How do we know how to teach?

Everyone says you should thank a teacher. I can think easily back to the teachers that made a difference to me, just like you can. But how did those teachers learn their trade? How do we know they did the best possible? Where’s the test? Where’s the research? How do we become the best possible teachers? This was the topic of Peggy Brickman‘s presentation in Biology today.

She focuses on large courses in biology that teach close to a thousand students at a time. She calls the courses “general education,” something I suppose is more common at state universities. They are for students not majoring in biology, who might well not be majoring in science at all. Therefore, the first goal is to decide what to teach them. Peggy wants them to understand what a scientific truth is. If they get this, they can judge a lot of material for themselves. They can read the Tuesday New York Times science section. They understand what a graph shows. They can distinguish a good source from a poor one. And I also hope they learn to love science, its clarity, its novelty, its wonder.

There are lots of ways of teaching, from the traditional lecture-test to project and team-work oriented approaches. In the hands of a caring, inspired teacher, many different ways of teaching have the students remembering fondly for the rest of their lives. But what are they remembering? The committed teacher that saw to it they did their best? Exactly how the Krebs Cycle works? Exactly when they met their husband in chemistry class? Peggy wants them to remember how to think like a scientist, to become an informed consumer that can sort the nonsense from the truth. She wants us to evaluate our teaching, not just do it.

We use tests to evaluate what our students learn. We give some of them high grades and others low grades. But these tests do not really tell us what they will remember, or what we have added to their knowledge. To do that you have to give a test before and after the teaching opportunity. The test may need to be more process-based than content-based. If the classes are huge, the test should probably be multiple choice questions, carefully chosen for accuracy. Remember, this is to evaluate the teaching process, not the student.

In the education lingo, these tests are called instruments. Good ones are hard to come by, so Peggy is developing a new one. It currently has 29 multiple choice questions. It is being evaluated through use in the classrooms of several different kinds of universities, including my own. It is being evaluated by experts in the field. It is also being compared to existing instruments. It tries to get at whether students can identify a valid scientific argument, whether they can do a good search of the literature, whether they understand experimental design, and whether they can recognize bias. The students in her class learn this material by evaluating claims in the popular press, mostly through projects. They synthesize what they have learned, make graphs, and write text.

This work is not being done in isolation. You can join in if you want to, through this website. They work with people like Diane Ebert May at Michigan State University, in my hometown. She is an expert in analyzing data on teaching, and a general guru on teaching evaluation, according to Peggy.

I do a lot of things in ways that are similar to what Peggy discussed. But I don’t methodically work towards this kind of scientific understanding. I expect my students to use good sources. They have to graph information. But most of all, I’m concerned that they learn to love science, by owning their work, by publicizing it, by teamwork. I want them to be able to point to their projects and how they have informed on a blog, or a Wikipedia entry. Of course, I also want them to understand animal behavior and evolution. But am I meeting my own goals? Without a valid instrument to test my methods, I can’t really say.


Erica Harris and Boahemaa Adu-Oppong are likely to have learned a lot in our research lab.


A great group of Rice undergrads from the last time I taught animal behavior, abut the 30th time. Did they learn everything I hoped? I’m optimistic, and hope to keep up with them forever, since I’m Facebook friends with them!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in The joy of teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How do we know how to teach?

  1. Doug Mock says:

    It seems obvious to me that we learn equally from our very best teachers (what to try adapting to our own teaching methodology) and from our very worst teachers (what to avoid at all cost!). In general, I suspect there’s often an element of narcissism in that we generally teach the way we’d have liked being taught — we naturally cater to our own tastes.

    Then there is the idiosyncratic mix of things we do well vs. poorly, which probably reflects both our uneven sets of talents and experiences. I’ve often thought that the best training I ever got as a teacher/public speaker came from folk-singing in coffee houses as a ’60s college student (and some acting on stage while in high school). Both of these experiences showed me how to manage (not escape…just manage) the inevitable stage-fright that comes from standing up in front of people. And so I regard teaching is a form of performance art.

    That very experience base, in turn, is a complex mix of cause and effect. There was something in me back in high school/college that made me WANT to get up on stage in the first place, an element that truly shy people find unfathomable! So they cannot possibly draw on that experience when starting to teach; they must use different raw materials, including skills I surely lack. Happily, there are many ways to teach well, ranging from the flamboyant to the low-key. What seems unmistakable in general is that trying to cross over and teach in the Other Style is a recipe for disaster!

  2. Dear Dr. Strassmann,
    I’m so glad I had the opportunity to take your class the last semester you taught it at Rice! Effie and I still talk about it all the time. It is interesting to hear about teaching science from the teacher’s perspective. I think taking Dr. Queller’s lecture-based, structured class and your more project-based, creative class concurrently was a great experience since much of the material overlapped and the different approaches to learning it helped me gain a fuller understanding.
    Hope Wash U and St. Louis are treating you well!!

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