Having recently putting together my teaching dossier for a few interesting jobs, I've been thinking more about teaching styles. I've been teaching full time since 2006, mostly sophomore level Bio courses for majors. In the last four years I have become a big fan of incorporating metacognition and embracing nontraditional lecture formats (call it flipping if you like) when possible. These two changes have increased student engagement (anecdotally, I should quantify it better) and I can see evidence of student learning in class, which is always nice. Metacognition in particular is a good fit for sophomore level courses, as it is when students are transitioning from lower-order knowledge and comprehension to higher order application and analysis.

This style of class (when it works) is also more fun to teach. This may not sound like a rigorous assessment of its utility, except instructor enthusiasm impacts student enthusiasm. The problem is, when it fails, it fails spectacularly. A friend of mine on facebook recently lamented that hir discussion-heavy, active learning style classes were like "pulling teeth," and begged us to talk hir out of going back to the passive learning style lecture. Most agreed that it was worth pushing on, but that personalities held a large sway in the class dynamic.

The reason this complaint got my attention was not because it hasn't happened to me (it has), but how much of a contrast it draws between the two lectures I am doing this semester. My two lecture sections this semester are Cell & Molecular Biology, with 29 sophomores and Genetics for the Physician Assistant didactic phase, with 54 seniors/graduates. In Cell & Molec, I require students to outline the reading before class, and I try to break the class into 10 minute lectures/discussion punctuated by 5-7 minute activities. Genetics, being a larger class with auditorium style seating, is a typical lecture driven primarily by Powerpoint, with me drawing on an electronic whiteboard when appropriate.

So, clearly the PA's are encountering passive learning, while the sophomores are engaged with active learning, right? Well...

In Genetics, I rarely make it more than 4 minutes without someone asking a question, needing clarification, or wanting to discuss the material further. I am constantly tuning my presentation to these questions, and trying to clarify by example. In Cell & Molec, I break them into groups to work on the assigned problem/activity (or more accurately, they don't break into groups), they discuss it for 2 minutes, then start talking about their weekend plans. If I see this shift, I reconvene the class and try to figure out if they are lost or just done with the problem. Frequently, efforts to start discussion or ask questions are met with silence. Not quite pulling teeth, but close.

The twist with this situation is that these students are the same students, just 2 years apart. All of my sophomore Cell & Molec students this semester are in the 5-year accelerated Physician Assistant program. In two years, many of them will take Genetics from me as part of the didactic phase. Something will change in those two years. Something has to change, if they want to be successful. My challenge is figuring out how to make it happen now. How do I motivate my sophomores to not just read the material before class, but to study it? To do the exercise in the chapters without me specifically assigning them? To work hard on "the whole critical thinking thing" as a past student put it?

Perhaps it just comes down to external motivation. If anyone in my Cell & Molec class gets between a 70% and 80%, they'll be okay as long as they keep their overall GPA and science GPA up. Even if they get removed from the accelerated program, they can still change majors and most likely graduate with a degree in Biology or Neuroscience. If anyone in the didactic phase scores below 80% on any module, Genetics included, they are dismissed from the program.

So today I'm left wondering how to inspire graduate level motivation without causing graduate level mental breakdowns.

Student motivation

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