative to my success in providing context for the current week’s lessons.

The context- and analogy-heavy approach paid dividends in helping my students learn the myriad topics covered throughout the course. At the end of the discussion sections, I would further assess students by working through several “big picture” problem sets. These problem sets would ask about a topic covered during the lesson; however, students would also need to use their knowledge of previously discussed material to complete the questions. Since my lessons provided a summary of the current week’s material in the context of earlier material, most students would run through the problem set with ease. Whenever students did approach a roadblock, a simple prompt to one of our analogies (such as “hot potato”) would enable the student to work towards the answer themselves. Over time, the students became more adept at making connections with the course material on their own. In addition to learning all the technical jargon taught throughout the course; they were still also able to describe the material using common terms. Importantly, students left not only having learned and retained the material, but equipped with the ability to narrate the subject in their own words and convey their personal understanding of biology to others.