Dispelling the myth that scientists don’t care about teaching

A group of about thirty faculty members smile at the camera, seated and standing, with two trees and a yellow building in the background.

 A portion of the faculty who participated in the training program. Credit: Trisha DeVera, SEPAL program administrator.

SF State Biology faculty spent three years getting smarter about the way they teach

Faculty meetings in the San Francisco State University Biology Department are a bit unique. To vote on a proposal, professors use the same clicker tools that students use in the classroom. And for discussion, they do “think-pair-share” exercises, originally designed to get students engaged in class. After a three-year program to get smarter about their teaching, it’s proof that the Biology faculty are walking the walk.

“There’s been a culture shift even beyond the classroom,” said Professor of Biology Kimberly Tanner.

That shift began in 2013 when, at the request of her faculty colleagues, Tanner led the charge to give Biology faculty at SF State the space and time to improve the way they teach — and to dispel the myth that scientists care more about research than they do about their students. Despite the years of training it takes to become a professor, science faculty rarely receive instruction on how to teach. They might start teaching as graduate students, but they often have to figure out their own way without any formal guidance.

The effort started with a five-day summer training institute and snowballed into more workshops and follow-up programs throughout the semester. By the end of the program, 89 percent of the faculty ended up participating in at least one workshop, and 83 percent participated in follow-up programs. Faculty who went through the entire program spent more than 100 hours each on training. “Other universities could only dream of getting this much of their faculty to participate in this kind of development,” said Professor and Chair of the Biology Department Laura Burrus.

The training focused on a few main techniques, like “active learning” techniques for giving students more control over how they learn, creating tests in a way that accurately assesses student knowledge and creating a more inclusive classroom environment.

To figure out whether the program was actually working, the researchers developed a technique for measuring student participation in class by analyzing recordings of classroom noise. They found that 81 percent of the faculty taking part in the study used active learning techniques in at least half of their class sessions. And surveys of the participating faculty members showed that 96 percent were more confident in their teaching after the training. The results were published in a paper in the March 1 edition of the journal CBE — Life Science Education, with almost 70 members of the department featured as authors. 

In the process, the researchers dispelled another myth. “A lot of faculty at other universities think if they devote time to their teaching, their research will suffer,” said Tanner. But when surveyed, only 6 percent of study participants reported that. On the other hand, 30 percent said the opposite — that their research had been positively affected. Tanner suspects this shift is due to a stronger sense of community and a more collaborative atmosphere fostered by the training.

In a discipline that experiences heavy student attrition, these techniques to foster a more engaging classroom are crucial. “The majority of students leave biology,” said Tanner. “And they leave based on personal demographics — more women leave, more students of color leave. These strategies will help us retain more of those students.” Tanner hopes the study will also serve as an example that inspires other universities to follow.