Teaching lectures at the ASM general meeting? Awesome!

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I attended a special talk at the ASM general meeting this morning entitled “NextGenMicrobiologist.”  The talk was primarily concerned with informing future and present instructors on the “next generation” of teaching techniques – which is luckily what I’ve been getting at MSU!  There were a few speakers, the highlight of which was Erica Suchman from Colorado State University.  She did an amazing job and I can see why she’s won all sorts of ASM teaching awards. Her talk was called “Training the Microbiologist of tomorrow:  What them practice what you preach” and here’s a brief summary of what she talked about:

  • Treat your teaching like you treat your research.  You have to read papers, go to meetings, and think experimentally about what you want your outcomes to be whenever you try something new.  If you don’t take this approach you’ll stagnate as a teacher and your classes won’t improve.

  • Technology is “changing the face of education” – an obvious fact but she moved past that quickly.  She realized that in today’s world of constant internet access and BYOD (bring your own device) there’s little need for memorization.  Thus, if your “lectures” are comprised mainly of facts…they’re essentially worthless.  Erica stressed that you have to let go of simply “covering” materials…you have to teach concepts, not facts.  If students understand the foundation they can build upon it easier later.  You don’t want to create a flimsy tower of knowledge that can topple – make something stable that will last.

  • Match your assessments to your teaching style – if you teach facts you must test on facts.  If you teach things that are higher on Bloom’s Taxonomy, then test on that.  She told the audience that she even lets her students make a 1-sheet detail sheet that they can bring to their assessments.  It apparently forces her students to learn what details are important (to put them on the sheet), and then forget about the details and focus on the big picture.  Smart plan!

  • WARNING:  Students are amazing at memorization.  Now, I know this doesn’t sound like a warning, but it is.  Students are good at memorization because it’s what most of them know how to do.  If you want them to do anything besides memorization you have to show them how and make sure they’re succeeding at it.  Give them multiple class periods to work through it and constantly communicate with your students about their work until both parties are happy with what they’re producing. 

  • Backwards design!  That’s about all I’m going to say on that, I’ve covered it elsewhere.

  • She loooooves clicker questions, but warns that HOW you use them is the important part.  Vomiting back what you just told them won’t help – she uses them to force students to apply the current concept to a new situation (much higher Bloom level than memorization).  She also is a fan of group work and claims a ~22% improvement in scores when she does group discussions (peer sounding boards). 

  • Off-topic, but she’s using 3D printed models to study antigens/epitopes so her students can play with the concept instead of trying to abstract it from the start.  I thought it’s a fantastic idea and you can find the models on www.thingyverse.com (apparently).

  • Teach your students to study constantly instead of cramming.  Have things due every week.  Yeah, every week.  Insane, right?  Oh, did I mention that she’s doing this in 100+ student classes?   What she’s done is to create online quizzes with a huge pool of questions (similar concepts, different questions).  Over the course of the semester they take these quizzes which are pulled from the pool of questions.  Each quiz focuses on a certain topic and they can take each up to 10 times– and all will have different questions.  Also, an overall score is provided but it doesn’t tell you which questions you got right/wrong.  Pretty slick – reinforce the same topics until they understand the overall topic instead of individual question.

“Teach smarter, not harder.”
  • Finally, the most impressive thing I learned from her talk:  She does group exams. These groups contain at least 4 members and she has 5 low-pressure (low point) exams over the course of the semester.  Give ‘em data (that she makes up) and make them interpret it.  But, the genius part of this is that they turn in the group exam and then she gives them each a clicker question quiz.  If the group members get >70% of the questions right they get 100% of the group points.  If they get <70% right, they get 70% of the group’s points.  Pretty slick!  Another hint is to allow a “page of dissent” where students who disagree with the group (and got overruled) can say why they disagree with a question and what they think the answer is.  If they’re right, they get the points.  If they’re wrong, they get none of the points.  High risk, high reward!  I was very impressed with the idea and thought it could actually work.

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