Contemplations about college science teaching

As scientists, one would think that we would approach all areas of our careers using the same evidence-based decision making that we use in our research. However, this is often not the case when it comes to teaching our college level science classes.  Most new faculty have little training in best practices of effective instruction, and are left to “sink or swim” in their first teaching assignments. Beginning instructors make instructional decisions by instinct and/or structure courses in the ways that they themselves were taught, regardless of the effectiveness of those methods. Fortunately for me, I had a strong background in science pedagogy and lots of teaching experience when I began my first years as an Assistant Professor.  However, even that didn’t fully prepare me for the challenges I faced in my first semester of the job, as a PhD-level ecologist teaching 155 students in Introductory (cellular) Biology! The first day of that course, I was so nervous that I couldn’t even look up at the class; everything I knew about teaching flew out the window as I entered a primal survival mode to get through the semester. However, over time my pedagogical training allowed me to make significant and rapid improvements in my instruction, resulting in a much better experience for students, and consequently for myself.

I decided to target this Early Career blog post on teaching tips for new instructors, because I remember well how difficult it is. For many of us working at comprehensive universities or primarily undergraduate institutions, teaching comprises the bulk of our job.  Whether tenure track or adjunct, we all face many of the same challenges!  The advice I am offering is based on a mixture of my personal experiences and classical pedagogical research.  I have included resources for further reading at the end.

Take a long view of your teaching career

Very few people are excellent instructors the first time through a new course, especially when there are multiple new courses simultaneously plus setting up a new research lab.  Aim simply for survival the first time through, and forgive yourself for not being perfect.  But after that, it will pay off immensely to develop a basic understanding of how people learn and how knowledge of learners and learning can be applied in your own classroom. Adopting just a few “best practices” can immensely alter students’ intrinsic motivation, abilities to comprehend course materials, and their feelings about the experience in your class. It will also affect your own enjoyment of the teaching portion of your job when you see your efforts pay off.

When mentoring both new and seasoned faculty in improving their teaching I recommend targeting only 1-3 major objectives for improvement each time through a course.  Examples of worthy objectives might include things like:

  • I will engage students’ intrinsic motivation to learn at the start of every lecture
  • I will provide at least one opportunity for students’ mental processing and/or application of material in every lecture.

 Prioritize organization in order to appear competent

Given my statements in the previous paragraph, you might think my next recommendation would be all about pedagogy, but it’s not.  Instead it is, in addition to surviving your first time through your courses, to attempt to do without descending into utter chaos as the semester progresses.

The first step, whether your courses are lectures, labs, or seminars is to have a well-planned topic schedule with dates and exams indicated. Seek other instructors’ syllabi and schedules for similar courses online or through emailing the individuals – the worst someone can do is ignore you or refuse to share their materials, and most people are happy to help.  You won’t end up with your topics and subtopics in just the right order the first time through, and that’s ok. Frankly, your best efforts in detailed planning will seem to fly out the window as the natural entropy of the semester ensues and “covering” what you perceived as all the necessary minutia within each topic takes longer than you thought. I have observed instructors who then make the mistake of sending out updated lecture schedules every few weeks, with topics and test dates getting shuffled around multiple times. (I have personally been guilty of this, so I am not judging!) What affect does this have on students? They perceive your course as disorganized, unpredictable, and chaotic; they can never look ahead on the schedule to read in advance and plan their studying in the ways we all wish that they would.  Unless you have such a great personality that students are charmed into forgiveness of your other foibles, disorganization and chaos is bound to lead to disgruntled students.

What beginning teachers don’t realize is that, from an outside perspective (e.g. a student or peer-reviewer), the most important factors in perceiving you as a competent teacher are not how much content you covered or whether you used the latest technological gizmos. Rather, perceptions of you as a teacher will primarily be based on whether you appear organized, have positive interpersonal interactions with students, and project a sense of “with-it-ness.   Teachers who do these things elicit others’ confidence in their abilities and are perceived as being effective, even if they have no idea what they are actually doing!  (Note that this is different from *actually* being a successful, effective instructor!)

