Me, Myself, and Teaching.


In the past few years at Virginia Tech I have been fortunate to be a teaching assistant in a great diversity of classes. I started assisting in the general biology laboratory sessions, in which I presented a short introduction to a topic and then moved to practical component. Then I assisted in a physiology class which was lecture based. Thereafter, I assisted in an introductory class, in the Fish and Wildlife Department, composed of over 100 students; the instructor had a lecture system composed of a PowerPoint presentation and then we would break into groups where I facilitated student discussions within and between groups. Lately, I have been working with a group of undergraduate students that volunteer at Virginia Tech’s Black Bear Research Center (BBRC). I designed a series of workshops to educate students about different procedures and techniques that we use at the BBRC. In these workshops, I use different teaching techniques that allow me to show students the purpose of techniques and applicability and finally guide students while performing such techniques.

I have found that my teaching skills have changed over time since the first lab session I directed in biology. I am more approachable, I tend to listen to students more often and frequently consider their ideas to implement in class. I tend to frame the content in a “big picture” rather than focusing on details. I am now accepting of students making mistakes; I actually welcome those to introduce further explanations or spark curiosity in students. Even though I wanted to be a professor since I was an undergrad, I have found myself enjoining more and more my pedagogical activities because of my interactions with students. I feel more comfortable and energized while teaching. I want to walk around the room if I am in a classroom or I want challenge students performing an activity. My dry humor flourishes, very often under the radar on students.

My experiences, the professors I have taken class from, the classes I am taking for the graduate  teaching certificate, and professors I have worked with in teaching have made me realize that the art of teaching is not a static process. I have come a long way, but there is a lot more to go to improve my teaching skills, because I believe that I need to learn much more and do my best to excel as a future professor. I have also learn that teaching techniques are context dependent, and I need to refine the appropriate timing for when they should be uses to adequately stimulate students during the learning process.


Information Exploration in the Appropriate Environment is Crucial for Learning

I find our current standard teaching system and learning environment both counterproductive and mind numbing. Our world (e.g., culture, environment, and technology) has changed drastically in the last 1000 years, yet it appears that our typical classrooms got stuck in that era. Currently, there is a person in the front of the classroom delivering information or “important facts” to a group of people, students, facing that person to “receive knowledge”. Yes, it sounds like ancient times in monasteries of the catholic church, where there was a lector, of course reading a lesson or “important facts”, in a room with the best acoustics so the audience could hear well (remember, no electricity back then).

Information is no longer transcribed and no longer kept in monasteries. Much has happened particularly in the last 200 years; printing became available, many libraries are public, science is done outside of religious affiliations, information is shared in public media, nowadays most of the world can access the internet, most people have personal electronic devices, or can access a public one, to search information with in seconds. Then, why are we using the same “teaching” strategy today?

Limited access to information in the past determined that people needed skills to memorize facts; so a person with those skills where considered smart and “knowledgeable”. Our current teaching model still makes emphasis on memorization, whether it is for a test, or just because that is the way that our instructors learned the topic. Now, we have access to vast amounts of information that are impossible to memorize, therefore the skills that we need to develop today are related to critical thinking and creativity to facilitate learning in our students. Then, why are we using the same “teaching” strategy today?

The environment in which any biological activity happens is a limiting factor that determines an outcome, and learning is not an exception here. As acoustics where really important in those auditoriums back in the monasteries for other monks to acquire information; today we need to use different environments to engage our students in the learning process. Our societies have widely adopted digital technology and we can use that technology to develop learning exercises. These learning exercises should stimulate students to explore information, share it with the class and the world. However, these learning exercises require to break the traditional layout of a classroom. Instead, an engaging environment requires multiple projectors, not only for the typical lecture slide show, but also for students to connect their own devices to share with the class what they have just created or new information they just found. Perfectly arranged students seats are a big NO. Instead easy to move tables are ideal to rearrange the space as different activities demand. Then, why are we using the same “teaching” strategy today?

In conclusion, we are not the same as we were 1000 years ago and that includes our students. Then, why do we complain about what is wrong with our students today? Well, instructors teaching in an ancient format might be what it is wrong with our students today.