How I Teach Biology

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The trickiest challenge a biology teacher faces is having to balance the need to develop an intuitive, integrative understanding of biology in the student with the sheer amount of foundational rote memorisation needed in biology. A student who can memorise everything but can’t solve an unknown will not be a good biologist, but neither will the student who “gets it” but can’t memorise the basic information.

I often struggle with getting this across – I’m not good at memorisation, so I do tend to overemphasise the intuition aspect of biology. Nevertheless, I’ve converged on a set of teaching methodologies to innoculate my students with the best of both worlds. I’m sure these are old hat for those of you with official pedagogical training, but most biologists who teach at university level don’t get that, and school teachers are often too burdened with the need to teach for the standardised exams. Hopefully these will give you some ideas to improve your students’ knowledge and understanding of biology.

My most common method is to give my students problems to solve, either as open-ended essay questions or as mathematical ones. This tends to catch many students off guard, and they will often be lost, especially at the start of the course when they’re not used to you. The usual way of doing it is to give them the problem in the middle of the lesson time, after the lecturing is done. I solve it in front of them, so the solving of the problem constitutes half the lesson, and I will pepper every step of the way with explanations based on the previous lecturing I was doing. The students are encouraged to chime in and help me out. Eventually, you will find that student participation will outweigh yours. When that point in the lesson/course is reached, you can rest assured that the students feel very comfortable with the material you’re teaching. Accounting for shyness and other such psychological factors, this will also allow you to identify students who have problems with the material, so you can approach them after class.

In order for this to be effective though, you need to make sure that your lesson is planned out thoughtfully, and that the students can follow what you’re trying to say. I don’t just mean speech-wise, but also logic-wise. The transition to the problem solving part of the lesson should not be sudden, it should follow on organically from what you were saying before. A great way to do this is to incorporate some history in your lesson – talk about the topic and what we know of it, but leave out one critical component. Explain that critical component by going through the experiment and data from that one super-important analysis done several decades ago with your students, and then integrating it with what you said before. Ask them to fill the gaps in the reasoning and logic – it’s what we’re supposed to be doing as scientists.

Implicit in this approach is the need to deconstruct the topics that you’re teaching. Your students know how to read, they can get the textbook from the library, and if you just plagiarise the textbook, they will just not bother with you. As a teacher, you need to distill the textbook material down to the fundamental ideas, and work off of them. Use the textbook as a springboard, but don’t parrot it.

One thing I have tried with success is to tell the students to do this process themselves. This is what they usually have to do when they have to prepare a presentation for a seminar, but there’s no reason why they can’t be given a textbook chapter or a paper to read and summarise. However, the only way this works is if you provide copious amounts of feedback. Of course, this should go without saying, but I’ve known several teachers who don’t give any feedback to their students. Needless to say, these are horrible people who should be banned from teaching – feedback is extremely important to students, and I’m very steadfast in my commitment to it. I spend 20 minutes discussing exams after the students have finished writing them (better to do it when everything is still fresh in their minds), I annotate all answers, I keep my door open for personal discussion at all times (I once spent 4 hours with one student in my office, even ordered pizza for dinner to get through it all).

One thing I have learned through my giving of feedback is that sometimes, my approach of doing things open-endedly and with student participation backfires. In these cases, the solution isn’t to force-feed them a ton of facts in a meaty lecture. What I do instead is take the content and make it more digestible. Instead of presenting the entire table of facts, or go through it all with them, I throw away the table and show them a pretty, simplified chart. Instead of having a list of points, I’ll do a flowchart. If the students are not responding, that means what you’re telling them is flying too far above their heads for them to even be puzzled by it,s o you will need to break everything down to smaller and more presentable pieces – highlight the title of your topic, show high-quality pictures and diagrams, use arrows, do practical demonstrations. Remember, they can always get the details from a textbook; your job is to put everything in the proper context.

In other words, put some extra effort into making your lesson appealing to everyone. Remember that while students come in many forms, there are some universal facts: they can all read, they know how to take initiative, they know where the library is. If you don’t make your lesson worth coming to either for extra knowledge or for more easily-accessible knowledge, you stand absolutely no chance against an “X For Dummies” book, or a Wikipedia page. Provide them with something they can get nowhere else – practical experience, a unique perspective, customised training – and you will have achieved all the goals your course should have, but mainly creating students that love biology and whatever subfield you’re teaching.