Five Ways to Get Scientific About Learning and Teaching

It is August, and many of us are preparing for the upcoming academic year. Whether we instruct students in classes, mentor students informally, or just give seminars on our own research, now is a great time to reflect on all the teaching we do. As scientists, we have the opportunity to view learning and teaching as a scientific endeavor, both in how we use the results of previous research and how we approach our own teaching practice. Below are five ways we can get scientific about learning and teaching.

Remember that learning is about changing the brain.
As biologists, we know that learning and memory arise from physical changes in brain cells. When we teach, it may be helpful to remind ourselves of the scientific consensus that learning occurs when neurons are repeatedly co-activated and that this process is influenced by the chemical milieu around those neuronal connections. For example, does our teaching give students repeated opportunities to strengthen associations between concepts and to practice skills we would like them to learn? Does it motivate and interest our students, potentially releasing neurotransmitters that tend to enhance learning such as acetylcholine, norepinephrine, or dopamine? Or perhaps would some of our practices instead trigger undue stress, which causes the release of hormones like cortisol that over time may impede learning?1

Collect evidence of student thinking regularly from everyone to inform what you do.
If learning and teaching are fundamentally about changing cells in the brain, it also means that we can approach these subjects like we approach our own science. We can ask questions about what our students are learning, experiment with various teaching approaches, and collect data, such as student writing or student attendance, to evaluate the outcomes. Taking this kind of scholarly approach lets us identify what our students do and do not yet understand and to iteratively improve upon our teaching.2

Collecting evidence regularly to guide our instruction can be simple. For example, we can ask the room a question or give everyone a “challenge statement” and have students respond to it via clickers or by writing their responses on index cards.3 Those of us who teach large classes can read a random selection of 30 or so student answers and still get a good sense of the difficulties that many people have. Just as large, unbiased samples are desirable in research, it is important to hear from all or at least a random sample of our students instead of only from the biased sample of students who are willing to raise their hands or come speak to us in person.

More evidence collection does not necessarily mean more grading! In fact, having “low-stakes” assessments graded for participation, not accuracy, allows students to focus on their understanding and reasoning instead of the right answer.4 It also lets us collect evidence before teaching the corresponding material, to anticipate areas where many students have misconceptions. It is particularly powerful to ask the same questions before and after teaching a particular topic to gauge how students have changed their thinking. 

Give every student the chance to talk or write about biology every time you meet.
Extensive research has shown that engaging with biology through writing or talking often deepens understanding.5 During these activities, students reinforce and apply their biological knowledge. In classrooms, lab meetings, or seminars, we can ask participants to discuss questions with each other or draw a diagram of a biological process on an index card. Activities involving writing and collaboration also give students the opportunity to tackle cases or problems that would be too complex for them to solve individually, allowing them to practice skills needed for doing authentic science.

In addition, having varied activities in class or meetings creates a welcoming culture for everyone. Some people are most comfortable processing their ideas by discussing them with others, while other people appreciate having time to collect and organize their thoughts through writing. In classrooms, having students discuss science with their peers allows them to form personal connections and feel less isolated.6

Analyze the extent to which your materials are inclusive of people from diverse groups.
As scientists, we know the value of having people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives in research. Members of our increasingly diverse group of students will be more likely to see themselves in science when we vary the types of people and names shown in our slides, include stories of scientists from diverse backgrounds in our classes, and invite scientists from diverse backgrounds to speak in our meetings.6 That diversity includes not only people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds but also people of various genders and sexual orientations, people from all socioeconomic classes, and people who are the first in their families to go to college. It also makes sense to avoid inadvertently making some people feel excluded, for example by checking to see whether any questions in a genetics exam implicitly assume all people are heterosexual.

In addition, most people, but particularly many students from underserved groups, hunger to know how science is relevant to their lives. Including connections between our material and real-world topics, like the cell cycle and cancer or industrial pollution, shows students that science can help address problems facing their communities.6

Build on the research other scientists have done on learning and teaching.
An increasing number of scientists have turned their research focus to how to educate students about biology.
We can use their work to inform our teaching practice. A good place to start is ASCB’s education journal, CBE—Life Sciences Education. In particular, the Evidence-Based Teaching Guides and the short review articles in the “Approaches to Biology Teaching and Learning” feature collection give concrete tips and are written to be accessible to everyone.

In short, as we create or review our teaching materials for the upcoming year, let us ask ourselves, “What are my goals for my teaching? What are some practices that I would like to keep doing, and what are some I would like to change?” By approaching learning and teaching like we approach our science, we can all become more effective and equitable instructors. 

1Owens MT, Tanner KD (2017). Teaching as brain changing: exploring connections between neuroscience and innovative teaching. CBE Life Sci Educ. 16, fe2.

2Handelsman J, Miller S, Pfund C (2006). Scientific Teaching. W. H. Freeman, New York.

3EdComm (2017). How to know what your students know before it’s too late. ASCB Newsletter 40(3), 20–21.

4Schinske J, Tanner K (2014). Teaching more by grading less (or differently). CBE Life Sci Educ. 13, 159–166.

5Freeman S, et al. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 111, 8410–8415.

6Tanner KD (2013). Structure matters: twenty-one teaching strategies to promote student engagement and cultivate classroom equity. CBE Life Sci Educ. 12, 322–331.

About the Author:

Melinda T. Owens is an incoming assistant teaching professor at the University of California, San Diego.