Restore Default

the art of teaching
Whether standing before a class of 8 or a class of 500, CNR faculty make teaching a priority - and a joy

UC Berkeley has long been noted for its excellent research capabilities while teaching, some may say, has tended to play second fiddle. In the College of Natural Resources, however, teaching is a priority, according to CNR professors who have been recognized by their students as outstanding teachers. Of the seven faculty members interviewed for this article, five have received Cal's Distinguished Teaching Award, the campus's highest honor for teaching excellence.

Excellent teaching takes constant preparation to keep material up-to-date and engaging, and an ongoing commitment to student learning. Here's what seven CNR faculty and three students say about the art of teaching. "We are a university first. We have a responsibility to generate and disseminate information, and teaching is one of the primary ways we disseminate that information," said Assistant Professor Whendee Silver, who joined the Division of Ecosystem Sciences faculty four years ago from Boston University. She was the recipient of a Dean's Stellar Course Award with Keith Gilless in 1998.

"I feel a personal commitment and responsibility to further the next round of academic leaders through teaching. If I didn't feel that way, I'd be working at a strictly research institution or for the government rather than at an academic institution," she said.

"I don't see any boundary between teaching and research," added Don Kaplan, professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology and 36-year veteran of the UC system. "They are mutually and recipro cally stimulating. I am a better teacher because I do research and because I can give personal insights into the subject matter, which simply would not be the same if I had depended on only secondary sources for this information.

"Similarly, being a teacher gives my research a better perspective and helps me to place the more detailed aspects of what I do in the broad context of knowledge in my field. Moreover, when I am writing scientific papers, I am teaching the same way I teach in the classroom. It is just that professional biologists are most of my audience," continued Kaplan.

A 1976 recipient of a campus-wide Distinguished Teaching Award, Kaplan usually teaches principles of plant morphology to upper division undergraduate and graduate students. This spring he is teaching a freshman seminar for the first time.

"More than anything else, I am teaching students that how we work cannot be separated from our culture. I want students to develop their critical thinking skills, to question. It really comes down to affecting students' lives so that they become independent, thinking beings. That's the long-term goal," he said.

Teaching the love of learning at the undergraduate level

Even with his responsibilities as dean, Richard Malkin finds time to co-teach the lower division course, Biology 1A, in the fall semester.

"I like the introductory level," Malkin said. "You can deal in broad strokes. Besides teaching facts, what you are really trying to do is to show students the excitement of the subject. We have 500 students in this year's course. Some I will never reach, but if I'm able to convey that excitement to a number of students, then I feel that I am doing well."

Division of Insect Biology Professor Vincent Resh, who received a Distinguished Teaching Award in 1995, teaches 5 weeks of the 15-week introductory biology course. "Almost all Biology 1 students have aspirations to go on to medical school. Exposing them to ecology, evolution and botany may be the only experience with these subjects they will ever have. It will make them better informed citizens, and it's extremely important that they be aware of these things,"he said.

Teaching is so important to Resh that in 1987, as chair of the Campus Committee on Teaching, he steered through the Academic Senate a campus-wide policy for the evaluation of teaching for advancement and promotion; it is now an integral part of faculty performance evaluations. "The perception, incorrect I might add, is that good teaching and good research are not compatible. But there was a feeling then that teaching was not considered in tenure and promotion cases; only research was considered. Establishing this policy put aside that notion for good," he explained.

Professor and chair of the Division of Plant Biology, Lewis Feldman has been teaching at Cal for 25 years and received a Distinguished Teaching Award in 1996. For the past 12 years, he and Resh have co-taught Biology 1B.

"I think undergraduate students are the best part about being at Cal. They are so original, creative, stimulating and a lot of fun. I get a terrific, wonderful kick when I interact with them," he said.

To assure that interaction, Feldman visits all 25 lab sections during the course of his five-week botany section. "I go partly because I can help the teaching assistants, but also because it is the right thing to do. It gives me a chance to interact with these students on a one-to-one basis, which you can't do in a big lecture hall."

