Robert Powell, Ph.D.
Endangered Cyclura cornuta from Parque Nacional Isla Cabritos, República Dominicana
My teaching philosophy is best summarized as a composite of three basic statements: (1) an effective teacher must provide students with the opportunity to acquire, practice, and receive reinforcement of fundamental knowledge and skills; (2) a good teacher encourages students to think, not to accept information passively, but to question, analyze, and test via applications of newly acquired knowledge; and (3) outstanding teachers design courses of instruction which provide students with both realistic challenges and opportunities for success.
In the sciences in particular, students must acquire a working knowledge of the fundamental principles and associated terminology of a given area. Much of this material must be memorized. Yet despite patterns often heavily reinforced in primary, secondary, and (sadly) post-secondary education, rote memorization and subsequent regurgitation of facts and jargon should not dominate even this most fundamental stage of learning. The facts and jargon must be presented in a highly organized manner, showing the necessary connections, but without overwhelming the student with quantity at any one time. I believe that this presentation can be facilitated by providing students with information on etymology. A familiarity with word roots, suffixes, and prefixes can eliminate the need to memorize separately seemingly endless lists of essential words. Also incorporated into the overall process must be instruction and reinforcement of related skills, notably the communication skills of reading, listening, and writing. The student must be shown how to effectively use textual materials, how to listen to a lecture, how to write (from notes in class to assigned essays and topics papers), and how to orally communicate in a concise and accurate manner. The biology instructor should not assume the role of language professor, but must reinforce those lessons in the context of his or her discipline. The extent to which this approach is required will vary according to the level of instruction, becoming progressively less important, but never to the point of omission, as one moves from introductory level courses through upper-division courses to graduate instruction.
Even high levels of competence in mastering fundamental principles are of little value if application is lacking. Even in beginning courses students shall have the opportunity to connect ideas; knowing definitions of population, species, and evolution, for example, is meaningless if the student cannot apply these terms and related concepts to the realities that characterize these entities and phenomena in nature. The instructor must allow opportunities for processing and experiencing these applications.
Higher-level thinking skills, notably integration, analysis, and decision-making must be explained, modeled, and practiced. Further, these activities (and these are active processes) must be encouraged both within and beyond the immediate confines of a discipline. This is almost always best accomplished in the biological sciences by letting and encouraging (and occasionally forcing) the student to get his or her hands dirty in the laboratory or in the field (computer simulations are wonderful tools and should be used, but not to the exclusion of the real world). Learning about populations, for example, is little more than an academic exercise without the experience of seeing and comparing, much less measuring and analyzing, actual communities. Books and lectures can only complement nature.
In terms of implementation, the statements above mean that effective teaching must be multi-faceted. I have had the opportunity over the years and in a variety of settings to explore many methods and techniques. Some are suitable only with the small class sizes I typically encounter at Avila, but many are applicable in any situation. In presenting the facts and jargon necessary to establish a knowledge base, I try to use tools that appeal to a variety of learning styles. Traditional lectures are frequently the most efficient means of presenting large quantities of information and work well when dealing with auditory learners. Lectures work especially well when they are well-organized and presented in a dynamic fashion (using humor, gestures, intonation, real and preferably personal examples). Students wake up to stories, especially if the instructor is the butt of a joke or the victim of a humorous anecdote. An instructor also gains credibility when able to cite from personal experience applications of the ideas being discussed (this is the main reason science should be taught by scientists, not just teachers who know about science but have never experienced the process). However, visual learners require and even auditory learners benefit from seeing materials. Fortunately, many tools are available to address this need, from writing or drawing on a blackboard or using overheads or transparencies to films and videos and even actual specimens (few classes have more impact than those during which I present a snake or an owl or a raccoon to illustrate form and related function of an organism). Recently, the development of interactive video technology has made available new possibilities, in which a visual presentation is accompanied by an opportunity for each student to apply information and draw conclusions. Ultimately, however, the best learning experiences come from hands-on opportunities. For tactile learners this is essential, and students with preferences for any learning modality benefit. In biology classes, these hands-on experiences should take place in the lab or field, depending on the specific subject.
