Teaching Spotlight – How UBC Biology Faculty Motivate Students

Cartoon of students with their worm picks in the air before the start of an event in the “Worm Olympicks” (by Jennifer Klenz)

What is something you do to motivate students?

“I try to connect what we’re learning in class with what students are reading in the news and in other courses. With COVID-19 news, for example, I bring in charts or models that help connect what we’re learning in biomathematics or evolution to current affairs.  I also elicit questions from the news, which often opens up interesting conversations.”  – Sally Otto

Class projects are designed to use real data and oriented so that students practice doing science.  I let students know which datasets come with the possibility of contributing to published work and connect students to the researcher that generated the data.  In specific classes, I choose papers with flaws and encourage students to find and discuss the flaws.  This (hopefully) motivates them to identify flaws in their own work and improve, and normalizes mistakes (since even published work has problems).”  – Laura Parfrey

Offering some very minimal mark (e.g. dropping their lowest quiz grade) while having fun seems to massively motivate students.  For example, in BIOL 337 we have the “Worm Olympicks” where students race to see who is the fastest and most accurate individual worm-picker and which group wins the team relay.  From this I learn who needs help with their picking skills and I can say who has excellent manual dexterity on reference letters.  Also, to build team spirit when there is a lot of group work I encourage a sense of fun/play, such as encouraging them to come up with funny themes to use while naming their 15 plants rather than just A, B, C, D.  So they name them after Simpsons characters, buildings on campus, types of dessert, strippers…endless funny options.”  – Jennifer Klenz

“In my microbiology class for non-science majors, it is very easy for students to be overwhelmed with the terminologies.  I always ensure that the course material/presentations are simple enough to understand.  I often use words that are common to them like replacing pathogen with ‘the bad guys’ and surfactant with bad substances.  The use of the recent COVID-19 pandemic as an example of infectious disease made it easier for them to understand the concept of microbial diseases.  Since the students are already familiar with COVID, it motivated them to learn more about other organisms.”  – Olumuyiwa Igbalajobi

“I have my dogs host office hours 😉 and I make the material relevant to my students lives.”  – Blaire Steinwand

“In Biol 155, we’re aware that many of our students are planning to go on to careers in healthcare and related practical fields, so to help motivate them to learn the dry details of anatomy we cover in our tutorials, we’ve begun to incorporate ‘real world’ case studies in tutorial each week.  These case studies are based around fictional patients that are suffering from problems related to the organ system covered in that week’s material.  As an example, we’re about to spend a week in tutorial combining what students have already learned about the respiratory system and the immune system into case studies about COVID symptoms and the COVID vaccine programs.”  – Irene Ballagh & Agnes Lacombe

“I like to use weekly (or bi-weekly) “check-ins” with my students.  I ask for some highlights from the past week, how the term is treating them, and what their plans are for the upcoming weekend or break.  I find that it is a helpful reminder to all (myself and the students) to pause and reflect on their own forms of self-care and life outside of the classroom!”  – Stella Lee

When student groups and clubs want to announce events in class, I always feature the events and take the time to show why my class might want to participate.  Mostly I ask the student representatives to attend my Zoom class to talk about it.  Almost everyone does!  Students in the class get to hear and see upper level students that are engaged and doing great things.  In this online environment, it has helped students feel that there is more than sitting in front a computer in a sea of black boxes.  And my students really love it.”  – Karen Smith

“Like most of us, I think our students struggle with zoom fatigue.  The most motivating thing I bring to the table is to design the majority of class activities to be done away from the computer screen.  (This is easier because I’m teaching a process heavy lab course.)  On-screen time is limited to uploading photos and other minimal documentation, and coffee/chat sessions once per week.  From the student perspective, roughly 3/4 of the course is done hands-on and away from the screen.”  – Celeste Leander

“One way that I motivate students is by seeing the relationship between the material I teach and the motivations they already have.  This is facilitated by accepting pretty much ALL the motivations students have as legitimate – becoming a doctor, becoming a business entrepreneur and getting rich, becoming an idealistic force for justice or the environment, pursuing excellence purely for the excitement of getting A’s, or merely getting a degree to get a decent job.  I try to regard ALL these motivations as worthwhile and capitalize on them by taking note of them at every instance where the knowledge of the material I teach could further these goals.  For example, in a group project assignment, I ask each student to adopt a unique role within their group, presumably related to their chosen major, such as “lawyer”, “entrepreneur”, “graphic designer”, “hacker”, “stats geek”, etc., to bring their own talents of their own field to bear on the project, whatever it may be.”  – Dirk VandePol

