A guide for more effective teaching for scientists

All scientists serve in some capacity as teachers. Whether you are teaching a classroom of students, mentoring a colleague in the lab, or delivering a professional data presentation, communicating knowledge and ideas is a crucial aspect of science.

In hopes of becoming a more effective teacher both in the lab and in the classroom, this past spring, I audited a Teaching 101 course that is offered to PhD students as part of the Curriculum Fellows Program at Harvard Medical School.

Vladimir Botchkarev

The objective of this course was to provide PhD students and auditing postdocs with effective teaching practices for their classrooms. Taking this fascinating course made me realize how many different teaching strategies exist, and that many classroom teaching practices can also be applied to other aspects of a scientist’s routine, such as day-to-day mentoring in the lab and delivering scientific presentations.

In this article, I will share some effective practices I’ve learned, which readers can apply to their teaching of science.

 Start your lesson with clear learning objectives

At the start of every presentation or lesson, provide a clear set of learning objectives to your audience. If your lesson uses PowerPoint slides, state these learning objectives in an early introductory slide. These learning objectives should be conceived using backward design (i.e. what specific understanding should the student obtain from your lesson?). Backward designed learning objectives can set measurable achievement goals for students and can serve as useful study aids.

For example, if you want students to know there are three categories of cytoskeletal filaments, a backward designed learning objective such as “to list the three types of cytoskeletal filaments” would be a more effective and measurable study aid for students than “to learn about the cytoskeleton.”

Explain fundamental concepts before digging into complicated ideas

Prior to presenting a complicated idea or asking students to interpret data, first teach the fundamentals. This is at the core of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom et al 1956), the long-standing education tool that categorizes learning into six hierarchical levels of ascending complexity: 1) remember; 2) understand; 3) apply; 4) analyze; 5) evaluate; and 6) create.Bloom’s states that students should first remember a principal concept. Once this concept is learned, students can then dig into understanding how this concept works and apply this new knowledge to more complex problems (Bloom’s application level and beyond). Bloom’s verbs such as the ones in the figure are a great tool for writing effective learning objectives (see point above). This article in CBE—Life Sciences Education (https://www.lifescied.org/doi/10.1187/cbe.08-05-0024) provides a comprehensive tool for applying Bloom’s to your biology classroom.

Use multiple teaching approaches

Everybody has different learning preferences. Some prefer to learn from reading text, others may be visual learners, yet others may have stronger auditory learning. Try to deliver your material to students in multiple parallel ways. For example, add a cartoon model or video to your PowerPoint presentation that reinforces a concept you have discussed in your previous slides. Online resources like Biorender (www.biorender.com) provide excellent scientific illustrations for your lectures. iBiology (www.ibiology.org) has many excellent cell biology-related videos delivered by world experts that can supplement your lecture.

You can also draw analogies between scientific concepts and popular culture. My labmate in grad school, Vinay Eapen (twitter: @veapen1), included in his presentations about autophagy/starvation a picture of Homer Simpson first eating a donut and then lying in a food coma. This analogy in his presentations always cracked me up and helped me to better understand his research.

Another approach could be to make your presentation personal! If you can, add an anecdote about how your past experience relates to the concept you’re presenting. Not only can this help the students remember the material, but they will also get to know you a bit better.

Formative assessments can help you gauge your students’ understanding

Check frequently during your lecture if your students understand the material before introducing the next concept. If mentoring a small group of students, ask them to repeat certain concepts back to you. In a larger classroom setting, where it may be difficult to get an immediate verbal response from all students, you can ask the students a multiple-choice question to which they respond by raising their hand when they think they hear the correct answer. If the majority of students answer your question correctly, move on to the next part of the lesson. If they’re confused, re-teach them.

In addition, linking your formative assessments back to the learning objectives is a great way to fortify the take-home messages in your students’ minds.

Implementing formative assessments may be more difficult in a professional presentation when you’re limited for time. You can, however, take breaks between concepts and give brief summaries of the data you’ve presented in the previous few slides. This can be a great opportunity to present pictorial models and implement visual learning as described above.

Implement active learning

Once you have solidified with your students some fundamental knowledge of a given topic, encourage the students to practice this newly learned concept by solving related problems first in small groups and then together as a class. HHMI’s BioInteractive platform has many great online resources for in-class activities related to many topics including cell biology.

By discussing newly learned concepts with each other, students can identify each other’s misconceptions and clarify them. If you are mentoring a student one-on-one, initiate an open-ended discussion with her/him. Challenge your student with hypothesis-driven “what if” questions. You and your student can think together about a scientific concept and come up with some creative hypotheses!

When delivering a professional presentation, you can stimulate the audience by asking a leading question before your next data slide. Doing so will help keep the audience engaged as you guide them through the thought process behind your science, rather than presenting a dry list of facts that you’ve concluded from your data.

These are just a few examples of many approaches that you can implement to enhance your teaching. If you would like to learn more about teaching theory, check if your university offers a pedagogical course. Online platforms such as EdX (www.edx.org) and iBiology (www.ibiology.org) also provide lectures about pedagogy. Pedagogical journals such as ASCB’s CBE—Life Sciences Education (https://www.lifescied.org/) are also excellent resources to learn more about pedagogy.

About the Author:


Vladimir Botchkarev is a postdoctoral fellow in David Livingston’s lab at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard Medical School where he is investigating the mechanisms of breast cancer. Vladimir earned his PhD in Jim Haber’s lab at Brandeis University for his work on cell cycle control and the DNA damage response. Vladimir loves science education and science outreach and has established the science outreach program Sharon STEM Talks (https://www.sharonstemtalks.com/) at Sharon High School with help from ASCB COMPASS Outreach funding.