To those of you just joining us, we've been talking about teaching or, more specifically, lecturing to students. You've missed the lovely beach and the rum drinks, but that's what you get for being late. We started by throwing away all our computer-assisted lecturing aids and class notes - which I've exhorted you to do, and you're showing trepidation, but trust me. Not only is it a wonderfully freeing experience, but your students will do something that many have only sometimes done before: learn. You've explained to the students why you're doing this, and now you're going to lecture. Ready?
Well, no, not really. Because first you've got to prepare your lecture. Even if you've given this lecture before, consider preparing anew. Because this may turn out to be a very different sort of lecture.
To teach effectively, it is important (even essential) to know more about the subject than is contained in what you teach. So simply going over another lecturer's notes (even several lecturer's notes, easy because of all those web-based class notes out there in the ether) isn't going to cut it. I'm afraid that you might need to do some reading, unless, that is, you are already an expert in the area, in which case you're good to go. But it simply is not fair to be unprepared for this - the students will devote significant time trying to understand what you tell them, hopefully much more than the time devoted to the class, and you must have sufficient knowledge to develop the thing that will make the lecture a good one.
You're going to tell a story.
I've talked before about stories in science and, in this case, the story serves a somehow different (but related) purpose from the more general role of tales in our profession. A compendium of factors and factoids without context can generally only be learnt by rote, a hard and often fruitless enterprise, often forgotten within minutes of the exam. And yes, sometimes it is simply necessary. But if those facts are hung on a scaffold of an interesting and logical story, they become more; they become a way to understand (and not simply remember). A way to mold the minds in your keeping. If you can also make this a story that the students can care about (beyond the promise of a good grade) then you may even do something remarkable: make them think. But this will require thinking on your part.
The problem, of course, is that so many of our course syllabi are not designed for this. How do you tell a story on serine proteases without focusing on one serine proteases to the exclusion of the others? How can you enthrall them with a talk on all of the tyrosine kinases? Why, oh why is there a lecture on the TNF family of proteins, each one doing completely different things and only lumped together due to historical (even if it's in evolutionary time) accident? I know you'd like to get the students interested and excited, but showing them your most recent data on a new class of phosphatases isn't going to get them up to speed on all phosphatases - or G-protein-coupled receptors or neurodegenerative diseases or star-nosed moles (which, parenthetically, I am not).
This is because the entire course may have no context. Microbiology is the study of tiny living things that are lumped together because of their size. Biochemistry is the study of biochemicals. Cell biology? So maybe it would help (someday) to organize the entire course around stories. Imagine, for a moment, a neuroscience course in which several lectures are built around the act of making a phone call - sensory mechanisms, pattern recognition, memory, motor function, feedback, emotion - all in context. I'd like to take that course. The stories don't even have to be strictly true, as long as they make sense and give the students a way to think about the huge amounts of information that is coming at them.
But I digress; your mission is to create a lecture. Fixing the course is for the future, and the lecture is only a few days away. So? Take the challenge, tell a story. Give the students a chance to see how it all fits together (or might fit together). And if the assignment is to teach on a family of proteins that do wildly different things, bear in mind that they are a family because they evolved by gene duplication (if not, then they aren't really a family), and what is evolution if not a story? It doesn't have to be demonstrably true, it just has to provide a way to think about all the facts. And if you don't like this story, come up with your own!
In the process, of course, you have an opportunity to tell a story you find interesting in your way of thinking. And maybe, some day, your students will teach others what they learnt from you. Your intellectual family will grow and flourish. Isn't this why we teach? It isn't easy, of course, devising these stories. But hey, you're a scientist; it's in your job description. And when they applaud at the end, it feels great.
So now, hopefully, you are now armed with knowledge and a context in which it makes sense. You may even find it exciting. And if so, maybe they will too. Who should be more excited about what you say than you are? Give your lecture, and use the board. You might have to practice drawing simple diagrams but, hey, who said teaching was easy? Not me.
I did promise that you'd have a chance to use the computer aids. In some cases, you need to show pictures, maybe movies. Okay, I'll give you a pass when you have a molecular structure (or a star-nosed mole) that is too hard to draw. But get back to the board as quickly as you can. As soon as you fall back on projected notes, all hope is lost.
Oh, and one last thing. When, after all your thought and hard work going into this lecture, you get the inevitable question, “Is this on the exam?”, say “Yes.” But tell them that you're not saying which exam, now or someday, it will be. That's another story.
- © The Company of Biologists Limited 2006