by Nadia Kurd, Molecular and Cell Biology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2014
My first teaching experience was as a GSI for MCB150, an upper-division course in Molecular Immunology. While I went into my first section not knowing what challenges to expect, one of my major goals was to ensure that all students felt engaged and included in the learning process. I was very lucky overall to have a highly motivated and involved group of students who actively participated in class. However, after the first few sections I noticed that a particular group of students regularly refrained from participating and seemed generally disengaged. While I originally worried that these students were having difficulty following the material, after grading the first assignment it became clear that, surprisingly, these actually were the students who demonstrated the greatest mastery of the material. It was then that I realized that they were not confused; they were bored. For the next few sections I strove to find an intellectual level for conducting class where all students felt engaged and included. I was frustrated to find that any time I catered to the more advanced students and presented more challenging topics, the rest of the class struggled to follow along; whereas when I continued to conduct class at a level where most of the students were comfortable, the advanced students again lost interest.
In an attempt to remedy this problem, I decided to try to develop “interactive” worksheets for class. These worksheets included a series of questions, or some type of chart or table that outlined the main points that I wanted to address in class each day, and the students could fill out the worksheet as we discussed each topic. My thought was that the more advanced students would treat the worksheet as a quiz and work ahead if they were bored with the pace at which the rest of the class was going through the material. This would allow them to really test their understanding.
To my surprise, the response to these worksheets was overwhelmingly positive, from students at all levels. As expected, the more advanced students worked ahead of the rest of the class to complete the worksheets, but then they remained engaged throughout the discussion, intent on “checking” their answers. Furthermore, writing down the answers to the questions ahead of time gave these students more confidence to answer those questions out loud, drastically increasing their participation in class discussions. As their participation increased, I gently prodded my advanced students more and more to guide the rest of the class through the material, using the worksheets as a guide. This was an optimal situation, because explaining the material out loud to others solidified their own understanding and made and them feel actively included in the class discussion, while directly benefiting the rest of the class. Realizing that others in the class could learn from them made my advanced students feel like valued members of the class discussions, increasing their efforts to become more actively involved.
Many of the students at all levels in the class made it clear to me that they found it very rewarding to have a study tool that they all worked together to compile. They even began to ask for these worksheets at every class! Overall, based on the drastically increased participation of my more advanced students, as well as increased student interaction and an overwhelmingly positive response from the entire class in my evaluations, I found these interactive worksheets to be a highly effective tool for encouraging student participation and cooperation from all sectors of the class. I have since passed these worksheets along to other GSIs for MCB150, who have reported extremely positive results as well.