Development of higher-level thinking skills (making connections) also may be approached in a variety of ways. Opportunities to discuss ideas and applications are essential for reinforcing knowledge. Especially for purposes of modeling the necessary give-and-take of effective discussions, some exchanges are appropriate in the lecture hall, with guidance from the instructor. Often, however, small group discussions on selected readings from the popular or primary literature are very useful, and serve to involve the student who might never contribute in a larger group. Socratic exchanges are essential, in either the context of answering specific questions or as a part of informal exchanges in laboratory or field settings. Written assignments are also appropriate and necessary, particularly when comparing dissenting views on a controversial subject or analyzing the processes leading to new interpretations. These exercises are only of value, however, if the students have the tools necessary to accomplish the stated goals. These tools are primarily skills in thinking and communication, and my previous comments regarding the presentation, modeling, and practice of these skills apply. Biology relies so heavily on a composite of fundamental concepts from different disciplines that it provides an ideal vehicle for developing in students the intellectual ability to make connections. For these reasons, the curriculum at Avila requires that all biology majors take a course in evolution, ecology, or systematics, courses in which connections are fundamental rather than facultative.
Also, as learning is an incremental process during which the student builds on a known foundation by making connections with new, previously unknown, but related information and skills, frequent feedback is essential. Quality instruction must provide for such feedback, initially under circumstances entailing limited risk. Feedback and evaluation often are linked. To provide both in the context of examinations, I believe frequent tests are necessary (no fewer than four per semester in undergraduate classes). This minimizes the risk associated with an individual evaluation while providing feedback necessary to successfully (hopefully) address deficiencies before the next such event. In instances involving oral or written assignments, students should have the opportunity for a dry run, a practice presentation that is critiqued, but not graded, or a rough draft upon which comments and suggestions are made, but which also is not graded. Furthermore, any assignment submitted by a student deserves commentary relevant to the relationship between the instructor's expectations and the student's performance, preferably of a positive nature, but in all instances accurate and timely.
Minimizing risk and providing frequent feedback enhances the student's opportunity for success. A challenge is provided by the necessity of meeting expectations set forth by the instructor. These expectations may be either of a purely academic nature or skill-related, but are often combinations of both. Meeting the challenge shall be rewarded with a passing grade, meeting the challenge in an exemplary fashion shall be rewarded with a high grade. Students must earn grades in order to correlate success with the self-esteem that is derived from working hard, overcoming obstacles, and producing a product worthy of reward. All students should have this chance, but rewards must be meaningful in order to be credible and valid.
Finally, I believe deeply in the concept that students learn best about science by doing science. In an introductory course, this may be simulated through discussion, written assignments, or laboratory exercises. In upper-division and graduate classes the experiences must be real. Getting your hands dirty goes beyond the need to address a particular learning style, real questions must be asked, realistic solutions offered, and students must have a chance to choose from options based on their own experiences. I cannot imagine an ecology class, for example, during which no original data are generated, analyzed, and used to draw conclusions. I see investigative components as vital elements in nearly all biology courses. Research itself is, of course, at the very heart of science. Promising undergraduates and all graduate students must do science (research) in their preparation for careers in science. Instruction in research, as in a classroom, must make provisions for this need, with all the opportunities for feedback, dry runs, and success mentioned above. Specific methods may vary, maybe conversation rather than structured discussions or analysis of data and results rather than examinations, but in the context of higher education, research performed even by advanced students (and faculty) should be a learning process; and students involved in research should have their expectations for guidance rewarded.
In summary, an instructor must challenge students while simultaneously providing them with opportunities for success as they learn to do science by establishing a knowledge base, applying that knowledge and related skills to real and simulated situations, and ultimately conceiving, designing, and implementing a research project.