Learning about Teaching:
An Undergrad's Perspective on CAE's Teaching Excellence Workshops
Angie Wolfgang, Cornell Univ. & Gina Brissenden, Univ. of Arizona
This Month's Teaching Strategy comes to us from Angie Wolfgang (Cornell Univ.). Angie attended our CAE Teaching Excellence Workshop in St. Louis this summer. Two things that make her perspective so valuable to our community are that Angie is an undergrad and she is a physics major! For those of us who are currently teaching, or have in the past, how rare it is that we get to hear open and honest thoughts from our students. For those of us who are currently students, and who will be our next generation of astronomy instructors, how nice it is to hear that we are not alone in our desire to care about education issues, and frankly, to hear that we are not alone in our frustrations about our education. Angie, thank you for providing your reflections on our workshop and on your education. We think your insights into teaching majors and graduate students, and their relationship to the STEM pipeline, should make us all take pause and examine teaching in all astronomy courses—not only Astro 101. So, now to Angie! Oh, and "way to be" Angie's Advisor for suggesting she attend!
With my luggage in tow, I stepped out of the elevator and tiredly surveyed the room before me. I had just flown on an early morning flight to St. Louis in order to catch the start of a teaching workshop which my advisor had offhandedly suggested I attend before the 212th meeting of the AAS began in earnest. Without really knowing what to expect, I had signed up for the workshop, figuring that, worst come to worst, I could quietly sit in the back and doodle on a piece of paper. This worst-case scenario intensified somewhat as I stood there in the doorway listening to the babble of conversation: I quickly realized that I was surrounded by college professors, researchers, and educational specialists and that I stuck out like a sore thumb as a lowly undergrad who still didn't know what she wanted to do with herself after graduation. After I stowed my suitcase and the workshop began, however, it immediately became apparent that I would not be spending the day doodling, and not just because the presenters charismatically coerced us into participation. No, I actually found myself completely enveloped in the discussion. Here, I gradually recognized, was a message relevant to everyone in academia and other higher educational systems. Here was a message worth listening to.
The workshop that I speak of is already familiar to some of you. Presented by Edward Prather and Gina Brissenden (University of Arizona), this two-day-long professional development session explored ways in which professors, postdocs, graduate students, and even undergrads who teach or TA introductory astronomy courses could use learner-centered, active teaching approaches to go beyond the all too typical lecture format of these classes in order to help their students get astronomy and become personally invested in their learning. Astronomy 101 for non-science majors was in particular the target course for this workshop, as it statistically has the highest enrollment in any given astronomy department and most effectively reaches the undergraduate population who will eventually become K-12 teachers and the general public outside of the scientific community. If we scientists are to find programmatic and financial support for our research from politicians and voters, these are the people who we need to infect with an appreciation for science.
As for me, the lowly undergrad, I discovered that I held a unique perspective among the workshop participants. Only a few years removed from my introductory physics sequence, and only a few weeks removed from my junior level physics classes, I came into the workshop with a very disillusioned view of college-level science courses. In fact, my disillusionment with physics had become so severe that I'd contemplated abandoning my physics major only a few credits from completion and thus my dream of becoming a renowned astronomer. Why was I, a student who loves discovering new knowledge in the wonderfully logical, critical approach of scientific inquiry, seriously considering ditching what I was good at and what I enjoyed doing? In short, I was frustrated. First and foremost, I was frustrated with the difficulty of the material, but that is to be expected, as physics is not easy. I have experienced this kind of frustration before, and I am stubborn enough of a learner to overcome it. What made this frustration seem insurmountable, however, was the fact that it was compounded with other more intangible frustrations. I was frustrated with the egotistic, self-conscious classroom environment which made it difficult to publically admit confusion with the most basic concepts; I was frustrated that my classmates did not seem to want to participate in the non-judgmental interaction and discussion that I needed to understand the material; I was frustrated with the isolating sink-or-swim attitude which I perceived my professors and other students to have; I was frustrated with going to class every day, sitting through fifty minutes of lecture, and understanding thirty percent of it; I was frustrated that I was learning to dislike something that I knew deep down I wanted to understand; and I was frustrated with being frustrated.
