Weekly Teaching Note
Sep 05 2012
Putting Students in the Driver's Seat

I teach students at many levels at many institutions. I've incorporated a number of strategies to get my students thinking critically. 

We often have so many things to teach our students we lose sight of how this knowledge was assembled. Thus science—like many other subjects—becomes a bunch of facts to be memorized, versus an ongoing process of understanding the Universe. I often will focus a little less on detail — after all, that's what the textbook is for — and really go into depth to explain what people believed before, why they believed it, what people observed, and the nature of  the consensus that developed out of these observations.
I will sometimes put the students in the driver's seat by showing them the evidence that scientists observed and asking them to come up with explanations for what was observed, or to evaluate current scientific theories using this method. I find that when students evaluate evidence for themselves it helps provide that "a-ha! moment" that perhaps what they were taught at home doesn't explain the evidence quite as well as current scientific theories, even if they are a bit controversial in certain sections of society.

As much as I can, I try to keep my assignments relevant. Rather than using an abstract assignment with no personal stake for the student, I try and ask them what they should do in a real world situation. For example, in a recent microbiology class I asked my (mostly nursing) students to come up with protocols to stop the spread of a hospital-based infection throughout their ward. Additionally, I take advantage of technology by using computer-graded homework. I allow the students up to three attempts on each homework, which gives them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. 

Joby Jacob, Ph.D.
Adjunct Faculty, Life Sciences
New York Institute of Technology
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