Breaking Down the Barriers Inhibiting Effective Learning Environments

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Yekaterina Miroshnikova, Molecular and Cell Biology (Home Department: Bioengineering)

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2013

I was very pleased and enthused to teach a biochemistry course at UC Berkeley over the last two summers. I took biochemistry as an undergraduate myself, and I remember the intellectual agony of integrating the principles of biological systems with inorganic and organic chemistry while simultaneously understanding those concepts in the context of the human body and how it works in health and fails to work in disease. The course was challenging, designed in two parts and taken over the course of two semesters. Therefore I knew that covering the same twenty chapters of Lehninger’s Principles of Biochemistry over the course of just eight weeks was going to be pedagogically challenging. And it was challenging for two reasons. The first reason was simply the difficulty of the material itself, especially in a context of an accelerated pace— biochemistry is at an intersection of many disciplines and it requires a solid foundation in biological and chemical sciences as well as mathematics and engineering — this is a rare combination. The second reason was the diversity in academic backgrounds of the summer students, which necessitated the ability to keep the more advanced students challenged and engaged while still delivering the entirety of the material to ensure that every student left the course with a solid foundation of biochemistry.

To solve the two challenges that this course presented me with, I decided to set up an unconventional discussion section environment. First, I strategically utilized the uneven playing field in students’ prior knowledge to our benefit by facilitating team-based learning, with me in the role of a discussion leader rather than an instructor standing in front of the room, in order to navigate through the dense and multifaceted material. This way everybody benefited from everybody else’s strengths. Second, I taught the entirety of the material in a hands-on and application-based style: I would set up scenarios within given organs of the human body, in health or disease, and present a variety of questions that challenged students to integrate the different pathways involved, highlighting key steps facilitated by key enzymes and discussing treatment modalities, etc. We simply went around the room discussing the biochemistry of the scenarios, each student taking it to the limit of his or her knowledge and then the next person picking up where the previous one left off. Initially I had to put a lot of effort into getting students to participate by essentially requiring it, but by the second week the discussion occurred organically and effortlessly.

I could tell that the students were engaged and genuinely interested in the material, and attendance was impeccable despite the fact that I posted detailed answers to everything that was covered in discussion sections. I knew that the students needed not only to grasp the concepts and gain the ability to integrate them but also to have solid materials to study with at a later time. This also motivated students to focus on engaging in discussion sections since they didn’t have to worry about taking notes.

I knew that requiring participation and oral communication around the newly learned material in discussion section could be challenging for some students, despite my best efforts to make everybody feel safe and comfortable to contribute. For this reason, at the end of week two, I tested the effectiveness of this discussion style by collecting anonymous written feedback as well as directly asking students to let me know what was and wasn’t working for them. I received overwhelmingly positive feedback through both my unofficial feedback session and UC Berkeley’s formal evaluation. I would like to end with a quote from a student’s official evaluation form that really resonated with me: “Kate did a fantastic job. Unconventional discussion style, scared me to death, but very effective. Time well spent.” For somebody who is as incredibly passionate about education as I am, this quote is the epitome of what I strive for.