This post is the second in our third annual series of reflections by first year faculty members.
Brian Darby, Department of Biology, University of North Dakota
My first year experience was learning how to manage effectively a large enrollment introductory lecture course of around 150 students, many of which are taking their second or third course in the major. The logistics of managing such a course are challenging, but I found more than enough support through CILT, OID, and the Alice T. Clark program to help make the lecture environment a worthwhile and meaningful experience for the students. I’m certainly no expert yet, and I expect that my skills will continue to improve over the next couple of years. Even more difficult than class management was figuring out the learning objective of the course. How far up on Bloom’s taxonomy do they need to be at the end of the course? How do I balance time spent on clarifying the basic terms and concepts with time spent on active learning activities? I suspect that as I gain experience I will continue to learn how to best maintain this balance and will likely find out that the two goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
But I think that the most instructive lesson that I learned over the last semester came during one of my first lectures. I was excited to find a published research paper that made the popular press and even integrated several of the concepts of genetics, evolution, and selection that were being covered in the class. Not only did it use much of the exact same terminology, equations, and notation, but it also demonstrated that what they’re learning is actively being researched in the scientific community and being applied to real-world examples! I described the main parts of the paper to the class and asked a few basic questions that tested their comprehension and recognition of course concepts. They did well. I ended with one final question that was a bit more challenging and required a level of critical thinking that I’m sure some, but not all, in the class were capable of, so I thought I’d give it a try anyhow. I gave them a moment to think about it, and even brainstorm with a neighbor or two. Ultimately, though, the class was silent, until one student in the front said “Just tell us the answer”
“No!” my inner monologue wanted to shout. “Just tell us the answer” should not be an acceptable sentiment among science majors, or any college student, but I fear it is, and I think I have a better understanding of one the course learning objectives. As much as other faculty depend on me to teach the basic concepts, terminology, and technical skills required for the upper-level courses they will take in the department (in my case, Biology), I’ve learned that it is also partly my responsibility to convey the understanding that they are now responsible for their own knowledge acquisition and that answers may not always simply be handed down to them. My students who will become a forensic technician, or a game warden, or an emergency room doctor won’t necessarily be able to ask their employer “just tell me the answer”. I assume this is true for your respective fields as well. My goal for the upcoming years is to use the introductory courses that I teach as an opportunity to instill the sense of excitement and ambition that would make a student eager to pursue their own answers.