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Challenging teachers to question their own assumptions about students — a conversation with Teri Balser

Reeteka Sud

Professor Teri Balser is Dean of Teaching and Learning for the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Curtin University, Perth, Australia. She is also a Co-founder of the Society for Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER). Prior to her current appointment, she was awarded the Fulbright-Nehru Distinguished Chair Fellowship while she was the Dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Florida. She worked in India for four months, with IIT Madras as her host institute. During this time, she also visited NCBS, Bangalore, where she talked with audience about innovative teaching techniques.

Teri Balser
Teri Balser   (Photo: Still from Youtube interview (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYojJ2UZ0iU))

What led you to choose India as your destination for the Fulbright Fellowship?
While I was at the University of Wisconsin, I met Anil Kumar Challa, who was a Postdoctoral Fellow there at the time. Some time later, he invited me for the National Undergraduate Teachers Conference he was organising in Pune in 2012. On that trip, I was struck by how much interest there is among Indian teachers in new learning and teaching techniques. So, when applying for a Fullbright, it seemed an obvious choice for me to come back to India.

What are your impressions about India?
I am astounded by so much diversity that is here, so much contrast! Everything seems to exist on a spectrum of extremes, things changing and yet not changing at the same time. I am so touched by the passion of the people here, that is so hard to put in words. Something about India that I haven’t seen anywhere is the way of thinking about “people first”.

Specifically with reference to the Indian education system, what have you observed?
The sheer size of India—the enormous number of people that need to be educated—is daunting. College-going population is on the decline in US, but their numbers are on the rise here. The challenge of educating students from such diverse social and economic strata, is enormous. Governments need to recognise that the education needs of someone who is barely above poverty level are going to be different from someone who is from the middle class—this dissension is greater here than anywhere else, from what I have seen. These differences need to be taken into account for “education for everybody”— type of programs that administrations roll out. I am not seeing this recognition just yet.
My focus is on higher education, and in this specific realm, I am really struck by the commitment and dedication of teachers to their students. I see a lot of recognition in current faculty that the present system needs changing; though not everyone is sure how to go about it.

Could you give us a specific example?
Sure. One of the biggest problems when changing anything is trying to change too much too quickly. I see faculty being asked to implement all these newer techniques, something they have no training in doing. Active learning techniques are valuable, of course. But a sudden switch can backfire on so many levels. So let’s look at why we need to implement active learning—because it engages students, helps them learn better and helps them learn more. That is our goal. Instead of jumping right into new things, let’s look at lecturing itself — how can we make lecturing better. Classroom lecturing can be active too, even in a large class. One of the simplest ways is “Stop-Ask-Listen”. Or just “Stop”, take breaks during lecture. Lecturing itself is not evil, but continually lecturing for the entire duration of the class will not help.

For any of the learning techniques to be effective, teachers have to be able to trust students (and vice-versa). What have you observed in this regard in Indian teachers?
One of the things I frequently do is to challenge teachers to, in turn, challenge their assumptions about students. A very common belief is that they don’t want to learn. I really do believe that it is just the opposite. They don’t learn the way we learned. [If] We set up a learning environment properly, the students will respond. What that will take is developing trust with students. Specially in a culture like India’s, where you don’t question authority, students need to be led to the point that they learn to question in the classroom. They have to be able to see that is ok for them to question, to challenge something. But the professor has to allow that, has to be ok with that. And the students will come to see that they are not punished for questioning/challenging. It doesn’t have to take a long time to get there as a class. It will require that the teacher uses the time at the beginning of the semester to build trust with students, before diving head-first into the syllabus.

How does that translate to an individual undergraduate class?
It is important that as teachers, we sequence the semester properly. Take class content for instance—we can’t lecture on advanced-level content before we do basics. The same principle applies to learning techniques. For students used to very specific, detailed instructions on doing assignments (most are), I would start the semester that way. And then through the semester, progressively reduce details on how much instruction I give them. That is what I mean by “sequence”. We have to think not only in terms of content we teach them, but also “what are they going to be able to do” by a certain point into the semester. Think about how a student will develop through the semester.

In general when you try to change something, you encounter resistance. For all its benefits, active learning demands more of students too. When they resist, how can a teacher tell if that is because they are doing something different, or if the students are really in over their heads?
One of the things I talk about in my workshops on active learning is the “spectrum of perceived risk by students”. Their willingness to do something the teacher asks of them has a lot more to do with “risk” than “effort”. What the students perceive as risky can very well be different from what the teacher perceives as risky. For instance, if you ask a faculty member (a trained professional with a PhD) to form and state their opinion on something, it is not risky to them. It is what they are trained to do. But if you ask a student to do that, it is not the same. To the student, this may be perceived as ‘highly risky’. So, if students perceive an active learning approach as risky, they are likely to resist, because they probably feel “I don’t know how this is going to affect me; what about my grades; what if my classmates think I am stupid”, etc. Teachers can misinterpret this resistance as laziness, or apathy, on the part of the students. But it’s hardly that! What the teachers can do is to create a safe learning environment in their classes, so students come to see that what you are trying to do is really ok. Asking students to raise their hands is one example of a low-risk technique, as is asking them to write a ‘1-minute paper’ (asking students to write one sentence each on what they did, and did not, understand during the class; teacher collects the responses at the end of the class).

Teachers at any level face the challenge of having to cover too much syllabus content during the academic year. How can they promote active learning, and keep it from it becoming all about covering syllabus?
What it comes down to, is this misconception about what the role of the teacher is—it is not the teacher’s job to provide content. Teachers have to be able to take this leap of faith!  The teacher’s job is to get the students to manage content—get them curious about it, get them interested in it. Because when the students get curious, they will figure out where to get content. In this age of internet, that is not hard for them to do. For this same reason, there is so much information, so much content generated so fast, that teachers can’t keep up as “providers of the content” anyway.
As a teacher, if I think it’s my job to stuff the ever-increasing syllabus content into the heads of students, it is going to be frustrating. But if I think it’s my job to enlist the students into a collaborative [learning] process that is for their own good—that’s a very different mindset. If it were me that’s faced with the giant syllabus; at the first day of class, I would level with the students: “this syllabus is our challenge; not just mine, not yours; but ours! Here is this giant syllabus, here is a copy of the exam that you’re going to have to take at the end, and we only have x number of class-hours to get you from point A to point B. Let us figure out how we are going to do this”. And that is putting some of the ownership, some of the responsibility for their own learning, on the students. They could very well resist at first—they are used to other people doing things for them. But then, they are the ones who are going to need to do a job after passing their tests.

What would your message be to a science teacher in a high school? In a college?
To the high school teachers, I would say help students prepare for what college is going to be like - start to challenge them with unstructured questions. You are doing a great job providing content, but the students are going to need more than content to be successful in college, and in later life.
For college teachers, I would say they should not repress questioning by students. In fact, this applies to both high school and college teachers—let the students ask good questions. Not just “can you repeat what you said”, but real questions, like “how do we know ….; or where did … come from; or what is the significance of …”. We can do this even while helping them prepare for standardised tests.
I ask that each teacher find his/her own style through which they can enlist the students’ help in their own learning. In some form, teachers have to be able to do this. If for no other reason than to realise that the world is different now from when they were students. Students are different now. We can blame the students, call them lazy or unmotivated. But just because we are old does not mean we are right! What if the students are motivated and we are not giving them credit?

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Education Coordinator