Observation: Introductory Biochemistry on Nitrogen Catabolism

Something that stood out to me in my mentor’s 8am 3rd year introductory biochemistry class was the format of delivery – he framed the lecture through a series of question and answer and scribed everything in real-time on the doc-cam.

It provided a logical flow and leveraged astudents’ previous knowledge (assuming from his frequent reference to previous lectures and problem sets) throughout the lecture – I think he hoped to convey how scientific inquiry is heavily based on relentlessly asking increasingly complex questions and continually connecting dots within your current network of knowledge. It also helped to pace the lecture and encouraged students to take notes while in class. He was very energetic and owned his space in his confident movement around the classroom. He even used a relevant and appropriate bathroom humour narrative throughout the lecture (e.g., how does toxic ammonia end up in the toilet) to motivate his students. He also incorporated normal physiology to explain why the biochemical reactions are proceeding in one direction, despite most of them being reversible – which I thought was powerful to emphasize to always zoom out and see the bigger context.

Given the large classroom and the tight time budget, he only pitched a few questions to the class throughout the lecture. He acknowledged each student response and elaborated on them as needed.

Overall, the delivery really seem to reward students’ ability to recall relevant information. The question that lingered for me after the observation is: how would he assess students’ level of competency and critical thinking in final exams?

 

Observation: A Large Classroom

Engaging 300+ students in a large classroom is simply a reality of teaching at most, if not all, of today’s post-secondary institutions. Since I want to continue to pursue teaching despite my anxiety around teaching large classrooms, I decided to be acquainted with and maybe even consider embracing this inevitable and horrifying classroom setting from an instructor’s perspective.

I sat in on an introductory psychology class of almost 400 students and got a sneak peek behind the scenes. Cheerful tunes blended in with students’ chatter while the instructor switched on lights at the back of the room and cued up her presentations on the screen. The class started off with a quick reminder of office hour after class, with special invitations to a random selection of students from the class. A think-pair-share discussion question pertaining to last class’ material helped bridged into the day’s lesson on consciousness. Throughout the class, the instructor invited student participation through her body language and active movement around the classroom. Frequent references to the textbook, previous course materials, and relevant real-life examples were made whenever she addressed students’ questions. The use of the Top Hat teaching platform allowed for different types of questions (e.g., fill in the blanks!) to gauge student comprehension and to spark discussions. Three videos were also skilfully employed to illustrate the concept at hand. (I’d be interested to see what students’ reactions were to the number of videos shown in a 50-minute lecture – I felt quite overwhelmed by the number of videos shown in such a short period of time and found it challenging to link the concepts together real-time.) The class ended with yet another reminder of the invitational office hour immediately after class, topics of upcoming lectures and midterm exam.

It was eye opening to witness how the instructor weaved a variety of teaching techniques to actively engage students in a large classroom throughout the entire 50-minute class. It was interesting to observe students’ receptivity to each teaching technique – the questions that they pose against one another for clarification and the depth of their exchange during their individual discussions showed me the power of small informal discussion in a large classroom (granted, I sat in the front of class, which the students could have a different dynamic than those at the back).

Overall, what stood out to me in this observation was not how the instructor delivered content in a diverse and engaging manner – it was how she interacted with the class as an authentic human being. By sharing herself and demonstrating respectful conduct throughout the class (e.g., relevant personal experiences, high level of preparedness, high expectations for the students, active presence during lecture, attentiveness to student questions), the instructor was able to convey genuine care and sincere wish to help her students succeed and was able to establish connections with her students on a more personal level. I’d imagine this would indirectly increase students’ sense of accountability and of ownership in their own learning. Going forward, I think I will consciously remind myself of why I want to teach and how I could best create (self-) exploratory adventures in learning.