“Something that I do that seems to motivate students to engage in course content is to start each online session with a recent (within a month) short news article that is relevant to the course content.  I very briefly (4 – 6 minutes) outline the article and describe how it is relevant to the course.  Many students have commented that connecting a topic from everyday life to their course content really helps them fully understand and remember topics that might otherwise seem boring or difficult to relate to.”  – Jen Sibley

“I try to check in with students who are struggling, connect them with resources, and offer deadline extensions where appropriate.”  – Rachel Wilson

“In my ocean conservation course (BIOL 420), students report on a BC marine species and its future in a way that would work for 8-10 year olds. They have fun telling & hearing great stories through comic books, musical theatre, puppets, film, art, poetry and so much more.  I also ask students to submit short reflective essays, connecting their new understanding to their personal experiences, values and aspirations.  This year they will write three reflections, on indigenous people and the ocean and on field trips (!) to visit the fishing port of Steveston and an ecological restoration project in False Creek. Pretty much all students engage richly with these essays and I love reading them.”  – Amanda Vincent

“I try to get students interested in the subjects I teach by using real life examples from my own research experience.  We also often give grade incentives to reward students for answering questions or participating in activities in class.”  – Yuelin Zhang

“I help students find their intrinsic motivation for learning by allowing them to choose their own project – within a set framework – whenever possible, by supporting and encouraging their interests, and by relating lessons to their interests or real-world examples.  I use engaging examples and active learning components to help students to understand difficult concepts – e.g., optical illusions to demonstrate visual- and color-coding in the retina.  Another method I use to promote intrinsic motivation to learn is to not just give students the answers to questions.  Instead, I give them the information they need to figure it out by themselves and then I provide support and encouragement as they work through the process on their own.  I also provide formative assessments on more difficult projects first, give them feedback, and then have them repeat the task for formal assessment.  I find that students experience greater self-satisfaction when they learn this way.  It gives them a confidence boost and concrete evidence of learning progress and improvement.”  – Brittany Carr

“I start my class with random biology facts (i.e., how do hummingbirds sleep?) to get the attention of my students.  Currently, I teach BIOL140 and decided to use a regional topic for teaching about the process of science doing, so I draw the students’ attention to what is happening in front of the door of their university (why are southern resident killer whales starving?).  By choosing this topic I am able to connect traditional ecological research with modern physiological tools to show students that ecology is not only about walking through nature and observing organisms.”  – Jessica Garzke 

“In BIOL362, we use Piazza as a discussion platform and I am trying to respond to questions as soon as possible to let students engage with course content.  To keep them motivated, I allocated five bonus points based on their contributions to the discussion.  Questions are mostly clarification, but I have also received multiple creative and insightful questions.  I also made edited version of Zoom recordings highlighting the most critical part of the content.  The video is with closed-caption so that students can watch at 1.5-2x speed to quickly review what’s learned before.”  – Kenji Sugioka

“To motivate students to learn they need to be connected/interested in some way to the information they are about to receive.  This can be done in a variety of ways.  For example, one can illustrate a principle by providing an example that is relevant to their lives.  Alternatively, one can pose an interesting question and let the students try to solve it before presenting the solution.”  – George Haughn

“I make the class super fun, relatable, and relevant to their lives/interests by using things like meme competitions, fun examples, optional inspirational videos posted to Canvas related to course context each week, and a “fun content” folder on Piazza.  I also try and incorporate fun stories in class to anchor a concept, for example, Pablo Escobar’s escaped hippos, cats parachuted into Borneo to stop the plague, etc., often with short videos, so they learn fun biology facts (e.g., Darwin’s blood-feeding vampire finch) and how they link to things they care about (e.g., medicine, food security, human society, math and physics).  I try and make the content relatable, for example, asking really big picture questions like “what is the meaning of life?” to introduce the notion of ‘fitness.’  I think it’s possible to have a class that is fun but also takes the material and learning seriously.  The midterm review session is pub-style trivia with music, prizes, and timed question and answers.  I have a survey at the beginning of the class where I ask them what they want to learn about and then incorporate things they mentioned in class.”  – Rachel Germain