Regardless of how dissatisfied you are with your published schedule once you get moving, try to force yourself to adhere to your planned timeline or only allow yourself one schedule revision through the semester.  For example, if you only scheduled one class session for predator/prey interactions, but realize during preparation that you really needed more, just go with the flow.  For now, boil it down to what students really need to know for this one class. Then immediately make detailed notes on your schedule so you remember to expand time for that topic next year.  This will not adversely affect students — different instructors of the same courses always allocate different relative proportions of their courses to the material, anyway. However, it will positively affect your teaching reviews because students will know that your published topic and exam schedule is meaningful and predictable.

When it comes to content, less is more.

Packing in tons of vocabulary, definitions, and factual information to cover in lectures creates problems for both the instructor and the students.  Beginning instructors spend a lot of time “cramming” before class in the same way that students cram before their exams, because teaching requires a whole different level of understanding of the material than what you had as a student in your own classes. Full preparation of traditional PowerPoint lecture-style slides can take an entire day or more per class. Lack of comfort with the immense amounts of material can lead to reading off slides, which is one of the biggest complaints about new instructors. We pack our lectures full because we think students absolutely need to know all this content to move on to the next stage, but can we ever actually prepare students with all the relevant content they need to know for the future in one class? Of course not!

The physical representations of learning from our instruction are webs of neural networks in students’ brains, also known by psychologists as “schema” (schemata plural).  The neural networks for our class topics, created upon first exposure and reinforced while studying, are usually pretty fragile. Connections are pruned away or reinforced over time, making schema harder and harder to access if they are not repeatedly used.  Therefore, there is a limited amount of detailed content a student can retain from any one class, especially when we “cover” material and then quickly move on.

For instructors who are beyond just surviving the “new prep” rollercoaster, consider that is possible to move beyond this traditional version of college curricula that are a mile wide and an inch deep, even in an intro level course.  To create robust neural networks for a particular subject rather than fragile, temporary frameworks, you should consider moving toward curriculum and instruction that 1) focuses on patterns and processes rather than memorizing definitions and isolated facts, 2) provides opportunities for repeated and varied interactions with the subject, 3) illustrates how the concepts are applied in real life/research, and 5) facilitates students’ development of connections/relationships between the new knowledge and schema that already exist in their minds. The more connections there are, the less fragile are the cognitive schema!

You can have an interactive classroom without technology

Beginning teachers often excitedly master new technological tools, like classroom response systems, with the goal of making their classes more interactive. The motivations behind adopting educational technology (e.g. iclickers) are very noble, and such systems are very effective at supplementing instruction and collecting informative student data.  However, should they be a priority for a beginning teacher who has so many things to master?  Often times when you are in survival mode, the technology sits gathering dust as there is no time to plan questions.  I personally think it is better to first focus on mastering the class material and teaching it well before attempting to adopt new educational technology.  If you are good at being spontaneous, you can still plan for an interactive classroom experience without the technology by asking questions to the class as they come up, and then using wait-time to increase the number of student responses.  Classic research in education shows that most instructors wait less than 1 second after asking a question before calling on someone to answer. Increasing this “instructor silence” to 3-5 seconds provides opportunities for more students to mentally process the question and formulate a response. If time is short, you can also take a simple poll, asking students to raise hands or use thumbs up/thumbs down to show which responses they agree with.

A few research-based strategies

Once you have some teaching experience and have a better grasp of the material, you might be ready to effectively incorporate new educational technology or instructional strategies to improve your instruction and assessment.  There are too many to treat fully in this blog, but here are some very poignant and effective ones to consider:

  1. Emotion drives attention…this is how our brains know which stimuli to focus on. Instructors who stimulate students’ interest and curiosity will find that their student are intrinsically more driven to learn.  How can you foster curiosity? Start each class/section/topic with something to catch their attention – known as a “hook” or “engage phase” of the lesson. This could be a case study, a problem, a videoclip, a mystery, or a “discrepant event” designed to create cognitive dissonance.
  2. Learners must actively construct new knowledge within their own brains, but in most college classes it is the instructor’s brain that is busiest. Using Active participation techniques such as having students discuss and share their responses your questions with a neighbor (“think-pair-share”), prevents students from being passive learners. It also allows students to check their own ideas with their peers before offering them up for judgement by the class.  Collecting multiple student/group responses before verbally judging them provides the possibility of creating a class discussion on the topic and focuses critique on the ideas rather than the individual who suggested them.  The thumbs up/thumbs down poll mentioned before is also a great non-threatening way to get more student involvement.
  3. Many instructors (including myself and my colleagues) have had great success with in class-activities and problem-solving to help students process new material, even in very large lectures.


