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Teri Balser on current state of higher education: “the problem isn’t one of motivation, but of misalignment”

Reeteka Sud

A renewed outlook on the role of teacher in the classroom—not as a subject expert, but rather as a “more experienced learner”.

Teri Balser at NCBS
Teri Balser at NCBS   (Photo: Deepti C)

“I once asked a group of students where they would go when they wanted to learn something. One of them quipped—certainly not the classroom.” Teri Balser, Dean of Teaching and Learning for the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Curtin University (Perth, Australia), shared this with audience at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in a workshop organised by IndiaBioscience, echoing sentiments felt widely among educators: there may be a whole lot of teaching going on in our classrooms, but not a whole lot of learning.

While this is commonly ascribed to a lack of motivation on the part of the students, this might not be the case. Firstly, there is the not-so-trivial question of how to motivate students in the classroom. Teri Balser summed it this way for teachers: how would I teach differently if I thought that my students actually wanted to learn? When appropriately challenged, students often surpass instructor’s expectations. For one of the assignments in a Soil Ecology class that Balser had taught at the University of Florida, students wrote biology lyrics, based on music to a popular song. Today this Endospore song has had more than 17,000 views on YouTube. She also started a course titled “Humanity’s 2050 challenge”, which required  students to brainstorm together to solve real challenges for real people, and use their classroom knowledge in the process.

Teachers today will be preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, for using technologies that haven’t been invented, and in order to solve problems we don’t know are problems yet. Lecturing alone cannot achieve this. So why do it? Because it is what we know. And before the information explosion of the internet age, lecturing used to be necessary, as the linear transmission from the teacher (or the textbook) was how students learned. But now, with information available in multiple media, the role of a teacher evident in the classroom must transform, from content-provider to one that gives framework to syllabus content.

During her two-day workshop, the participants, who were largely postdoctoral fellows and graduate students at NCBS and inStem with an acute interest in a teaching career, were introduced to a renewed outlook on the role of teacher in the classroom—not as a subject expert, but rather as a “more experienced learner”. The workshop started with thought-provoking questions to the participants: what makes someone good at teaching? Balser went on to discuss that great teachers are accomplished in four domains: curation, oration, facilitation and evaluation. The workshop included an exercise for participants, to practice curation, specifically selection of content: what are the factors to consider while selecting content for a class? Several options are available for teachers; one that she shared with participants was to evaluate choices for content on a scale of “must know, important to know, and good to know”. She advised that teachers should actively devise learning outcomes for students, along the lines of “After this class, my students should be able to …..”.

A significant proportion of discussion time during the workshop was spent on ways to improve the lecturing system, by making the lectures ‘active’: for instance, asking students to write a one-minute paper (in one minute, students write one sentence each on what they did and did not understand in the class), on-the-spot discussions between students sitting together (students are asked to turn to their neighbours and discuss class topic), group assignments, case studies, etc. Teri Balser encouraged participants to incorporate any of these measures as they see fit. “It [choice of method] doesn’t have to be complicated, almost anything that focuses student attention and makes them think is effective.” Teri Balser’s slides for this workshop can be viewed here.

Recognising that teachers cannot create, but they surely can influence interest, part of the workshop also included information on how teachers can create classroom environments conducive to student learning. Seemingly small things can go a long way to that effect.  For instance, being cognisant of the attention span of students, teachers can “stop [lecturing] part way through class, ask [students], and listen [to their feedback, concerns]. Teri cautioned participants to not use questions such as “Does anyone have a question?” In general, yes/no questions are not helpful tools for teachers. Rather, ask open-ended questions that can yield insight into what students are actually understanding. She also advised participants to not point at students when calling on them, but use an open-palm gesture which is less threatening and more inviting. Throughout the workshop, she modeled these behaviours herself.

“This workshop enforced the belief in me that good teaching and mentorship can make a major difference to students’ lives and that it is worth making that effort. ..Good teaching also helps teach people the importance of working together instead of competing against each other”, commented Lena Robra, one of graduate students at NCBS. Gnaneshwar Yadav, currently a postdoctoral fellow, was struck by the many ways, and simple ways, that can be used to draw students out in classroom learning. “This workshop helped in knowing how to effectively translate what is taught to what is learnt by a student.”

The workshop concluded on a hopeful note for all participants: “you’re never done learning to be a teacher”.

Listen to Teri Balser’s talk at NCBShere.

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Education Coordinator