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2015 January 1

Becker’s ideas on improving undergrad teaching

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:51
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In Three Ways to Improve Undergraduate Teaching, Katrin Becker listed three ideas she thinks are important for improving undergrad teaching:

Take the Time
ID—do a decent job of instructional design. Don’t always take what you’ve done and rehash it.

I’ve come across far too many courses that really haven’t changed much in over a decade. We’ve learned some things in that time, and while I’m not proposing change for change sake, do things the same way year after year makes you look lazy, not skilled.

I have some courses that I redesign every time I teach them, others that get only minor modifications each time. The class that I’ve been teaching longest (Bioinformatics: Models and Algorithms) evolves the slowest. I generally redo only about one tenth of the class each year, and the last really major change was in 2009, when we switched from Perl to Python and all the assignments were rewritten. The lectures in the class have evolved to involve more class participation, but the content has not changed all that much in 15 years. The dynamic programming and sequence alignment parts of the class have grown, at the expense of phylogenetic trees and neural nets. I regard the dynamic programming material as the core content for the course, and that is where I’ve put the most effort into improving my pedagogy. I’ve also increased the amount of feedback I give students on their in-program documentation, after realizing that most had never previously gotten any feedback on the internals of their programs.

Teach Out Loud
Always be prepared to answer these two questions: Why are we doing this? What is it good for?

I’ve said this before. I’m not saying that everything we teach needs to be immediately applicable in a practical setting, but you need at least to be able to connect the dots for your students. You need to be able to explain how this helps the students, and how what they are learning fits in to the big picture. If you can’t, then maybe they don’t really need to learn it. If you won’t do this, then shame on you.

I do try to explain the reasoning behind the choice of assignments and choice of teaching styles, but I’m not sure that I remember to do it with every class. It is difficult, when you’ve said something 100 times, to remember exactly who you’ve said it to. Most of the stuff I teach is very applied, so it is pretty easy to explain why a particular assignment is useful, but I do have to teach some stuff for transference, which is harder to communicate. A lot of the electronics course, for example, does not seem particularly relevant to students in the biomolecular concentration, so I step pretty hard on the universal engineering design practices: decomposition of problems into subproblems with well-specified interfaces, documentation of the reasons for design choices, careful attention to units and graph axes, finding data sheets for components of the design, paying attention to details as well as the big picture, … . I’ve also used the class as a time to talk about imposter syndrome, as many of the students feel out of their depth in their first (and often last) electronics course.

Turn the Tables
Faculty need to be students from time to time. For PD, and to encourage reflection on teaching

Remember what it is like–assignments, exams, … .

I think everyone who teaches should have to TAKE a course, say, every 3 years. For faculty in higher ed, that means taking an undergraduate course—FOR MARKS—and the grade earned becomes part of your public record. Also, it must be a course outside of your immediate area of expertise. If you can’t do that, then maybe you shouldn’t be teaching.

I used to do this all the time—in fact, for many years I regarded taking one course a year as a good norm, but it has probably been a decade since I last sat in on someone else’s lectures and did the homework and exams. I got out of the habit of doing it, with the excuse that I was too busy, but I did not stop learning. I just switched to a more self-taught style (see, for example, Physics posts in forward order for my learning of calculus-based physics with my son, or increasing my knowledge of electronics for the circuits course).

Although I’ve always done the homework and exams when I’ve taken courses (with permission of the instructor, of course), the grades have never been recorded. I would probably have been reluctant to take the humanities courses (like Japanese literature in translation or Campus architecture) if my grade would have been a public record, so I can’t agree with Katrin on that point. I think that making the grades public would be counterproductive, as most faculty would choose the lowest-risk courses—ones where they had already learned the material before taking the course. This would turn the courses into a bureaucratic exercise with no pedagogic value—and faculty certainly don’t need more bureaucratic exercises! In any case, publishing grades for students is illegal in the USA, because of FERPA, though Katrin as a Canadian professor may not be so constrained.


This spring, I’ll be doing something else that I’ve used to increase my learning—teaching a course in a subject I’m not an expert in (Banana Slug Genomics). Luckily, I’ll be co-teaching the course with someone who is an expert on genome assembly of eukaryotes.  I see my role in that class as more a facilitator of learning than as a “teacher”—I know some of the material and can pass it on to the students, but a lot of the course will be an exploration of the tools now available, about which I know little, as they have changed enormously since I last taught the course four years ago. I expect to learn a lot along with the students in the course.

Part of the problem with taking courses is that my workload has increased—I’m teaching six courses this year, rather than the two or three I used to teach, as well as being program chair, undergraduate director, and de facto faculty adviser for the bioengineering program. I can’t even complain to the department chair about not getting the course relief that I’m supposed to get as vice chair for the BME department, as I’m the one who puts together the curriculum leave plan and I assigned myself the load—we needed the course relief money to cover the instructors we were hiring for other courses, and there wasn’t enough left to unload any of my courses. (The program chair and undergraduate director position, which is easily three times the work of the vice chair position, does not get any course relief.)


1 Comment »

  1. These also work at the high school level. Some courses seem to never change, i.e. high school math. Math teachers can be very conservative and inflexible. But the needs of students do change. A good teacher has to look outside the school to see what is happening in the world.

    Most schools teach the same things taught 100 years ago in about the same way. We still teach synthetic division of polynomials. I think it might be better to introduce WolframAlpha and teach why to do polynomial division.

    Teachers should be required to learn something new, something out of their comfort zone, every couple of years. It is important to be somewhat familiar with the feeling of fear and tension a student is regularly subjected to when introduced to new material. Professional development should be a required part of a teachers load, not something added on as an extra or on their own motivation.

    Education has to be dynamic or the students will see the loss of relevance. Most high school teachers are very static, it is their comfort zone.

    Comment by gflint — 2015 January 1 @ 18:22 | Reply

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