“During this unprecedented virtual era, I have implemented extra office hours and “coffee/tea times” with my students where we can have casual conversations in a group format in order to get to know each other better.  Additionally, I have been reaching out even more to my students by sending personalized emails of encouragements when students are excelling, or vice versa, reaching out to students who may be struggling to encourage them and look to set up extra one-on-one meeting times.  I also like to start my classes/labs with fun brain teasers and celebrate small things we are looking forward to or may feel gratitude towards.”  – Maryam Moussavi

“I give students online activities to do that are worth marks towards their course grade, such as readings/reading quizzes or Learning Curve activities.”  – Craig Berezowsky

“To motivate students in Biol 209, Brett Couch, Bridgette Clarkston and I based the course grade more on projects than on exams, and we relaxed the marking standards.  We let the class average float from ~69% (usual) to ~78% because we wanted students to see that they could stay in the game.  Brett organized Biol 209 labs around stable groups of ~6 students to build a sense of community.  We assigned students individual pre-lab homework, often involving finding, photographing and interpreting organisms found in nature.  Synchronous in-lab time was for group discussion and synthesis of the pre-lab individual tasks.  Lab sessions ended with a group submission of written work, and one member of each group presented a brief talk describing group findings to the rest of the lab.  Through the term, each student had a chance to present orally, backed by their group.”  – Mary Berbee

“I’ve asked students to tell me what they do to relieve stress and stay sane during midterms as an annotation activity on the first lecture slide.  Students could share what they’ve been doing and get some new ideas to help them maintain good mental health!  I’ve also asked students to share their study tips in another annotation exercise at the start of lecture to motivate students to try new study habits that they haven’t heard of before (e.g. pomodoro studying techniques, etc.) to help them succeed.”  – Vivienne Lam

“I motivate students by keeping myself motivated, nervous, and excited about teaching my class.  I don’t get comfortable, because if I’m bored, they are bored.  I also don’t try to be perfect.  I push boundaries and take some risks while delivering content.  Students remember better a fun example that is not completely accurate than a perfect example they can’t relate to.”  – Abel Rosado

“I motivate students by showing empathy and compassion (especially during this time of COVID-19 pandemic) and fostering a positive learning environment where all students are made welcome to freely engage in the learning process, exchange ideas, and ask questions.  I also promote a “growth mindset,” especially in the case of those students who are shy and are struggling.  I try to provide one-on-one opportunities to motivate these students by explaining to them that are fully capable of learning the course material.  Additionally, I provide multiple opportunities for students to learn/relearn the main concepts.  For example, problem-solving at both individual and group levels, followed by identifying the misconceptions, providing feedback, encouraging questions.”  – Santokh Singh

“I try my best to connect the course contents to their real life so that students can see how their learning can be applied in their daily life.  What genetic changes transform broccoli to cauliflower?  Do you see Mendel’s ‘stay green’ trait in the beautiful autumn fall at UBC?  There are lots of exciting genetics happening around (and inside) us.”  – Kota Mizumoto

“I teach fundamentals of evolutionary biology (Biol 336), which is required for students in the biology program.  I think many students come into 336 not knowing 1. that evolution is about more than the long-ago past, and 2. that evolution is highly relevant for addressing some of the most pressing questions facing humanity.  We (me, Wayne Maddison, Sally Otto) try to bring in examples related to conservation, climate change, human genetics, plant and animal breeding, and more (yes, including COVID, thanks to Sally), to showcase the relevance and reach of an evolutionary perspective.  This past summer, a young woman stopped me near my house and said, “I know you!  I took your course a few years ago, and it was one of my favourites.  I still talk about the things I learned, and annoy my friends with ‘did you know…’ based on things I learned”.  I was so tickled.  I know we hope to launch careers of future evolutionary biologists in our course, but I honestly think that we make a bigger impact when we contribute to how all of our students interpret science, data, facts, as they make their way in the world.”  – Jeannette Whitton

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