Standing before a roomful of 500 - and sometimes as many as 1000 - students can be daunting. "When you are teaching 500 students, you have to engage as many of the senses as possible, and make the material relevant to their lives. Sadly, very few high school teachers provide material on plants in their biology courses, so the students have had very little exposure and contact with plants. But many have gardened. I use the fruits, vegeta bles and flowers they are familiar with so that there is some association and connection," Feldman explained.

Silver uses the same technique to demystify quantita tive science. "I do a lot of chemistry in my classes. When students are intimidated by chemistry, I use the analogy that chemistry is just like cooking. I really enjoy watching the accomplishment they experience when they see that they can master it," she said.

Mentoring students at the graduate level

Teaching upper-division and graduate courses takes a slightly different approach, according to professor and chair of the Division of Forest Science Joe McBride, a 1991 Distinguished Teaching Award recipient. "My primary interest is in teaching, and I am especially interested in preparing graduate students for teaching careers at the university level," he said.

"At the graduate level, there's an expectation that students will do more of their learning through reading. We discuss the information to a greater extent than at the undergraduate level," he continued.

"I encourage graduate students to delve into the primary literature, to think critically about journal papers and how they might approach problems differently," added Silver, who teaches an upper-division/graduate course in tropical ecology as well as graduate seminars in ecosystem ecology.

"My role is more of a mentor than teacher at the graduate level," noted Kaplan. "You inherently assume that graduate students have certain basics of subject matter that you don't have to cover again, and that they can get up to speed faster. On the other hand, sometimes graduate students are more resistant to new information- they come thinking that they know a lot of things. I don't do anything to put them down, but they'll hang on to ideas as a security blanket."

Resh also sees himself as a mentor to graduate and post graduate students. "I have had 25 Ph.D's in my lab. If we are successful, we turn them into professionals by teaching them how to excel in writing papers, how to present talks at meetings, and how to think through an experiment."

Training teachers of the future

Malkin and Feldman lead a teaching course in plant biology for about a dozen graduate students, most of whom are already teaching as graduate student instructors (GSIs). Similar courses are taught by all the departments in the College. Students learn how to run a discussion session, how to write a quiz and an exam, how to budget their time, and how to handle conflicts with students and peer pressure. "We talk about pedagogical skills, bring in other faculty to talk about their teaching experience, and give students a chance to give a 30 minute lecture, which is videotaped and later critiqued," Malkin explained.

"The students feel terrible after they see the video, but it is a very good teaching device," added Feldman.

"I actually look forward to that class. I am always learning from it. We ask those that are teaching to share how their week went, what problems they had and how they dealt with them. Then we give them feedback and insight on other ways they might have approached the situation.

"It's an important opportunity because, as GSIs, they will be seeing the students they teach in an undergraduate section over the next two or three years. GSIs want those students to think they did a good job every time they see them," said Feldman, adding that he approaches his own teaching from the same perspective.

"These are great students and they deserve the best, as far as teaching is concerned. Even with responsibili ties as department chair, teaching is my number one priority until it is of a quality with which I feel comfort able. My teaching load is not very heavy, so I can always justify putting my research on hold or second priority."

Balancing teaching with research

Finding a balance between teaching and research and between work and family, is a continuing struggle no matter how much experience you have had as a faculty member. "To me, it's the balancing act between my professional life and family life that is the struggle," explained Keith Gilless, an economist in the Department of Agricultural & Resource Economics and the Division of Resource Institutions, Policy & Management; he also has two young daughters. Gilless received a Distinguished Teaching Award in 1988.

"It's definitely something that evolves," noted Silver, who is relatively new to the CNR faculty and has a young son. "My first semester at Berkeley was rough even though I had taught before. The hardest thing for me is time management. The biggest shock was how much time it takes to prepare for lectures. It can take me up to 10 hours to write a new lecture. And while it's immensely frustrating that I spend so much of my time writing new lectures, I don't want to be disorganized or give a bad lecture," she said.

