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Welcome to my teaching dossier. To the left are links to a description of the teaching strategies I use, my contributions to teaching, a list of workshops that I have attended to develop my teaching ability, sample artifacts of the resources and tests I provide my students, and the teaching grants and awards I have received. A statement of my teaching philosophy is below.

I have three main goals when I teach. One is to convey to students why I feel biology (specifically cells, tissues, and biochemistry) is perpetually amazing. If students do not make a connection with the course material, they are not going to be motivated to learn (Ambrose et al 2010). Another goal is to ensure that students understand the evidence underlying our knowledge claims, which includes a consideration of the limits of science (Brewer and Smith 2011). Finally, it is imperative that students are placed in an educational environment in which active learning is possible: I try to structure my courses such that students are encouraged to actively engage in the material such that deeper learning is possible (Weimer 2013a).

Hence, when I teach, I am constantly considering approaches which draw students into the subject matter. I try to engage students in considering the implications of cellular and biochemical knowledge to their own lives. Cellular respiration is why we breathe oxygen. Ingestion of essential nutrients is critical for the construction of cell components that enables cell function. We don’t faint between meals, because metabolic regulation ensures that there is sufficient blood glucose for our brain and red blood cells.

One of the consequences of this approach is that it leads students to consider the implications of the knowledge they are acquiring. They cannot simply memorize the details. They must understand how the details interact with, and affect, each other. One thing that first year students have indicated to me that is significantly different between university and high school is that, although they learn similar material in high school, they did not understand how biology is an integrated whole. I think this is probably the most significant stumbling block for university students. They have a difficult time making the transition from modular learning to holistic learning. In my courses, the subject matter is subdivided into sections which provide students a structure for organizing their knowledge. This is similar to high school. However, I also require them to integrate these different sections so that they understand that cells/organisms are ultimately wholes, and not simply a collection of parts.

Another goal of mine is to enable students to consider the limits of our scientific knowledge. This becomes especially significant in Augustana's  4th  year capstone course for Biology majors: History and Theory of Biology. By analyzing the theoretical framework and historical contingencies of biological thought, I encourage students to think about testable questions, and the types of approaches that have been successful and unsuccessful in biology.

Another aspect to this is having students investigate our knowledge claims in biology: How do we know what we know? What is the experimental and observational evidence for our concepts? Although this is something that I touch upon in all of my courses, it becomes a major focus in 4th  year courses I teach, in which I make extensive use of recently published experiments during my lectures,  giving students the opportunity to interpret data, and explain the rationale of experimental design. I also use data analysis & experimental design problems in AUBIO 230 - Molecular Cell Biology, teaching students that scientific knowledge is built upon evidence, and how we interpret our experiments.

There are many biology educators today who advocate a conceptual approach over rote memorization.  I support this conceptual approach as indicated above, but not at the expense of students not learning biological vocabulary, which does require memorization.  Although it is possible for students to research how biological systems work, if they do not have the vocabulary, they will not have the search terms required to carry out the research.  I believe the biological details are analogous to the vocabulary necessary to mastering any foreign language.  One cannot simply gloss over learning/memorizing the words in a second language.  However, learning new words is insufficient to learning the language.  Grammar and speaking/practicing the language is necessary to become proficient.  Similarly in biology, the vocabulary must be mastered, but it must be placed within its proper context, and then used to to carry out biological investigations.  Terms, concepts, and practice must all go hand-in-hand to becoming a biologist.

One of the challenges that modern biology must face is determining the appropriate amount of detail at different educational levels.  There are simply too many for students to learn all at once.  One of the guiding principles I use when I teach is to ask myself before class, why do students at this level of education need to know what I am about to teach them (Weimer 2013b)?  If I cannot answer that question to my own satisfaction, then I need to adjust my lesson plan.  I believe that biology will continue to struggle with the appropriate level of detail, due to biology being the science of historical contingency.

I have become distressed, over the last couple of years, that students seem to be taking an instrumental approach to their education, thinking of their courses as simply boxes to be checked off in the requirements of their degree program. This is made manifest for me, when students entering a senior course express surprise that I expect them to remember what they learned in a prerequisite course. The result is that students struggle to come up to the level of the prerequisite knowledge necessary to continue their learning journey. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that students are too focused on learning what is needed for the exam, as opposed to focusing on what will prepare them for their future courses and careers: they view their courses simply as hoops to be jumped, which encourages cramming and superficial learning. To encourage active, engaged, and deeper learning, I have recently been experimenting with Team-Based Learning, which requires students to prepare for class prior to the topic being covered in class. Thus far, I have found that this creates time, during class, for students to communicate, practice, and apply their learning through peer discussion. Many in the educational literature term this flipping the classroom: rather than lecturing on text-book material and assigning practice problems for homework, the lecture material in the textbook is assigned for homework, and the practice problems are done in class within stable teams. I have been impressed by students' ability to take responsibility for their own learning, and also by their ability to communicate and apply their learning to experimental problems of data analysis and experimental design (Haave 2014). I am hopeful that this will produce students better prepared for subsequent coursework and future careers.

Ultimately, it is my goal that graduates of our university will be able to research – and communicate – their thinking as a result of my teaching.

Literature cited

Ambrose SA, Bridges MW, DiPietro M, Lovett MC, Norman MK. 2010.  Chapter 3 - What Factors Motivate Students to Learn? In: How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, pp 66-90. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. San Francisco, CA.

Brewer C, Smith D (eds). 2011. Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC.

Haave N. 2014. Team-based learning: a high impact educational strategy. National Teaching and Learning Forum, 23(4): 1-5. [final draft of this paper is available here]

Weimer M. 2013a. Chapter 2 - Research: Evidence that learner-centered approaches work. In: Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, 2/e, pp 25-56. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Weimer M. 2013b. Chapter 5 - The Function of Content. In: Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, 2/e, pp 114-142. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Created: 2007 May 10
Updated: 2014 August 11