Fortunately, CAE's Teaching Excellence Workshop provided a means through which I could thoughtfully extricate the different sources of my frustration and practice teaching methods which could alleviate some of these frustrations for my future students. Before this workshop, I had already suspected that one reason why I felt that I was not learning very much in my college science classes was because there was a deficit of interaction between teacher and student. I had learned in an education class I'd taken at Cornell that there are several different styles of teaching, two being the teacher-centered approach and the learner-centered approach. The former can be characterized by lecture, by the teacher imparting a predetermined number of facts and procedural explanations to his or her students; the latter can be characterized by a line of questioning from the teacher in response to the students'answers. In the transition between high school and college, the teaching style often shifts to a teacher-centered approach. The reasoning usually offered in response to this phenomenon is that in college a professor is expected to teach more material in less time to more students, and the most efficient way to do this is through lecture. While this assertion is not incorrect, it does not address what is lost in the transition: the evolution of a student's learning from factual memorization to a deep comprehension of underlying knowledge structures and processes, which most reliably results from the exchange of ideas between teacher and student, and student and student. The CAE Teaching Excellence Workshop corroborated this idea—that learner-centered instruction is needed for deep comprehension of underlying knowledge structures—and took us one step farther: it demonstrated specific teaching tools we could implement in the classroom to facilitate this exchange and, most importantly, explicitly illustrated how lecture- and learner-centered approaches could be integrated, with class time to spare, to cultivate the most efficient and effective classroom environment for the students.
I have come away from this workshop with a renewed sense of purpose for my major and for my career. I have been encouraged by the fact that I am not the only one frustrated with the lecture-based educational system, and I now know how to actively address the sources of my frustrations: I simply need to provide myself with spaces for Socratic dialogue and other kinds of interactive feedback. Of course, creating this environment for myself would be much easier if the other students in my major realized the importance of interactive learning to the extent that I do now, as study groups are a natural place to create such spaces. Thus, it is extremely important for other undergrads and grad students to attend this workshop and other active learning professional development sessions like it. If all the physics majors in my classes deeply understood the value of interactive questioning about basic concepts, the egotistic, self-conscious classroom environment would evaporate, and students could focus more on learning than on how "smart" their classmates perceived them to be. Moreover, experiencing such a workshop together could effectively break down the barriers of isolation and the perceived each-(wo)man-for-(her)himself attitude which prevent us from learning with each other. And perhaps most important of all are the long-term effects of such a workshop: all professors and TAs were students once. If they had been students who understood why active learning is so valuable because they had experienced it themselves and consciously reflected on its worth, and if during one of these workshops they had learned how to practically implement it in the classroom, then they could apply these techniques themselves and perpetuate the tradition of effective teaching.
As far as I am concerned, CAE's Teaching Excellence Workshops are a fantastic start in addressing the ineffectiveness of solely lecture-based courses. However, it's only that – a start. Enacting learner-centered approaches in courses for non-science majors is an excellent way to reach the general public, but it is the science majors who eventually become the teachers. If we are to truly enact change, then we must illustrate how active-learning approaches can greatly improve performance and understanding among major and graduate courses, not just in Astronomy 101. The need for active learning is there: in order to attenuate the "leaky pipeline" effect and boost the number of STEM graduates, frustrations such as mine must be addressed. Some students have taken the problem into their own hands – The Compass Project at the University of California, Berkeley is just one example – but for most of us, the real source of inspiration must come from what we experience every day: our major classes. Considering the substantial potential for improvement in the retention of STEM majors, the entire scientific community can benefit from the integration of learner-centered instruction into these traditional lecture-based classrooms. All it takes is an open-minded department, a few willing professors, a handful of outspoken, frustrated students, and the facilitation of targeted workshops such as these.