Being critical of my teaching

I am a teacher but I had limited training on how to be a teacher. I have taught several times in the past and I am currently teaching a large undergraduate biochemistry course. I am passionate about teaching and I make sure to put my heart and effort in every single one of my course sessions. However, I acknowledge that my teaching practices are more often a product of empirical knowledge rather than theory. In the past couple years, I have had the opportunity of learning a bit of the pedagogy fundamental knowledge in courses I have taken at Virginia Tech. I constantly think on how to incorporate practices derived from this knowledge in my current endeavors and compare it to what I have done in the past.

In this post, I want to reflect on my teaching experiences under the light of critical pedagogy and some of the work of Paulo Freire. Perhaps, the most glaring fault on my teaching is that it is still partially found under the “banking concept of education”. When I teach biochemistry to 280 students, my course sessions follow a lecture style teaching. I give my students the content they need to complete the learning goals we define for each topic. They listen to me lecturing and ask questions if needed. I follow this structure, partially because this is how I was taught in the past and partially because this course has been structured like this for years.

As a young professional, and most importantly as a graduate student, I struggle with changing procedures that have been followed though many years. The best solution I have produced for this problem is to make little changes that in my mind can make a difference. For example, I have started to include several opportunities for active learning during class. I include questions and problems that we work together individually and then as a group. This way I can give each of my students a voice in the class. I also have changed the assessments to favor critical thinking over memorization. Using this approach, my students have shown their ability to truly understand the material.

Freire also talks about the importance of avoiding the objectification of our students. Our students are humans and we need to treat them with the respect and love they deserve. It is hard to do so when you are teaching a 280 student class fully online, specially because turning the camera on during the Zoom sessions is optional. Despite these challenging conditions I try my best to see my students as individuals and treat them as such. I host office hours every week and I make sure to ask each of them for their name, their major and what they want to do after graduation. I also accept that we are going through very challenging times, and I have tried to be extra flexible in terms of deadlines and missed work. At the end, we are all going through the same pandemic.

In the past, I also was very afraid of showing my students my weaknesses, but now I embrace them. I think this is a clear example of a way to humanize myself and in turn humanize my students. It is challenging to reflect on our own teaching, however I think it is important to do so. As graduate students we have the power and duty to update the teaching practices of the departments that we work in. This actions will benefit us, our students and our fields.


Short thoughts on banning technology in the classroom

I believe that in our day and age, it is very hard to completely subtract the technology from our classrooms. The new generations have an innate need for technology when learning. If we think about it, every time we don’t know something we quickly google it or watch a YouTube video about it. Personally, as a student, or even in work related meetings, I constantly look in my phone for concepts and visual aids that help me understand the context better. Therefore, depriving the students from their day to day learning tools might be detrimental for them. Furthermore, as we have discussed as a group, technology should be used as a tool to learn in class. For example, in the course I teach, I include several questions the students need to answer in real time using their devices. If the students are engaged in the classroom they will not get distracted with their phones and laptops, even when they are using technology for learning or not. Lesson plan and course design are the first tool to overcome some of the hurdles associated with technology in the classroom.  Although there is some data that suggests that technology might be detrimental for learning, I think the benefits outweigh them. In summary, I am a supporter of technology in the classroom!

Applying problem based learning in a large class

In my education as a teacher, I have learned the importance of active learning and problem based learning in the classroom. I also reflect in my time as a student, and in retrospective I learned the most when I was challenged with applying my knowledge in to a problem or a case study. This is why in the class that I’m teaching at the moment, I am including questions and problems as part of the course.

The biggest challenge I have in my class is that I have 280 students, and the time and care I want to invest in good problem design, grading and feedback is severely limited. I have opted to implement two measures to overcome this challenge:

  1. I include small problems in the form of multiple choice questions in each of my lectures. This questions are only graded for participation and not for correctness, becoming low stakes assignments that allow the students to think without the pressure of grading. We review this short problems immediately during lecture so the students receive feedback in real time.
  2. I designed 6 assignments that the students are expected to complete through out the semester. These are 3-4 short problems where the students need to apply what they have learned and apply it into the solving the problems.