Formally assessing students and assigning grades is usually the most dreaded part of our jobs! However, it is also very important, and there are plenty of ways to make it easier your first couple times through. Below are some suggestions:

  1. If you have large classes and are a brand new instructor, do not feel guilty about using time-saving measures such as scantron forms and borrowed test questions. Until you have been through a new course at least once or twice, put your energy into effective teaching!
  1. When developing tests, always use your actual lectures to select/develop your exam questions to ensure they are fair and balanced in the proportion of topics tested. If you are a beginning instructor, its fine to start with questions from the textbook publisher or other instructors. However, the questions must match the content you addressed. Often times the questions will need to be tweaked a bit. I generally focus my assessments on students’ understanding the big picture concepts, general patterns, and applying knowledge, rather than memorizing minutia.
  1. Multiple choice questions are thought to be problematic by many assessment experts, but are sometimes a necessary reality. They take a long time to write from scratch unless you have a test bank from another instructor, but they are quick to grade. When writing multiple choice questions, it is best if there is only one correct answer among the choices. Answers such as “A and B” or “All of the above” are likely to do a poorer job of assessing what students actually know.  You can write multiple choice questions that span a range of cognitive difficulty: A low level recall question: “What is the primary function of _____?” A high level, multiple step application of knowledge question: “Individuals in a plant population showed the following distribution of genotypes at a locus for the enzyme esterase. SS: 55 plants, FS: 5 plants, FF: 60 plants.  Which of the following numbers represent the expected genotype frequencies under Hardy Weinberg Equilibrium?”
  1. Eventually adding some writing to exams is a good thing to shoot for because writing is a “window” into students’ brains…making thinking “visible.” An easy way to add some writing to multiple choice exams is to have students explain their reasoning for their answers. This also allows you to see how extensive their cognitive frameworks are for that topic and provides opportunities for some partial credit if students have some understanding but chose the wrong answer.
  1. Regardless of the type of exam, I always provide practice exam questions for students, but I never provide any answer keys. Practice exams are an instructional tool in and of themselves; students will learn as much from doing the exam as they did from sitting in the class. By providing practice questions, I feel justified in creating harder exams that require more higher-level thinking.  Practice exams also prevent a lot whining and give students the sense that you have provided fair opportunity to for mastering the material.  Withholding answer keys creates whining but forces students to spend more time thinking though each question, doing research to reach deeper understanding, and providing evidence and reasoning for their answers (even if I don’t ask them to articulate their reasoning on the exam).  I encourage students work in study groups on the practice questions, and I provide help in forming those groups via our institution’s online instructional forum. Remember though, that you probably won’t have practice exams until you have taught the course through at least once!
  1. If you are hand-grading exams, grading goes much, much faster and is more consistent/fair if you grade only one question (if essay) or a few questions (if short answer/multiple choice) at a time. It’s like foraging – you develop a “search image” for the answers you are looking for and can only retain limited desired characteristics in your short term memory at one time.  Sometimes when you first start grading a question, you have to “calibrate” and may need to go back and grade the first ones after reading a few. Some people recommend reading through all student answers first without any grading, but I have found that the “calibrate as I go” method also works well for my particular brain.

This is a long blog post, but it barely skims the surface of tips and tricks for being a successful instructor. I hope you have found something useful!  I highly encourage you to “Google” some of the mentioned techniques to find further reading and information about how to use them most effectively!


Suggested resources for further reading:

Journal of College Science Teaching articles

Handbook on Teaching Undergraduate Science Courses: A Survival Training Manual (1999) by G.E. Uno

College Science Teachers Guide to Assessment (2009) by Lord et al.

Teaching Tips: Innovations in Undergraduate Science Instruction (2004) Edited by Druger et al.

Reform in Undergraduate Science Instruction. (2004) Edited by Sunal et al.

Innovative Techniques for Large-Group Instruction (2002) – An NSTA Press Journals Collection

Handbook of College Science Teaching (2006) Edited by Mintzes and Leonard

Dr. Jennifer Geib is Associate Professor of Biology and Science Education at Appalachian State University and directs the undergraduate Biology Teacher Education program. Her teaching assignments include everything from Science Teaching Methods, to Population Ecology, and The Meaning and Nature of Science. Her research focuses on the ecology, evolution, and behavior of pollination mutualisms.