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This post’s title is another one drawn from the search terms that brought people to my ‘other’ blog at Talking Teaching :-)

I’ve written quite a lot about the benefits students may gain as a result of lecturers changing the techniques they use in the classroom. A while back I wrote about the idea of helping students to visualise a paper’s curriculum, & this semester I decided to try that out with my first-year biology class. Today was the first day of the new semester, & I thought I’d share what I did with them — it would be interesting to hear what others think of this approach, so please do add a comment :-)

I kicked off with this slide — I thought the images captured some of the confusion that many first-year students seem to share as they enter their first year of uni study. It’s a fair bet that all the new terms & concepts thrown at them in many ‘traditional’ paper outlines don’t help :-)

Then I listed the obvious: the various classroom ‘styles’ they’ll be experiencing (ie lectures, labs & tuts). And pointed out that there are definite bi-directional links between them — this is because (in my experience, anyway) some students tend to see them as isolated enitities. When I first tried my hand at a diagram like this my wonderful friend & colleague Brydget pointed out that it was way too complicated; the kids would just get lost in the detail. I took her advice & had another go :-)

And then I asked, OK, when you enrolled in this paper, what did you think you’d be doing & learning? This was the very first class so I wasn’t sure what responses I’d get, if any, but I wanted to send the message from the start that this is how I teach & that active participation is the norm in my lectures. But people put their hands up. ‘Content,’ they said; ‘stuff about plants & animals & how they function & how they interact with their environment.’ ‘Great!’ I said, ‘and I need to make sure that we do look at some of this, because my colleagues further down the line will expect you to be familiar with this material.’

‘But wait!’ I said, ‘there’s more!’ (Because beyond ‘dissections!!!’ no-one had mentioned any process skills.)

So now we could look at those other skills & why they are relevant. We’d talked a bit about plagiarism at orientation last week, so I could check back on their understandings around this — & emphasise that we’ll be working with them to develop their skills in academic writing, referencing, citations & so on. And critical thinking — to me, this is surely one of the most important skills that any student could acquire during their time at university.

Now, where are we going with all this?

Well, there’s the obvious one — that first-year is expected to turn out students with the knowledge & skills that they’ll require if they’re going on to further study in the subject. But there’s a second, equally important point here, and it hinges on the fact that there are quite a few students in the class who aren’t going to major in biology, & who may not actually be science students at all — they’re taking the paper as an elective in another degree altogether. What do I hope they will gain from it?

Yes — apart from (I hope!) helping them gain an enthusiasm for & appreciation of the living world, I really really want to enhance the scientific literacy of all my students, so that they can apply this understanding in their own future lives, regardless of whether they’re going on to a career in the sciences.

Now, I don’t know what the class thought of this approach — yet. I’ve asked them to let me know (anonymously if they like) through our Moodle page. But it would be good to hear from readers as well :-)