Based on the feedback I have obtained from my students, they really appreciate both activities and they value how these problems have helped them succeed in higher stakes assignments such as quizzes and exams. I am constantly thinking on how to improve on my teaching, thus I believe in future classes I will modify these activities. One thing I want to include is more collaborative learning, for example I want to start giving them time to discuss in class with their peers before submitting their answers. The end goal for me is to be the best instructor so that my students can learn in the most optimum way.

My biggest challenge in inclusive pedagogy

I want to believe myself as a champion of diversity, inclusivity and equity. The struggles I’ve overcome as a human, derived of society’s response to my own identities,  have built a deep empathy for others. As a member of an under-invited group that has been marginalized by my culture, I have seen first hand how our upbringing may negatively and some times unknowingly affect the way we act onto others. Luckily, these challenges, and the progressive environment that surrounds me, have allowed me to develop awareness of my own biases that I need to overcome to be a better person, and in turn, a better teacher.

One thing that has been a bit harder for me to understand is the fact that this experiences, even though truly challenging and unfortunate, are an advantage that I have over people that did not experienced similar hardships in their lives. If I did not go through societal rejection, neglect and underrepresentation, it would’ve been harder for me to understand the challenges that, for example, women have in science or African Americans in higher education. It took me years of reflection, getting informed and discussion with friends and family to get to where I am, and it is hard for me to acknowledge and accept that everyone is at different points in this journey.

That is my biggest challenge when I think of my actions on diversity, inclusivity and equity. When I have discussions with particularly stubborn peers or when someone criticizes the inclusivity strategies I put in place in my classroom, I get frustrated on their lack of understanding. I need to accept that even when my actions did not get the immediate effect that I was looking for, they might contribute to their integral growth on these topics. Just two days ago, when having a heated discussion with a close friend about underrepresentation of women, I had to accept that I wasn’t going to change their mind in one night. My role in their journey is small, but it is still valuable and I will not stop taking action!

I need to recognize that I still have a long way to go on my own journey, and every day and every interaction I take makes me grow into the person I need to be in terms of inclusivity, and how it can I tailor my teaching to be the best for every single one of my students.

Finding my true teaching self: my past journey and my future path

The first time I taught here at Virginia Tech, I was in charge of two lectures for a large class of 300 students. Back then, I had little teaching experience, and I decided to use the course instructor’s teaching style to deliver the material. I tried to follow his unstructured, figure-less and serious way of delivering the material. I think this style might work for a professor with years of experience, but not for a relatively novice instructor. Even though the experience wasn’t that bad, I think I did not perform at my best. The next year, I was in charge of teaching half of the course, and from the first day I decided that I was going to do things my way. I believe that was my first try at finding my authentic teaching self.

Now I know a bit more of how to be my own self to succeed in the classroom. I have a serious side, where I prioritize organization and structure. The carefully designed course and lessons with detailed sequence, make me comfortable and confident when leading a lecture. I’ve actually received positive feedback form my students about the organization of my classes. In the other hand, my “goofy” personality and out-of-the-box way of thinking leads me to use funny examples, personal experiences and interesting questions/facts as examples to decorate my lessons. For example, I sometimes use smiley faces in questions and assessments. I have not received feedback about this part of my teaching, but I believe it helps me feel relaxed and make myself look accessible and relatable.

What is the next step? Every time I’m teaching I’m learning more about myself, my teaching self and what I want to do. For the last couple of years, I have taught the same class: a large undergrad class that covers biochemistry concepts for non-biochemistry majors. I want to have more diverse teaching opportunities to learn about myself and improve my teaching abilities. A smaller class of advanced students, an introductory class for freshmen, an applied concepts course closer to industry’s needs, these are all examples of course environments where I want to find more information about my teaching self. I still have a lot to learn about myself and about teaching, but I know that my ultimate goal is to be a successful instructor and make a difference in my student’s life.