"Even when I teach a class the second time around, I have to rewrite the lecture, otherwise it would come out stale."

Keeping teaching fresh

Keeping teaching from becoming stale is a common goal among these professors. "Most important is being enthusiastic about the material, because if you are not, it is going to be a painful exercise for everybody. You also have to really understand the material in a way that allows you to answer questions flexibly. If you are doing a good job, you may have to explain the exact same material three different ways to ensure that your students really get it," noted Gilless.

Organization is also important. "The lecture should not be scripted, but it is important to be well organized when you walk into the lecture, to know all the key concepts that you want to explain so that the class discussion gets to that material. That's why I use chalk. I find that a lot of the technology so in vogue these days results in a less flexible presentation," said Gilless.

Joe McBride gleaned his philosophy of teaching from his own professors. "I learned that it was important that teaching was relevant, and that you must be organized in presenting lectures and teaching laboratories. I learned the power of really knowing what it is you teach and of being enthusiastic about your subject," he said.

McBride also drew on the experience of Kenneth Ware, professor of biometrics at Iowa State University, where he taught after completing his graduate work at Berkeley. "As a neophyte assistant professor, I asked him for teaching suggestions. He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'You've got to love them a little.' Experience continues to remind me of that insight. Teachers cannot expect to have the respect, esteem and love of students unless they are willing to offer those qualities to the students. Once the students know that you really care about them, teaching is easy."

"A good teacher has to be a bit of a showman," added Feldman. "You have to have an awareness of whether your students are following you. Unless you are able to know that they are with you--all the rest of your pres entation is lost.

"And you have to be willing to be vulnerable," he continued. Feldman referred to a former colleague, now retired, who used to stop in the middle of a lecture and pass around 3-by-5 cards to her students, asking them to write down exactly what they were thinking at that moment. "It was a concrete way for her - and her students - to see if she was connecting with them.

"That is why I prefer live lectures. You have no way of knowing if the students are following you in a taped lecture or in distance learning," said Feldman.

"I approach teaching like it's an adventure," added Resh, who estimated that in the last 10 years, he has taught 10,000 students.

"And it is an adventure, because I don't know what will happen from one day to the next. I am amazed that after teaching the same course for years, I'll get a new question I've never heard before," he said.

Resh admits to having butterflies in his stomach at the start of a new academic year. "Every year as I start my first lecture, I ask myself why am I doing this when I don't have to. It's absolutely terrifying with television cameras videotaping me, and knowing that what I say will be on the Web. I wonder if my bald spot and gray hair are showing. But the payoff is so great, that I just let myself go."

Learning from experience

Most of the teachers admit that they had little training before they taught their first class. They not only relied on their own experiences with good and not-so-good teachers, but they continue to take advantage of oppor tunities to improve their teaching. Silver co-taught her first class with a more experienced teacher. Resh visits other professors' lectures to observe them in action. "We are great copiers. If we see something that works, we tend to bring it in to our own repertoire," he said.

The University's Center for Faculty Educational Development and Technology provides ongoing courses, publications, and more recently, a website, to help profes sors enhance their teaching skills for greater effectiveness.

Teaching is more than lecturing

Silver, like most CNR professors, uses a mix of lectures and hands-on experiences in her teaching. She uses a diversity of visual aides and tries to use examples that she personally finds exciting. "Tropical Ecology is easy to teach because everything is exciting. I can't help but show my enthusiasm for the topic," she said. "I include discussions of my research and my colleagues' research so that it makes my lectures less of a textbook experience and more of a you-too-can-do-this experience."

Joe McBride uses photos, charts and graphs on slides for his Senior Seminar in Professional Forestry as well as for Vegetation Assessment and Management, a course in the College of Environmental Design. This spring he is also co-teaching the American Forest with Margaretta Lovell, a professor in the Art History Department. "I try to incorporate a lot of visual variation during the lecture to keep it interesting."

He uses 60 to 80 slides per lecture. After the lecture, he boils down his remarks to a one-page outline, and selects the 10 most important slides to appear on a web page for the course. He also uses field experiences. "Charles Bessey, a 19th century professor at the University of Nebraska, who is considered the father of American botany, once said that botany is the study of plants, not books. Students should not spend as much time in the library as in the lab and the field. I've taken that to heart and all my courses have field labs on a weekly basis, so that students can think about what they are seeing," he explained.

When out in the field, McBride tends to let the students lead the discussion. "I'm there mostly to answer questions about what they are finding," he said.

High Tech vs. Chalkboards

Some faculty members are strong advocates of technology in the classroom and post their class notes on the Web as a matter of course. But many prefer the personal approach to high tech. "There's a kind of chemistry that happens in the classroom that does not happen over a TV or computer monitor," said Malkin, who admits to being somewhat old-fashioned in his teaching approach - "I'd rather use chalk than PowerPointTM. If it isn't going to improve my effectiveness as a teacher, why do it?"

"You can use all types of devices to convey information - books, websites, videotapes, but the basic reason to have a live human being leading the class is that a student can say, 'I didn't understand a thing you said', and you can find another way to express it so that it will sink in," added Kaplan.

Silver has tried using computer-generated overheads but found it "pretty stiff." "I like to be able to write on things. I'm a little too short to write on the board, so I use overheads and write all over them. This way I have the material documented."

On the other hand, she is developing a web page with links to other useful sites as a supplemental resource. Attending class, however, is a requirement for Silver's students. "I specifically give material in class that students won't get otherwise. Showing up and asking questions that other students didn't think to ask, or were afraid to ask, contributes to the learning experi ence for everyone."

The ever-present challenge: connecting with your audience

Getting students to participate is part of the challenge, especially in large introductory classes. "In my first large class, it was devastating to find someone in the back of the room reading a newspaper. I try to throw questions out to the audience and get them to respond," said Silver. "The first couple of times, students look at me blankly and it's discouraging. But over time, as they get to know me better, students begin to participate in the process."

"Faculty who are successful in Biology 1 have to work very hard to break down the bigness. It's difficult. A lot of students are detached. You make yourself accessible by going to the labs and being around when students are there. Every now and then, students will come in and talk to you about something that's off the wall, but that's okay because they are thinking," said Malkin.

"I feel real pleasure when I see somebody gets some thing that they didn't understand, not just assimilating another fact, but when I see the lights go on in their head - that's really enjoyable," noted Gilless.

Sometimes, a teacher can really make a difference in a student's life. Silver says that when she receives letters from former students 5 or 10 years later, thanking her for introducing them to something that changed their lives, it makes teaching really worthwhile.

Last year, senior Amy Maxmen knocked on Silver's door and told her that she had been a freshman in Silver's introductory biology course at Boston University. "I was one of those determined pre-med students. But when Whendee showed me that other branches of biology were exciting, I decided to switch majors." Maxmen wound up transferring to Cal, and graduated last year with a degree in integrative biology.

"What I hope my students learn is a way of looking at plants that will last for much of their lives," concluded Kaplan. "In most other classes, students acquire a body of information that they forget once they have taken the final exam. My long-term goal is to change the way they look at plants, to trust their own instincts and to affect students' lives so they become independent, thinking beings, because that's what it really comes down to.

"Scientists ask questions for a living. Some aspire to try to answer those questions. If students can get a sense of that's what it's all about, then I have done my job," he said. And thinking is what teaching at CNR is all about.

Download PDF Verson

comments

This a great article regarding stating teaching an Art. I truly enjoyed it. Thanks, Shaila

posted by Shaila McSwiggen | 2007-04-06 07:21:00

post a comment